Should I Drink Alcohol While Trying to Quit Binge Eating?

     I’ve had a few people ask me about consuming alcohol while recovering from bulimia/BED, so I want to address that topic briefly here…
     To resist urges to binge, you have to rely on the capability of your prefrontal cortex to inhibit urges from your lower brain. Since alcohol directly affects the prefrontal cortex and can reduce someone’s ability to make sound decisions, does this mean everyone trying to quit binge eating should completely abstain from alcohol?  Not necessarily, but I think it’s an important decision that each individual needs to make; and I hope some information in this post will help you make that decision.  
     I personally did not change my alcohol consumption when I first quit binge eating. I had an occasional drink – a beer or glass of wine, sometimes two – a couple times a month.  Since it only took a few months for my binge urges to decrease significantly, this only afforded me maybe 6  times to experience the effects of alcohol on my binge urges and ability to resist them.  Looking back, I do not specifically remember any marked increase in my binge urges under the influence of alcohol or having more difficulty avoiding acting on those urges.  This is not to say that I think drinking alcohol is risk-free when it comes to recovery from binge eating.  
     When I was bulimic, drinking was indeed one of my binge “triggers.” I remember that disinhibitory feeling of temporarily not caring after having a couple drinks, and not bothering to fight the binge urges. Binge eating under the influence of alcohol took on more of a hazy quality, rather than a voracious one, and it always ended with less regret (until morning, where there was the effects of both the food and the alcohol to contend with).  
     After I stopped binge eating, I was able to avoid that “I don’t care” mindset  that often gets drunk people to do things they regret.  This could be simply because I didn’t drink very much after I quit. Not having a lot to drink wasn’t something I resolved to do to help recovery- I just wasn’t into drinking very much. There were occasions in college (prior to quitting binge eating) when I would have more than a couple drinks, and it’s very possible that doing that while trying to recover might have ended in binge eating. There is no way to know, but I’d like to think that binge eating was so “off limits” in my mind that I still would have been able to say no.
     For those who drink a little more often and in greater quantities than I did when I quit binge eating; here is some information to help you decide whether it’s wise to continue doing that while also trying to resist binge urges.  
  • Alcohol does affect the prefrontal cortex and its ability to inhibit behaviors; and with each drink, the prefrontal cortex is impaired a little more.  For some, this may result in less of a desire to resist binge urges, and more of an “I don’t care about recovery” attitude.  It could also make you feel like you have less control of your voluntary muscle movements – many of which are involved in eating.


  • Alcohol has the opposite affect on the lower brain. Instead of impairing it; drinking causes a release in dopamine, which arouses pleasure/reward circuitry in the lower brain. For some, this could mean an increase in urges to binge; but not necessarily (it could simply be pleasurable in its own right, without triggering a desire for the temporary ‘pleasure’ of binge eating).      


   Given these effects (impairment of the prefrontal cortex, and arousal of the pleasure/reward circuits in lower brain regions), you can see why drinking can be risky, and for some, might be best avoided.  However, even with altered consciousness, I believe it is still possible to say no to binge eating. Everyone has lines they don’t cross even when they are drunk (examples:  driving a car, leaving a bar with a stranger…etc). I’m sure you can think of some outrageous behavior that you can trust yourself not to do, even when you’ve had a lot to drink. If you choose to continue to drink while recovering from bulimia/BED, then binge eating has to become one of those outrageous things that you would never do, regardless of how many drinks you’ve had. It has to be something you view as “not an option,” ever; and even in a hazy state, you have to say no.   
     If you don’t feel capable of doing that while drinking, then I would suggest stopping alcohol altogether until you feel you can.  Or, just stick to a very small amount.  
*I am of course talking about drinking moderately/normally in this post.  I would never recommend the over-consumption of alcohol – to a binge eater or a non-binge eater.  This post is not for people who feel they have a drinking problem.    



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