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Is There a Link Between Binge Eating Disorder and ADHD?

written by: Nicholas Kuvaas • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 4/20/2011

It is not uncommon for some people with ADHD to binge eat. But is there a link between the two disorders? This article examines the limited research on binge eating disorder and ADHD.

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    Binge Eating Disorder and ADHD: Is There a Link?

    Binge eating disorder is usually associated with being overweight and obese, but this is also true of some who suffer from ADHD. The two disorders share some symptoms such as impulsivity and a lack of mindfulness. This lack of mindfulness is represented by a feeling of numbness for those with binge eating disorder and of being inattentive for those with ADHD.

    However, a couple of overlapping symptoms doesn't equal a link. The research comparing the two disorders is weak with only a handful of articles addressing the issue. A cross-sectional study conducted by Pagoto, Curtin, Lemon, Bandini, Schneider, Bodenlos, and Ma found that rates of obesity were higher among those with ADHD when compared to a population who didn't have ADHD (29.4% vs. 21.6%)1. This study found that those with ADHD had an 81% increased risk of becoming obese.

    However, when they accounted for variables, the rates of binge eating disorder among adults diagnosed with ADHD were six times higher than those without ADHD. Based on this evidence, there does appear to be a link between binge eating disorder and ADHD. However, this type of study doesn't address if one causes the other.

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    Serotonin Connection Theory and Self-Medication for ADHD

    Even though people with ADHD have significantly higher rates of binge eating disorder than the general public, a question remains as to why this is. Wendy Richardson, a psychotherapist based in California, has an idea. She believes that eating is a relatively successful self-medication technique for ADHD. Yet, researchers are approaching the link between food (sugar, in particular) and ADHD (hyperactivity, specifically) differently2.

    The current thinking is that eating a lot of sugar leads to hyperactivity. She believes this is backwards, and that the hyperactivity associated with ADHD leads to a craving for sugar heavy foods. Based on her experience with ADHD diagnosed patients, consuming large amounts of sugar is normal. For example, some patients reported regularly drinking 6-12 sodas, daily. Richardson asserts that consuming these foods actually helps people with ADHD by keeping them alert, calm, and focused, but it only works in the short term. It works because eating carbohydrates boosts serotonin levels (serotonin is a neurotransmitter that may contribute to ADHD when its levels are low) in the brain which is what Richardson calls the serotonin connection.

    Sadly, over time, more food is required to achieve the same effect, and this self-medication eventually leads to binge eating which becomes common. To a clinician, this behavior appears to be consistent with binge eating, but it may not be the classic definition of the disorder.

    While this is an interesting theory, there is little research to support this assertion of the link between binge eating disorder and ADHD. Like other research areas in this topic, much remains a mystery.

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    References

    1. Pagoto, S. L., Curtin, C., Lemon, S. C., Bandini, L. G., Schneider, K. L., Bodenlos, J. L., & Ma, Y. (2009). Association Between Adult Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Obesity in the US Population. Obesity, 17(3), 539-544.

    2. Richardson, W. (2000). The Link Between ADD/ADHD and Eating Disorders: Self-Medicating with Food. Retrieved from http://www.addconsults.com/articles/full.php3?id=1105.