Researchers have several theories surrounding the connection between bipolar disorder and binge eating. Some of these involve genetics, trauma, and side effects of certain medications.
Experts estimate that bipolar disorder affects 1 in 40 adults in America. The mental health condition commonly causes episodes of depression and mania, hypomania, or both, and may also affect a person’s appetite.
One study found that binge eating, in which an individual feels unable to stop eating and consumes a large portion of food in a short time, affects nearly 30% of those with bipolar disorder. Although there is no clear link between bipolar disorder and binge eating, researchers have a few theories.
This article discusses the possible connections between bipolar disorder and binge eating alongside the effects of these conditions and finding support.
Having one condition — either bipolar disorder or an eating disorder — may predispose a person to have the other. Although binge eating can occur as a part of other eating disorders, such as bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder (BED), it can also happen independently. When binge eating does occur, researchers have discovered that it often appears around the time bipolar mood symptoms arise.
Additionally, both disorders share the following traits:
begin early in life, around late adolescence or early adulthood
- are cyclical in nature
- can cause emotional reactivity and changes in energy levels and eating patterns
When researchers scoured 47 studies with over 30,000 participants as part of a
- 12.5% of those diagnosed with bipolar disorder as their primary diagnosis also had BED
- 9.1% of those diagnosed with BED as their primary disorder also had bipolar disorder
Similar, but not as high, findings occurred between bulimia nervosa and bipolar disorder, with 7.4% of the individuals diagnosed with bipolar disorder having bulimia nervosa and 6.7% of those with bulimia nervosa having bipolar disorder.
One condition may affect the other
The conditions may be linked in that they might affect one another. For example, certain moods may trigger a binge eating episode. Some find that during mania episodes, they are more likely to binge eat than during periods of depression.
Researchers think this could be due to the emotional symptoms experienced during bipolar disorder that could make someone more likely to have weak impulse control or feel anxious.
During mania, a person’s impulsivity may increase, leading to binge eating. Alternatively, during a state of depression, someone may not feel inclined to eat, experiencing low appetite and energy. However, for some individuals, the opposite is true. Impulsive and anxious tendencies during mania lead to skipped meals and forgetting to eat. When they enter a period of depression, they may feel inclined to eat more of a specific type of food or have cravings. Some researchers theorize binge eating during depression could be a maladaptive coping skill.
Due to recent understandings of how one condition may affect the other, some researchers propose that a diagnosable subtype, such as “bipolar disorder with an eating disorder,” is necessary.
Although there is no concrete link, researchers have proposed the following theories:
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)
BDNF is a brain and spinal cord protein. Although it has many roles, a few important ones are energy, mood, and appetite balance. BDNF can suppress food intake, helping to regulate a person’s appetite.
Side effects of medication
Doctors may recommend medication for the treatment of bipolar disorder. Common medications can include antipsychotics. However, antipsychotics may contribute to disordered eating. Some affect the brain’s reward system, increasing activity in the area linked with food rewards.
Research has also found that prolonged antipsychotic use affects satiety, decreasing a person’s ability to recognize when they are full. As a result, weight gain can occur. Experts theorize that in some cases, weight gain due to antipsychotics may further the cycle of purging and binging.
It is common to turn to food when a person feels uncomfortable emotions. However, for those with bipolar disorder, binge eating may be a maladaptive coping skill during manic or depressive episodes.
In one study conducted in 2021, participants with bipolar disorder reported eating not only when they wanted to feel comforted but also to feel more in control during quick mood changes and to comfort themselves when they felt fatigued or disinterested in life.
Researchers believe trauma may be a risk factor for both bipolar disorder and eating disorders. Traumatic disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and binge eating, are
Binge eating in those with trauma may be another way to exercise control through food or use food to cope with extreme emotions.
Although it can be common for bipolar disorder and eating disorders to occur alongside each other, comorbidity of these conditions can cause adverse mental effects, such as:
- mood instability
- suicidal thoughts
This may be because poorer physical health
- body dissatisfaction
- worsened impulse control
- decreased awareness of satiety and hunger cues
- weight concerns
- eating concerns
Overall, the worsened symptoms of bipolar disorder and eating disorder can cause a reduced quality of life. Relationships can be challenging to maintain when loved ones do not understand what a person is going through. Tasks such as preparing food or grocery shopping can become sources of extreme stress. The person may feel tired or stressed when trying to avoid binge eating or shifts in mood.
Willpower is usually not enough to treat mental disorders, sometimes leading to increased emotional distress during a mood shift or binge eating episode.
However, treatment may benefit both conditions, improving a person’s quality of life.
As one condition may affect the other, it is important to treat both.
For bipolar disorder
Bipolar disorder often relies on both medication and talk therapy to manage symptoms. As a result, there is a risk that some bipolar medications can cause disordered eating. It is helpful for a person to talk with a doctor about other drug options if adverse side effects occur.
For binge eating
Binge eating treatment primarily consists of therapy as opposed to medication. Therapy may address the following:
- past trauma and how to work through it
- disordered thinking surrounding food
- food insecurity triggers
- creation of a routine to balance eating, activity, and sleep
In addition to one-on-one therapy, disordered eating support groups may also prove beneficial.
For both conditions
Though researchers theorize one condition plays a role with the other, they need
A few recent studies are exploring effective treatments for both conditions. For example, a 2021 study found that participants with both BED and bipolar disorder benefited from dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), while cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may
People living with bipolar disorder may be more likely to experience episodes of binge eating. Although there is no clear link, various theories may explain how one condition affects the other. However, experts know that when the conditions co-occur, the symptoms and treatments can be complex.
Therefore, a combination of strategies works well, including psychotherapy and medication. It would be beneficial if a person with both conditions could work with their healthcare team to discover the best treatment plans, focusing on holistic care for the many facets of these conditions.