The Neurological Roots of Binge Eating
The Neurological Roots of Binge Eating

By Zena Le Roux

Reaching for that pint of ice cream or bag of chips may be about more than just satisfying a craving.

The foods we crave and consume often serve as emotional Band-Aids, soothing our anxieties and providing a sense of comfort or control. But have you ever wondered what biological forces drive these dietary decisions?

It turns out that our autonomic nervous systems, the subconscious sentinels constantly scanning for threats, play a profound role. This deep-rooted surveillance mechanism doesn’t distinguish physical from emotional dangers, so when we feel overwhelmed, food can offer a fleeting oasis, firing off the same neural pathways as social connection.

From binge eating to restrictive diets, many of our seemingly irrational eating patterns emerge as misguided attempts to self-regulate our dysregulated nervous systems.

Unlocking these neurological secrets could be key to making better food choices without having to rely upon willpower alone.

Wired for Poor Food Choices

When our nervous systems are dysregulated, parts of the brain become disconnected at a neurophysiological level, Sharoni Tsarafi, a clinical psychologist based in South Africa, told The Epoch Times. This makes it difficult for people to think clearly and make decisions aligned with their goals and values when in a survival state.

The prefrontal cortex, responsible for rational thought, tends to become disconnected, impeding access to higher-order thinking processes. During dysregulation, people often seek solace or engage in impulsive behaviors that contradict their values, which can manifest in poor food choices, Ms. Tsarafi said.

Virtually everyone tends to make suboptimal food choices when experiencing dysregulation, Tabitha Hume, a registered dietitian-nutritionist, told the Epoch Times.

In states of anxiety or depression, the brain instinctively craves substances that can boost serotonin levels, such as fast-releasing or high-glycemic index carbohydrates. These carbohydrates rapidly elevate blood glucose levels, prompting the brain to increase serotonin production, thereby inducing feelings of calmness and control.

Eating highly palatable foods like those containing sugar can diminish physiological and emotional stress responses, according to a 2016 study published in Brain Structure and Function. Participants who consumed 4 milliliters of 30 percent sucrose solution twice daily for 14 days experienced reduced activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis and lower stress hormone levels in the body. In simpler terms, eating sugary foods may help regulate the body’s stress response and promote a calmer state, which is why it may feel natural to reach for them when stressed.

People prone to serotonin imbalances should be cautious about eliminating carbohydrates from their diet, as this could worsen existing issues, Ms. Hume said. Such a dietary change might lead to increased levels of anxiety, aggression, or irritability, as often seen with low-carb/high-fat and keto diets, she noted.

Moreover, it may set the stage for a rebound binge-eating pattern over time, she noted. “Cutting calories or carbohydrates while increasing protein and fats is leading to a myriad of issues, particularly among young girls who may not fully grasp the importance of carbohydrates for optimal brain function,” Ms. Hume said. “Demonizing carbohydrates is perhaps one of the most appalling things ever.”

Moderating sugar intake is important, but so is incorporating a consistent supply of wholesome, slow-releasing carbohydrates throughout the day to maintain stable plasma blood glucose levels, according to Ms. Hume.

Dysregulated Nervous Systems and Eating Disorders

People with anxiety, depression, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), where dopamine levels may be low, often gravitate toward intensely flavorful foods rich in salt and sugar, Ms. Hume said. However, upon realizing that their preferred foods may contribute to weight gain, they may experience anxiety about overconsumption and subsequently feel compelled to impose dietary restrictions.

This initial concern can swiftly transform into an obsession with carbohydrate or calorie reduction.

Nonetheless, such dietary limitations can precipitate a drop in blood sugar levels, leading to a corresponding decrease in serotonin levels. This cascade of events may lay the groundwork for a cycle of binge eating followed by starvation, potentially culminating in conditions such as bulimia or binge-eating disorder, as per Ms. Hume’s observations.

A 2020 study found that patients with anorexia nervosa exhibit an overactivation of the parasympathetic system and a decrease in sympathetic activity.

Research published in Frontiers in Neuroscience has linked altered functioning of the autonomic nervous system to eating disorders, showing parasympathetic overactivation and sympathetic withdrawal in anorexia nervosa and fasting bulimia nervosa patients.

Periods of heightened emotional dysregulation can serve as sensitive triggers for binge-eating episodes, as individuals with bulimia frequently express feeling profoundly out of control and internally chaotic just before engaging in binge-eating behaviors, according to Ms. Tsarafi.

The Brain Chemistry of Calming Cravings

Eating can alleviate anxiety and discomfort, according to a 2002 study published in Behavioural Processes. The mechanisms behind this phenomenon seem to be linked to the impact of carbohydrates and protein on serotonin synthesis in the brain.

Carbs can stimulate the production of serotonin, contributing to feelings of calmness and well-being. Similarly, protein-rich foods provide the amino acid precursors necessary for serotonin synthesis. 

Another study published in Metabolism suggests that stress, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), is associated with metabolic dysfunction and obesity.

Potential factors contributing to this connection include the dysregulation of the HPA axis (which regulates the body’s stress response), activation of the sympathetic nervous system (which controls “fight-or-flight” responses), and the release of stress hormones, all of which impact both brain and metabolic processes.

Develop Emotional Awareness by Naming Your Feelings

Ms. Tsarafi said that when people struggle with emotional regulation, a crucial starting point is to guide them in identifying their emotions and reclaiming a sense of control over feelings that may have seemed overwhelming and chaotic.

Central to this process is the development of emotional awareness and recognition, laying a foundation for further progress. In her practice, Ms. Tsarafi said she employs practical tools rooted in dialectical behavioral therapy.

The simple act of accurately labeling one’s emotions initiates a regulatory process (“naming is taming”). This process, she added, serves to reengage the frontal lobes of the brain, thereby restoring cognitive clarity and enhancing decision-making abilities.

A 2007 study in Psychological Science showed that putting negative feelings into words can help regulate negative experiences, a process that may ultimately contribute to better mental and physical health. The results demonstrated that affect labeling—the idea that talking about feelings can make a person feel better—diminished the response of the amygdala and other limbic regions to negative emotional images. It also increased activity in the prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain).

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