When the craving for a particular food hits someone suffering from bulimia it can seem impossible to overcome. Resisting the urge to binge, like resisting an urge to use drugs, can feel intensely horrible despite knowing that such resistance would ultimately feel better down the road. New research published this month analyzes the similarities between bulimia and drug addiction.
The research, a review article written by scholars at Tufts Medical School, is published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmocology. The authors highlight many similarities in the behavioral experience of bulimia and drug addiction. Both food and drugs are experienced as cravings that often become associated with certain places or situations. People experience positive shift in moods when eating and using which provides reinforcement to continue. They also describe feeling a loss of control in the moments before or during binging/purging and using.
The authors explain how tolerance usually associated with drug addiction can also be seen in bulimia. As compared to when they first developed bulimia, people describe needing to eat larger quantities of food later on to get the same emotional/physical effect. The researchers speculate that there may also be a similar neurological pattern of withdrawal in bulimia and drug addiction. In fact, many people with bulimia report signs of drug withdrawal when they try to abstain from binge eating including increased anxiety, disturbed sleep, and strong cravings.
Given all these behavioral similarities, it seems likely that there are biological similarities between bulimia and drug addiction. While both drugs and sweet foods can increase dopamine levels in certain parts of the brain, little research has examined the brains of people with bulimia as they are binge eating. A few studies have looked at how the brain reacts to cravings - similar parts of the brain were activated in people with bulimia and drug addiction as they craved food and drugs, respectively
It’s no surprise that many people with bulimia have also suffered from drug addiction. Considering bulimia as a form of “food addiction” may help others better understand how paralyzing the illness can feel.
Dr. Gupta is a professor at Barnard College of Columbia University and provides individual therapy at Tribeca Psychology