Binge Eating = Bipolar Disorder?

Last week, I wrote a bit about my recovery from binge eating and bulimia. Today I came across a HealthMap for bipolar disorder that lists binge eating as a symptom of the disease.

I hadn’t really thought about the connection between the two illnesses before.

I don’t know why I never made the connection. In my Family-to-Family class we learned that anywhere from 30-60% of people with a mental illness have a co-occurring addictive disorder as well. In fact, I believe that my mother-in-law was hit with this double whammy. Never diagnosed with a mental illness because she was never willing to seek help, she drank to modulate theĀ  effects of her disease.

Although it may have helped her in the short-term (although perhaps it just gave her the illusion that it was helping her, as the study cited in this blog post seems to suggest), this approach to mood regulation killed her. She died of liver failure at age 59 after many years of alcohol abuse.

*****

As a teenager I, too, used a substance to try to regulate my moods—food. For me, eating started out as a way to cope with loneliness and depression. Eventually, though, it progressed to the point where I ate for no reason at all. (It’s when I reached this point that I crossed the line from compulsive or emotional overeating into food addiction.)

Occasionally, I ate to “bring myself down,” but feelings of excitement or overstimulation were, for me, few and far between. Had I ever seen a psychiatrist (as opposed to therapists), I believe I would have been diagnosed with dysthymic depression. Regardless, I coped as best as I could with the tools I had at the time.

But just because my eating wasn’t tied to mania doesn’t mean it can’t happen. In fact, I have friends in my Twelve Step recovery program who were diagnosed with bipolar and put on mood stabilizing medication before they joined FA. Funny thing is, though, that once they curtailed their addictive eating, their symptoms of bipolar disappeared, and they’ve been med-free for many years.

Which muddies the waters for me, since I am certainly not someone who believes—after experiencing what I experienced with my husband’s mania and depression—that changing your diet can cure bipolar. Can it help? Probably. But cure it? I just don’t think so.

So why were my friends able to stop taking their meds when they started treating their addiction?

*****

I guess the truth of the matter is that binge eating can be a symptom of bipolar, but it’s not necessarily so. As one study recapped in a recent blog post shows, bipolar disorder is sometimes overdiagnosed: “Of 700 patients who had previously received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, fewer than half met the criteria when given a more comprehensive psychiatric evaluation.”

And addiction—a form of mental illness itself, I believe—can mimic the symptoms of other mental diseases. As my food addiction progressed, I became increasingly reckless and impulsive (two hallmarks of mania) in areas that had nothing to do with food. You see, the relief I got from binging got weaker and weaker over time, and I started supplementing my food addiction with cigarettes, heavy drinking, and fast driving. I was fortunate to find a recovery program that works for me before my behavior got even more extreme.

It’s quite possible that my friends had some symptoms of a mood disorder, but these stemmed more from their food addiction than from bipolar.

*****

Roughly 2-4% of Americans suffer from binge eating disorder. If you are struggling with it or use food to regulate your moods, consult a psychiatrist who will look at your entire constellation of symptoms and help you determine if your binging stems from bipolar disorder, depression, food addiction, or some other cause.

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