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Binge Eating: Self-Sabotage or Self-Defense?

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As a nutritionist, I understand the biochemical factors associated with eating disorders and the way in which proper nutrition plays an integral part in finding resolution.

According to a national survey, it is estimated that more than 2.8 million adults in the United States--both men and women-- are coping with a binge eating disorder. Because so many victims suffer in silence, I wonder if this number could be even greater.

Binge Eating Disorder (B.E.D) is marked by recurrent episodes of eating large amounts of food (at least weekly and for longer than three months) during which its victims believe they are completely without control.

After a binge episode, they blame themselves for their weakness. But what is really happening? Is it self-sabotage or self-defense?

Binge Eating is our body's way of letting us know that it is making a last-resort attempt to obtain a temporary state of balance.

Let's examine some common physiological influences associated with the occurrence of binge eating episodes.

1. Blood sugar level has dropped- Binges often occur when blood sugar levels in the body have dropped. Low blood sugar can cause you to crave sugar and carbohydrates. Your brain is in panic mode and looking for a way to replace the sugar rapidly--leading to uncontrolled eating. There are many factors that can lead to low blood sugar levels including going too long without a fuel source, poor diet, experiencing high levels of internal or external stress, intense exercise, and the body's inability to properly regulate blood sugar.

2. Stress- Cortisol (the hormone needed to manage stress, inflammation, and blood sugar in the body) and insulin are closely linked. When the body deals with stress, the adrenals secrete cortisol. As cortisol prepares for the "fight or flight" response, the body is flooded with glucose to supply an immediate energy source to the muscles. Now you have not only spiked your cortisol, but blood sugar is raised and your hypothalamus sends a message to your pancreas--which responds by sending in insulin to remove the sugar. Once again, when blood sugar is stripped, the end result is a drop in blood sugar--which can induce cravings and overeating. Internal and external stress factors can produce low blood sugar.

3. Sleep Deprivation- We often turn to sugar to gain energy. Lack of sleep can cause an imbalance of hormones including insulin, cortisol, leptin and ghrelin. Leptin is the hormone responsible for letting your brain know you are full and have stored enough energy. Ghrelin is the hormone that tells your brain when you are hungry and need energy. Ghrelin levels decrease when you are sleeping, but insufficient sleep causes high levels of ghrelin. When we don't get enough sleep, leptin levels are low and ghrelin levels are high--your brain may mistake the lack of energy for hunger and a need for food, so it can lead to overeating.

4. Food sensitivities and allergies- When we ingest a food that evokes a reaction, this elicits the same corporal response as other internal and external stresses to the body. Cortisol is released along with endorphins and glucose. A subliminal association between euphoria and the hidden sensitivities is formed, over time more will be needed to evoke the same response. This can lead to cravings for and overeating of the very same foods we should be avoiding.

5. Feeling depressed or anxious-Sometimes we turn to food--especially sugar--to trigger a surge of our "feel good" chemicals. (dopamine, serotonin) or GABA (gamma aminbutyric acid), often referred to as the brain's Valium. Often, binge eaters turn to substances to calm themselves. When GABA is insufficient, we naturally look for other ways to perform this function. However, as we build up tolerance, it becomes harder to reach it. Eventually, we crave more sugar to feel normal and happy.

So what does nutrition have to do with all of this?

Nutrients are required to precipitate and complete chemical reactions in the body. When we look to resolve binge eating, we have to look at blood sugar and stress regulation, digestion, detoxification, support genetic mutations, and the body's ability to formulate neurotransmitters. These processes are all dependent upon nutrient availability. We must not only look at the nutrients we are taking in but our body's ability to absorb and utilize them and to excrete harmful substances that interfere with absorption. Absorption can be weakened by diets high in sugar and alcohol, digestive disturbances, genetic mutations, blood sugar instability, difficulty managing stress, and glitches in the detoxification process.

We also need to examine lifestyle and environmental factors that might be stripping your body of the nutrients necessary to suppress addictive tendencies.

I hope this helps you to understand the struggle your body is facing and the way binge eating becomes a part of its efforts to find balance and harmony.
This is the opposite of self-sabotage. It is a courageous act of self-defense.

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Melissa Reagan Brunetti, C.N.C
Author, The Sweet Side of Balance


If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.