Dopamine and Urges to Binge

     A recent brain imaging study, published in the journal of Obesity, showed the brain chemical dopamine may be a factor in binge eating (to read an article explaining the study in detail, click here.)  Dopamine – which is linked to reward and motivation – was found to spike when binge eaters merely saw or smelled a favorite food. Dopamine levels increased in the caudate and putamen regions of the brain – regions deep within the subcortex, the area I refer to in Brain over Binge as the “lower brain” or “animal brain” (to see a brain diagram illustrating these regions, click here.) 

    Researchers suggest that this dopamine spike “plays a role in triggering compulsive overeating/[binge eating].” If you’ve read my book, you know that I believe nothing can trigger binge eating. Brain chemical imbalances, in addition to many other factors, can certainly trigger urges to binge, but saying those factors trigger binge eating completely eliminates our free will. I think studies like this one, while useful in creating understanding, can serve to give binge eaters reasons why they do what they do without giving them practical solutions. 

     I think it would be more useful to rewrite the findings of this study to say: an increase in dopamine plays a role in triggering urges to binge. I believe this would help binge eaters realize that yes, their lower brain is misfiring; but they still retain the ability to choose whether or not to let those faulty brain signals drive their behavior. We are not slaves to our brain chemicals, and a spike in dopamine does not mean one is destined to binge.    

     Sure, dopamine “primes the brain to seek reward”(in a binge eater’s case, the reward is the temporary pleasure of eating large amounts of food), but an increase in dopamine does not move voluntary muscles (like the ones used for picking up the food, chewing it, and swallowing it).  Yes, abnormalities in the lower brain – most of which are created by a history of caloric restriction and by the binge eating habit itself  –  are ultimately responsible for urging binge eaters to binge; but those urges can be ignored and overcome.  And when we choose not to follow those urges over and over again, it acts back on our brains to erase those very urges and correct any binge-created abnormalities.




12 thoughts on “Dopamine and Urges to Binge

  1. This is an ignorant point of view and is trying to gloss over the reality. As a lifelong sufferer of binge eating, I 100% assure you, changing the phrasing as you suggest won’t do a darn thing because by the very definition of addiction, you lose control. That’s like telling a cocaine addict, “Well just stop!” You are underestimating the power of our need and yes I said said need. Pleasure is a necessity of life, that dopamine fix is a necessity and you are asking us to deny the reason we live. Unfair, not to mention impossible. If you can’t think deep enough to fully grasp what I just said then ask yourself this: If the hundreds of thousands or millions of people all over the world who have this disorder, truly had the choice to not do it, don’t you think they would be making that choice????? And no, we do NOT have free will, you just like to believe you do because it makes you good. Just because it makes you feel good doesn’t make it true.

    1. Are you implying that she is lying about both her binge eating and her method of recovery? To call her point of view ignorant is a redundant statement. It is a point of view. Not an absolute truth. I personally find the suggestion to differentiate between the urge to binge and the actual binging itself helpful. It is in fact technically true to say that you ultimately still have the ‘choice’ to binge in response to the urge as the physical processes involved are part of the voluntary nervous system. It may take a herculean effort that is practically impossible at times but the idea that you can alter the pathways in your brain over time due to its plasticity is commonly accepted. Please don’t abuse others just because their experiences differ from yours. If the ideas don’t work for you then try something else. I believe that the blog author stresses this point.

  2. No severe addict is going to recover on will power or “free will” or just because they “decide to”. You probably had some stroke of luck or a jupiter-uranus transit at the time. Just because you recovered does not mean you made that happen yourself though I’m sure it feels good to believe that.

    1. This is a brief discussion of a research study and how it applies to some ideas in my book and personal experience. I realize that in a short blog post, it’s difficult to get the full picture; and I understand the points that you make.

      I do not believe that quitting a severe addiction is as simple as “just stopping” for most people. For me, it took a complete change of perspective surrounding my urges and their origin in my brain. It took realizing that the higher-functioning part of my brain(the prefrontal cortex)remained able to exert veto power over the faulty impulses from my lower brain. It took realizing that the pleasure I got from binge eating wasn’t a real need, but a conditioned need that I could re-train my brain to live without.

      There is actually no evidence of biologically based loss of control in bulimia/binge eating. The loss of control that is felt is a perceived loss, but it’s very powerful nonetheless. After feeling out of control for many years, when I was finally able to choose not to binge, it was exciting and amazing, and I felt compelled to share my story. If my story was as simple as me just choosing to stop, it would have been a very short book, but it’s not. My ideas might not resonate with everyone, but I believe provide an important alternative perspective that has helped many people.

      Just as there are millions of people who have addictions, there are millions of people who have overcome their addictions, and regardless of how they recover, I would never discount their efforts or personal efficacy. Any path to recovery requires some form of choice and free will – whether it’s choosing to respond differently to the urges, or choosing to go to therapy, take medication, attend support groups, or follow a meal plan.

      I didn’t make my recovery happen all by myself; I give a huge amount of credit (as I explain in my book) to Jack Trimpey’s “Rational Recovery: The New Cure for Substance Addiction,” which was the catalyst in helping me regain control of my voluntary behavior.

      No one chooses to have an addiction, but once it occurs; I don’t think the addiction has to be permanent. Different approaches/treatments work for different people, but I believe recovery is possible for everyone.

    2. Kathryn, you are so well spoken, and an inspiration. Your book is the only recovery book for bulimia/binge eating that I have found helpful. I’m still not always where I want to be regarding the on/off non-purging bulimia problem I have had for several years, but the work you did in Brain Over Binge has at least changed my perspective, allowing me to cut all the CBT/psychotherapy-based ‘trigger’ concepts about bulimia out of my life. Which never worked for me, and presented me with a lot of confusing, unhelpful and time-consuming ideas about the only way to recover. Anyway, I just wanted to show my support. Everything you write is so well explained and I appreciate all you have done for the bulimia/binge eating sufferers!


  3. Isn’t it most likely that there is an issue with binge eaters dopamine levels and / or receptor sensitivity? – Yes, you can remove the need to binge eat by not binge eating (as I did a few months ago, eventually it diminishes this is true.), but when my seasonal depression kicked in, willpower vanished and now it is back in full swing again.

    As someone who has successfully (and very easily) given up smoking, I can tell you stopping binge eating is 100% more difficult (yet it isn’t considered as legitimate an addiction as smoking).

    You might be able to manage the symptoms, if you are able to be strong enough (however you manage this) for a period until the cravings go, but underneath it all, whatever is wrong with the dopamine system isn’t going to get fixed, and like any addict you can lapse back into it.

    Even if you manage to beat binge eating, you are still low on dopamine, and that makes you unmotivated, apathetic, socially anxious and often miserable.

    Binge eating isn’t the disease, ITS THE SYMPTOM.

  4. I apologize for my slow response time. I’ve had to put blogging on hold for a while for family reasons, as I mentioned in my most recent post. I am glad to respond to any comments, it just may take me a bit longer:-)

    The mainstream view of binge eating certainly is that it’s a symptom of something deeper – whether that’s emotional problems or brain differences. If treating it as a symptom and addressing the underlying causes works to resolve the binge eating, then that’s great and I would never suggest that someone change course when something is working. But, for me, and for countless others, treating binge eating as the symptom isn’t helpful and it’s necessary to tackle it as the problem in and of itself.

    Our individual brain chemistry may give us tendencies to behave in certain ways, but tendencies aren’t destiny, and tendencies also aren’t diseases. There are people with imbalances in the dopamine system or abnormalities in other brain pathways who do not binge eat(and have no desire to do so) or have any other addictions.

    I believe that the differences in the dopamine systems of binge eaters and non-binge eaters are usually more a result of binge eating than an indirect cause; so that only a cessation of binge eating will solve the problem. Furthermore, since that’s not the only brain mechanism involved in binge eating, treating dopamine levels isn’t a cure. Like I say in my book, one day brain research might show us exactly how binge eating occurs; and we might be able to develop a drug that targets all the right brain chemicals/receptors/pathways; but that’s not going to happen any time soon; and even when/if it does, what side effects will that drug have?

    When you smoked, I’m sure a brain scan would have revealed some brain differences between you and a non-smoker. Areas of your brain likely lit up at the mere sight of a cigarette. Did that mean you had a brain disease? Not at all. You merely conditioned your brain to behave in certain ways, and that conditioning was reversible. Once you stopped smoking for long enough, those abnormalities resolved and your brain stopped producing the strong cravings for cigarettes.

    Even if there something wrong with the dopamine system, binge eating is not the cure for those abnormalities. If someone were to go to a doctor and report being unmotivated, apathetic, socially anxious, and miserable, the doctor wouldn’t recommend binge eating as a solution for the dopamine imbalance. Even if binge eating does provide temporary pleasure, it makes a person more unmotivated, apathetic, socially anxious, and miserable in the long run. For me, it was best to separate the binge eating from the other problems in my life and stop believing that I was ‘self-medicating.’ The good news is that once the binge eating is alleviated, it’s much easier to work on other problems and find real cures for any troublesome physiological or psychological issues.

  5. Kathryn, you respond so generously and honestly when a nincompoop posts on your blog. I really admire that.

    Also, it’s not surprising that a “lifelong” binge eater who continues to struggle disagrees with the notion that we have the free choice to stop. That’s not to minimize that person’s struggles, or say that stopping and separating from the urges to binge is necessarily easy. I haven’t experienced it to be so. I wish that person well, and hope that you will keep up your great work and resume posting when possible.

    My best – R.C.

    1. R.C.,
      I certainly understand feeling like free choice doesn’t exist when it comes to binge eating. It’s an awful place to be; but my hope is that by sharing my experience, I can help others see that it is possible to say no to binges. I know my book/blog isn’t going to be for everyone, but that’s okay. Different ideas work for different people. I appreciate your support, and I hope to resume posting later this month.

  6. Kathryn hello, I hope that you are over your difficulties and able to come back to your blog soon. Im Halliday, and after reading your book, I was sure I was over binge eating for good, I had conquered the urge to binge in several situations that would normally have been hard, and I felt like a bad cloud had lifted off me. Then suddenly, like four days ago, the cloud came back. For no apparent reason, I feel totally out of touch with myself, im bingeing badly and my brain is teasing me all the time and conjuring up images of food I want, and about how much of it I could eat. Almost as if my brain is taking delight in planning a huge daily binge and enjoying every moment. Please advise me, is this normal? I thought I had this conquered and now I feel like a sad failure once again. Any time you could give to me to respond to this question will be very much appreciated. Thank you love, Halliday

    1. Hi Halliday,
      I’m sorry that you are struggling after doing well. If you look at the FAQ section on my website (, there are a few questions/answers at the top (in the Quitting Binge Eating/Resisting Urges section) that apply to your situation. I hope they are helpful and you are able to overcome this.

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