Binge-eating—eating any amount that surpasses feeling full or satisfied in a single sitting— during or after alcohol use, is a common experience for many drinkers. You may find yourself gorging on fatty and greasy foods while drunk or attempting to remedy a hangover with heavy carbohydrate-dense foods. While alcohol by itself can lead to weight gain due to its high calorie and sugar content, the addition of binge-eating sessions may also contribute to negative physical and emotional changes in people with alcohol use disorder. Binge-eating can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food, adding to the self-destructive behavior that often accompanies heavy alcohol use. Recent research has taken a closer look at the connection between alcohol consumption and eating habits and confirmed that some interesting neurological events may be occurring to prompt this behavior. Additionally, mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression are likely to occur alongside both substance abuse and eating disorders.
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A recent study looked at the eating patterns and behaviors of alcohol-inebriated mice and found that, predictably, drunken mice ate more than sober mice. By studying the mice’s brains, researchers found that specific neurons in the hypothalamus—the region of the brain responsible for regulating appetite—were affected by alcohol in a way that induced extreme hunger. In other words, drinking tricks your brain into believing that you are ravenous and prompts you to desperately seek out large quantities of food. Another study used MRI scans to determine other ways in which alcohol may lead to binge drinking. This study found that multiple areas of the brain related to eating are triggered by alcohol use, and drinking even heightens a person’s response to the smell of food.
This data may not come as a surprise to heavy drinkers. The seemingly insatiable hunger that often follows a drinking binge can become all-too-familiar to those with alcohol use disorder. Similar studies also found that alcohol may affect the types of food you crave. Even drinking one or two alcoholic drinks can significantly increase your food consumption and cause you to crave salty and fatty foods. As you binge on high-fat foods, alcohol can inhibit your brain’s ability to send the signal that you are full and satisfied, causing you to keep eating well beyond your body’s caloric needs.
Heavy drinkers overall are more likely to report a body mass index above the healthy range. This is due to a combination of consuming excess calories in alcohol, poor food choices, binge-eating, and lack of physical exercise. Being overweight can lead to a variety of health issues including diabetes and high blood pressure. But there may be reasons to be concerned about unhealthy eating behaviors in relation to alcohol use aside from excess weight gain. Scientists recently discovered that a neuropeptide in the brain, called galanin, is involved in craving cycles for both food and alcohol. Galanin increases as we drink, and heighten cravings for alcohol in the process. Similarly, galanin levels rise when we eat fatty foods, and prompt fat cravings. Most pointedly, perhaps, is the observation that high levels of galanin have been found in the brains of people with eating disorders.
Eating disorders are varied and complex, but binge eating is the most common form of eating disorder. It is also common to experience a combination of disordered eating, such as extreme food deprivation or self-induced purging in an attempt to make up for a binge-eating session. Studies have found that roughly 50% of people with eating disorders also abuse alcohol or drugs. Many people with alcohol use disorder find themselves participating in disordered eating to prevent weight gain during heavy alcohol use, and women may be especially vulnerable to this behavior. For example, if you find yourself skipping meals to compensate for the calories you are ingesting in alcohol, you may have a problem with alcohol use as well as an unhealthy relationship with food. Both problems can be exacerbated by underlying mental illnesses, and treatment should involve a careful diagnosis of co-occurring disorders to fight addiction and restore healthy eating habits.
Getting Help for Binge-Eating and Alcohol Use
Alcohol use disorder and eating disorders commonly co-occur, but not all treatment centers are equipped to address both issues simultaneously. If you believe you or someone you love may be addicted to alcohol, and developing an unhealthy relationship with food, as a result, seek help from professionals who can provide quality mental health care alongside addiction recovery. Those suffering from addiction as well as eating disorders are far more likely than the general population to experience depression and anxiety and may require counseling and various therapy techniques to work through trauma and emotional hardship. These issues are also often accompanied by low self-esteem and distorted body image. By finding a quality, holistic treatment, you can regain your confidence and take charge of your emotional and physical health.