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Hormonal Balance and Binge Eating Disorders

written by: Nicholas Kuvaas • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 12/31/2010

Binge eating is a fairly common behavior, but it turns into a disorder when it becomes compulsive and frequent. While treatment usually focuses on the psychological, it appears that the existence of binge eating related hormones could help binge eaters to change their negative behaviors.

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    Binge Eating Disorder: The Psychological to the Hormonal

    Binge eating disorder is a common eating disorder where someone frequently consumes unusually large amounts of food1. Because this behavior is abnormal and frowned upon by others, someone with binge eating disorder usually binges in secret even if they have vowed to stop. Other factors associated with binge eating disorder include out of control eating, depression, anxiety, frequently eating alone, and continued eating after a feeling of satiety.

    Originally, this disorder was considered to be solely psychological in basis, and whilst a person's psychological makeup plays a part, evidence has surfaced which supports the role of hormones in binge eating disorder, particularly ghrelin, a stomach hormone.

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    Ghrelin, A Binge Eating Hormone?

    It has been demonstrated that an increased amount of ghrelin may lead to binge eating2. Researchers from MRC Clinical Sciences Centre in London focused on the kinds of foods that people craved when levels of ghrelin were higher in the blood. To do this, they used 18 participants and had them view pictures of food. Half of these pictures were of unhealthy foods, and the other half consisted of healthy fare. Researchers put the participants through three separate trials which included seeing the pictures on a full stomach, after being injected with salt water (a placebo group), and, finally, after being injected with ghrelin.

    When participants were injected with ghrelin, they were more likely to choose high calorie foods such as cake, burgers, fries, and pizza even though they were not hungry as they had just eaten breakfast. Yet, when these same participants were injected with salt water, they had no desire for either the healthy or unhealthy types of food.

    Dr. Tony Goldstone, the lead researcher, claims that ghrelin mimics fasting which encourages consumption of high calorie food, so it appears that increased levels of ghrelin leads to a higher likelihood of binge eating behavior. However, there is no known drug which inhibits this possible binge eating hormone, but there is a synthetic binge eating hormone which might be effective in preventing binging episodes.

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    Pramlintide, A Binge Eating Hormone Treatment?

    For those who suffer from binge eating disorder, a hormonal imbalance is probably a distant second thought to psychological issues, but evidence from one particular study makes for interesting reading. Eighty eight participants took part in a clinical trial conducted by Amylin Pharmaceuticals, Inc. One group received pramlintide, a synthetic form of the satiety hormone amylin, and the other received a placebo3. Those who received the hormone ate smaller portions at major meals and by the end of the trial reported fewer binge eating episodes than those of the placebo group. Of the group receiving pramlintide, only 17% reported issues with binge eating compared to 42% of the placebo group by the sixth week of the study.

    While this result is impressive, it needs to be noted that this is one study and a small one at that and conducted by a company with an interest in the outcome.