ADHD and Eating Disorders: What You Need to Know

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Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a common neurodevelopmental condition. Research has shown a link between ADHD and certain eating disorders.

For example, a 2018 study in Psychiatric research reports links between ADHD and bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder (BED).

Eating disorders are a type of mental health problem that can have serious negative consequences on a person’s mental and physical health. People with eating disorders display harmful behaviors and attitudes toward food, eating, and body image.

Keep reading to learn more about the link between eating disorders and ADHD, including who’s at risk and treatment options.

Research suggests there is a link between ADHD and some eating disorders, but not all.

There are different types of eating disorders, including:

  • Bulimia nervosa: A person with this eating disorder, known as bulimia, will binge large amounts of food in a short period of time and then “compensate” by over-exercising or purging, which may involve vomiting or the use of laxatives.
  • Binge Eating Disorder (BED): This is similar to bulimia, but people do not engage in compensatory behaviors.
  • Anorexia nervosa: People with anorexia nervosa, known as anorexia, severely limit their food intake and can rely on a limited number of “safe” foods.

The authors of the previous study 2018 report links between ADHD and bulimia and BED. They conclude that the links between ADHD and eating disorders could be due to the presence of other psychiatric disorders. The study did not show a link between ADHD and anorexia.

Experts say that ADHD’s link to bulimia and BED may be the result of similarities between the conditions.

Characteristics of ADHD include hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention. Both bulimia and BED involve binge eating, which people view as impulsive behavior.

People with ADHD may also overeat because they crave stimulation.

When a person has ADHD, their brain can be lack of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in reward and motivation. Therefore, they can sometimes use food to get a dopamine hit.

The problems arise when regular overeating causes feelings of self-loathing, distress, and an inability to control behavior. When this happens, the behavior can progress to an eating disorder.

ADHD often present with symptoms similar to those of other conditions, such as trouble sleeping, anxiety, depression, and some learning disabilities.

The American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) outlines diagnostic criteria for a wide range of mental health problems. It lists the Criteria for an ADHD diagnosis such as:

  • five or more symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity, inattention, or both, for at least 6 months
  • multiple symptoms of inattention or hyperactivity-impulsivity before age 12
  • multiple symptoms in two or more settings – for example, home and school or work
  • symptoms interfere with or reduce the quality of social, academic, or work abilities
  • the symptoms do not meet the diagnostic criteria for another mental health condition

In children under the age of 16, six or more symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity must be present for at least 6 months.

According to National Institutes of Health (NIH)symptoms of bulimia and BED — the two eating disorders associated with ADHD — include the following.

Bulimia nervosa

Symptoms of bulimia include:

  • eating unusually large amounts of food in a discrete period
  • a feeling of loss of control during eating episodes
  • harmful compensatory behaviors, such as vomiting, excessive exercise, or laxative abuse
  • self-criticism of body shape or weight

Additionally, the physical signs of bulimia can include:

  • chronic inflammation and sore throat
  • swollen salivary glands in the neck and jaw
  • worn tooth enamel and increasingly sensitive and decayed teeth due to exposure to stomach acid
  • acid reflux disorder and other gastrointestinal problems
  • bowel distress and irritation caused by laxative abuse
  • severe dehydration due to purging of fluids
  • electrolyte imbalance — that is, excessively high or low levels of sodium, calcium, potassium, and other minerals — which can lead to stroke or heart attack

Binge eating disorder

Symptoms of BED include:

  • eating unusually large amounts of food in a specific time period
  • eat even full or without hunger
  • fast eating during binge eating
  • eat until uncomfortably full
  • eat alone or in secret to avoid discomfort
  • feeling distressed, ashamed, or guilty about eating
  • frequent dieting, possibly without weight loss

The females have a higher risk than men with eating disorders. Due to the link between ADHD and eating disorders, women with ADHD may be more likely to develop eating disorders.

However, that doesn’t mean that eating disorders can’t affect men, who are less likely seek diagnosis and treatment.

For example, BED affects both males and females to relatively equal rates. Overeating is more common than restriction in people with ADHD, so men with ADHD may be at higher risk for binge eating.

Medical professionals commonly prescribe stimulants to treat ADHD. About 70–80% of children with ADHD experience fewer ADHD symptoms when taking these medications.

Some medications can treat both ADHD and eating disorders.

For instance, lisdexamfetamine dimesylate is a type of stimulant medication that the manufacturer originally marketed for the treatment of ADHD. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has since approved the drug for use in the treatment of moderate or severe BED in adults.

Most mental disorder treatment protocols include both mediation and psychotherapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a popular and effective form of talk therapy that can be helpful for people with eating disorders and ADHD.

In a 2018 study in the Attention Disorder Diary, researchers found that CBT may reduce ADHD symptoms, improve executive function, and alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. These benefits continued for at least 5 months after stopping treatment.

A 2019 study in Psychiatric Clinics of North America confirmed that CBT is the first-line treatment for BED and bulimia.

Research shows a link between ADHD and certain eating disorders, such as bulimia and BED. ADHD does not appear to be associated with anorexia.

This may be because overeating is an impulsive behavior, while undereating is a restrictive behavior.

Along with talk therapy, lisdexamfetamine dimesylate can help treat ADHD and BED. If a person has symptoms of ADHD or an eating disorder, they should contact a doctor.

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