7 Ways Your Body Reacts to a Food Binge
Here's how compulsive eating can wreak havoc on insulin, blood sugar, and brain health, and when to get help for binge eating disorder.
A food binge probably wasn’t in your plan
Before you know it, you may have finished off a whole bag of chips or an entire tub of ice cream. You may not have planned on binge eating, but when food tastes delicious or satisfies an urge, it can be hard to stop. When you’re done, your body often lets you know it probably wasn’t a good idea. You may not feel great, and really wish you hadn’t eaten so much in one sitting. But behind the scenes, there’s a lot going on, too. Here’s what happens in your body when you binge eat.
The pancreas goes into overdrive
Many people binge on sugar and simple carbohydrates, such as foods made with white flour. In response to a quick intake of too much of these foods, the pancreas pumps insulin into the body, trying to counteract and manage the extra sugar suddenly present in the blood stream. (Here are tips to help counteract a sugar binge.)
Dopamine, the brain’s ‘pleasure hormone,’ surges
“Whereas eating a healthy, balanced meal might release a moderate amount of dopamine, eating high-fat, high-sugar foods, like a pint of ice cream, might lead to a release of extremely high levels of dopamine,” says Denise Wilfley, PhD, Scott Rudolph University professor at Washington University in St. Louis and representative for the National Eating Disorders Association. If you binge again and again, the brain needs more dopamine to reach the same level of pleasure. It could take more food, or different types of food, to trigger that “feel good” sensation in the future.
You release adrenaline and cortisol
The physical stress of binge eating stimulates these stress hormones. As the body feels various hormones surging, it strives for homeostasis, or balance, says Wilfley. You might briefly feel the “rush,” marked by increased heart rate or sweating. This is followed by the “crash,” marked by lethargy, increased irritability, and sluggishness as glucose levels drop drastically. (Here’s how to boost energy levels after lunch.)
The brain ‘checks out’
“Mindful eating and bingeing can’t occur at the same time,” says Kari Anderson,a licensed professional counselor in Scottsdale, Arizona. In a study published by the American Psychological Association, people used binge eating as a means of escape from self-awareness. “It’s really quite protective,” says Anderson. “In order [for the body] to even tolerate it, there’s a shift in mental state.” (Here’s what mindful eaters do at every meal.)
Immune function suffers
Overeating is a traumatic experience for your organs. As the body swings between high levels of glucose and insulin, immune function can dip for up to 24 hours after an episode of binge eating, notes Wilfley. (These daily habits help boost immunity.)
You can’t tell if you’re really hungry
There are two hunger hormones that play a role in how full you feel. Ghrelin is the hormone that increases appetite, signaling that it’s time for a snack or meal. Leptin decreases appetite, telling us when we’re full. Studies show that chronic binge eaters actually have lower levels of ghrelin and trouble responding to both hormones overall. That means if binge eating is happening on a regular basis, it just becomes really hard to determine when you’re hungry or satiated. (Here are medical reasons you might feel hungry all the time.)
You might have trouble sleeping
Binge eating can make it difficult to rest effectively, according to Wilfley. You might have trouble falling asleep and may wake up during the night out of discomfort, thirst, or acid reflux. Chronic acid reflux, or GERD, is common in people who binge-eat over a long period of time. (These are silent signs of reflux you might ignore.)
So why do we binge?
“Binges are set up by your brain,” says Elyse Resch, a registered dietitian and co-author of the book Intuitive Eating. According to Resch, food binges are likely caused from food restriction or as a rebound from dieting deprivation.
Binge eating to the point of discomfort more than once a week for over three months could signal a condition. In 2013, the American Psychological Association recognized binge eating disorder (BED) as an official psychiatric condition. It’s the most common eating disorder and may affect 3.5 percent of American adults. If you think you might have BED, talk to your doctor about helpful resources.
If you or a loved one is struggling with obsessive thoughts around food or your body, contact the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237 or a local eating disorder professional, or text “NEDA” to 741741.
- Harvard School of Public Health: “Carbohydrates and Blood Sugar”
- Denise Wilfley, PhD, Scott Rudolph University professor at Washington University in St. Louis and National Eating Disorders Association representative
- Kari Anderson, LPC, licensed professional counselor in Scottsdale, Arizona
- Psychological Bulletin: “Binge Eating as Escape From Self-Awareness”
- Obesity Reviews: “The role of leptin and ghrelin in the regulation of food intake and body weight in humans: a review”
- Elyse Resch, a registered dietitian and co-author of the book Intuitive Eating
- Berkman, N. Management and Outcomes of Binge-Eating Disorder, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, 2015
- National Eating Disorders Association: “Statistics and Research on Eating Disorders”