2265 North Clybourn Avenue    Chicago, IL 60614    P: 773.296.6700     F: 773.296.1131

New Hope for Binge Eaters

That box of chocolate chip cookies you never should have purchased in the first place is sitting there on your kitchen table, luring you, taunting. Your period is due in two or three days and you feel grumpy, depressed, bloated.

You’re agonizing. “Just a…couple/two, three at the most” you think, knowing you’ll actually feel emotionally and physically better in a few minutes. And suddenly, half the box is gone. Horrified and ashamed, you put the box out of sight. But the next day, after a blow-up with a co-worker, it crosses your mind that at least you’ve got the cookies at home. And maybe you can do better at the health club next week.

If you’re like most people who have binge eating tendencies, you tell virtually no one, including your physician or psychotherapist. For this reason, an accurate estimate of people struggling with binge eating isn’t known. Since most binge eaters are overweight and currently almost 70% of US citizens are either overweight or obese, we can safely guess the number of binge eaters is (sorry for this) huge.

A group of characteristics separates binge eating from plain old unhealthful overeating. If any of these sound familiar, you may have some binge tendencies.

  • Frequent episodes of eating what others would consider an abnormally large amount of food, like half a box of cookies or a whole container of Ben and Jerry’s.
  • Often feeling you’re unable to control what or how much you’re eating.
  • Eating much faster than usual.
  • Eating until you’re uncomfortably full.
  • Eating a large amount of food, even when you’re not actually hungry.
  • Eating alone because you’re embarrassed by the quantity of food you’re eating.
  • Feelings of disgust, depression, or guilt after overeating.
  • Fluctuations in weight.
  • Feelings of low self-esteem.
  • Loss of sexual desire.
  • Frequent dieting.

Self-medicating with food
Over the past few years, researchers in the field began to understand that binge eaters basically use food to self-medicate the symptoms of anxiety and depression. With this knowledge, treatment was aimed at solving the depression and anxiety, rather than using appetite suppressants to quell cravings.

What seemed most logical was a combination of psychotherapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) along with an antidepressant to increase the stress-buffering neurotransmitter serotonin.

CBT, when you find a therapist trained in it, is helpful. But the SSRI antidepressants (like Prozac, Lexapro, and Zoloft) often carry weight gain as a side effect, so something in this  drug treatment was missing.

Enter glutamate
The newest research takes a hard look at a second brain chemical called glutamate. It’s classified as an “excitatory” neurotransmitter, since a certain amount of glutamate is needed for mental focus and concentration. Not having enough glutamate (or having a problem with the glutamate receptors in your brain so that the amount you do have doesn’t work as well as it should) is linked to such apparently unrelated conditions as adult attention deficit disorder, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and addictive behaviors.

Having too much glutamate isn’t good either. Again, the conditions seem unrelated and will remain so until we can uncover more. Fibromyalgia, familial tremor, and autism are all associated with excessive glutamine mechanisms.

The prescription drug Campral (acamprosate) is FDA-approved for alcohol addiction and works by raising glutamate levels in the brain. Psychiatrists are virtually the only prescribers of Campral, and some also prescribe it “off-label” for patients with serious binge-eating disorders. If you click through you’ll see that, as with virtually any prescription drug, Campral comes with side effects.

Boost glutamate without taking meds
There are also non-prescription ways to gently raise your brain’s glutamate level, and while research is limited, the results are promising:

  • L-Glutamine is an amino acid that increases levels of glutamate and is especially useful for sugar and alcohol cravings. Dr. Andrew Weil’s website points out that glutamine has been used for alcohol cravings since the 1950s. The usual dose is 500 mg three times daily. It’s available in our apothecary.
  • N-acetyl cysteine is an amino acid that works in the body as a precursor for the antioxidant glutathione. It seems to act by balancing out glutamate levels, and it’s currently used by nutritionally oriented psychiatrists as an add-on to prescription meds for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Binge eating really can be viewed as one of the OCDs. The most interesting recent use of N-acetyl cysteine is for trichotillomania, an OCD condition in which the patient obsessively plucks out her hair. The usual dose for obsessive behavior is 1,200 mg twice daily. Find it here.
  • Black cohosh is a popular herb for the low estrogen that occurs before and during menopause. It’s also known by herbalists to reduce food cravings. Recent research has shown that women with low levels of estrogen at any time in their lives have more issues with binge eating than the rest of the population. If you’re having menstrual cycles, signs of low estrogen include scanty or irregular periods and mood issues during your PMS week. One recently published study using mice found that a form of estrogen that went directly to the serotonin receptors in the brain produced a drop in binge-eating behavior. You might be thinking you’re not a mouse, but in fact biochemically the mouse brain is spookily very much like our own. The researchers expressed reluctance to prescribe estrogen as a long-term treatment for binge eating because of its side effects, but this study does shed light on just why the estrogen-like herb black cohosh helps reduce food cravings and binge eating. The usual dose of black cohosh is one capsule daily.
  • The acupuncture and herbs of Traditional Chinese Medicine have long been proven helpful for virtually any addictive or compulsive behavior, including binge eating and tobacco or alcohol addiction. When conventional Western scientists attempt to uncover how these therapies work, neurotransmitter adjustments are the common denominator.

I think you’ll agree that what’s happening behind the scenes with your binge eating tendencies is a lot more complicated than you may have considered. Just realize there’s hope. If you’ve got an issue with binge eating that you’ve been reluctant to confront, consider scheduling with us at WholeHealth Chicago. We’ve got two Cognitive Behavior Therapists (Dr. Janet Chandler and Dr. Meghan Roekle), three nutritionists (Marla Feingold, Seanna Tully, and Marcy Kirshenbaum), and three practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (Mari Stecker, Cindy Kudelka, and Helen Strietelmeier).

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD

 

Leave a Comment


  1. Amy says:

    Thanks for the info on binge eating & I would like to know more about how to slim down other then diet & exercise. Maybe using supplements or slimming coffee/products!
    Thanks!

    Amy

  2. Margot Davis says:

    Thanks so much for this information, myself, my father, my daughter, and now my 23 yr. old grandson have familial tremors. How would I find how to decrease glutamine mechanisms?
    Margot Davis

  3. Barbara says:

    I love this blog! I learn so much from it, and it’s entertaining as well. But could you please go back to your larger, more legible font?

  4. Irene says:

    Dr. E. ~ Thanks for another excellent article detailing binging behavior…
    and including some natural options to help cope with this behavior.
    Your expertise and commitment is very much appreciated!!!! Irene

  5. Barbara Manning says:

    So–Fibro people that also are binge eaters will have to go down a different road that glutamate, for binge eating help–correct?

Join our Newsletter

Get health recommendations, delicious and time-saving recipes, medical news, supplement reviews, birthday discounts, and more!

Health Tips

Dr. Edelberg’s Health Tips contain concise bits of advice, medical news, nutritional supplement and pharmaceutical updates, and stress relief ideas. With every Health Tip, you’ll also receive an easy, delicious, and healthful recipe.

When you sign up to receive Health Tips, you can look forward to Dr. Edelberg’s smart and very current observations arriving in your in-box weekly. They’re packed with helpful information and are often slightly irreverent. One of the most common responses to the tips is “I wish my doctor talked to me like this!”

Quick Connect

Get One Click Access to our

patient-portal

The Knowledge Base

Patient education is an integral part of our practice. Here you will find a comprehensive collection of staff articles, descriptions of therapies and nutritional supplements, information addressing your health concerns, and the latest research on nutritional supplements and alternative therapies.

Telemedicine – Now Available at WholeHealth Chicago

In order to maintain your continuity of care, WholeHealth Chicago now offers telemedicine appointments with most of our practitioners. During a telemedicine visit, you and your healthcare provider can review medical history, discuss symptoms, arrange for prescriptions, and more. When necessary, labs and diagnostic imaging can be ordered from a facility near your home, and our Natural Apothecary can ship supplements quickly to your door.

Please contact Patient Services for details and scheduling a telemedicine appointment, or to change a regular appointment to telemedicine by calling 773-296-6700.

We’re looking forward to meeting with you in our virtual consultation room soon.

DIAGNOSE-IT-YOURSELF: COVID-19

Far and away, the commonest phone call/e mail I receive asks about COVID-19 diagnosis.
Just print this out, tape it on your refrigerator door, and stay calm.

ALLERGIES

• Runny nose
• Sneezing
• Red, swollen eyes
• Itchy eyes and nose
• Tickly throat
• No fever

COLD
• Runny nose
• Sneezing
• Sore throat
• Mild muscle aches
• Mild dry cough
• Rarely a low fever

STREP THROAT
• Painful sore throat
• Hurts to swallow
• Swollen glands in neck
• Fever

FLU (Standard seasonal flu)
• Fever
• Dry cough (no mucus)
• Sudden onset over few hours
• Headache
• Sore throat
• Fatigue, sometimes quite severe
• Muscle aches, sometimes quite severe
• Rarely, diarrhea

CORONAVIRUS-COVID 19
• Shortness of breath
• Fever (usually above 100 degrees)
• Dry cough (no mucus)
• Slow onset (2-14 days)
• Mild muscle aches
• Mild fatigue
• Mild sneezing

Recent Health Tips

  • Do You Have Low Testosterone?

    For 80 (!) years physicians have prescribed testosterone to men without being certain if it actually had any effect…other than raising testosterone levels. The only FDA-approved indication for testosterone is hypogonadism, in which there’s an actual disorder of the male reproductive system that results in the body not producing enough testosterone. Causes of hypogonadism include testicular damage from mumps, a genetic condition called Klinefelter syndrome, Read More

  • WholeHealth Chicago IV Therapies: Metabolic Boost (Skinny Shots)

    It’s really a bummer to add weight gain to the stressors you’ve been experiencing in this difficult year of Covid-19, police brutality, and economic crashes. You’re the victim of a perfect storm: inactivity, anxiety, disrupted sleep, and eating too many of the wrong calories. I know comfort foods are comforting, but did you really need to bake another batch of snickerdoodles? The result of all Read More

  • I Feel So Inflamed!

    Previously, I wrote about mold-related illness, yet another commonly overlooked diagnosis. It’s surprising how regularly mold issues fly under the radar of conventional physicians. When you consider how often homes and workplaces have a leaky roof, unless something smells moldy or we discover creeping black stains somewhere we often don’t think of mold. Moreover, because just 25% of us are genetically susceptible to mold allergies Read More

Join our Discount Program

Member benefits include 10% off all your purchases. Low, one-time membership fee of $25 ($35 for family).

MORE INFORMATION

Join our Newsletter

Get health recommendations, recipes, medical news, supplement reviews, birthday discounts, and more!