The Link Between Eating Disorders and Attention Deficit Disorder
Eating disorders and ADD/ADHD appear to be closely associated. The connection is strong between men and women who have ADD/ADHD and an eating disorder. Studies have shown that women, in particular, who go undiagnosed with ADD/ADHD are more likely to develop an eating disorder.
Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is defined as a childhood mental disorder characterized by inattention (such as distractibility, forgetfulness, leaving tasks unfinished); by hyperactivity and impulsivity (such as fidgeting and squirming, difficulty remaining seated, excessive talking and interrupting others) or by both types of behavior. Behavior must interfere with academic; social or work functioning, with impairment existing in at least two of these areas. Onset is before age 7, but can persist into adulthood.
The four main eating disorders recognized are Compulsive Eating Disorder, Binge Eating Disorder, Bulimia and Anorexia Nervosa. Binge Eating Disorder and Compulsive Eating Disorder are the most common of the four, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) affecting as many as 25 million Americans. The prevalence of ADD/ADHD among obese people is high and is highest in the morbidly obese.
Compulsive Eating Disorder People with this disorder lose their ability to stop eating. Food is used to alter their feelings rather than satisfy hunger. Binge Eating Disorder People who suffer from this are stimulated not only by the binge itself, but the planning, buying the food, and finding the time and place to binge in secret. The ADD/ADHD brain craves the excitement this creates. Large amounts of food , usually high in carbohydrates, sugars and fats, are consumed in a short period of time. Bulimia This is binge eating with the addition of purging. The satisfaction of binging is followed by the relief of purging. Anorexia Nervosa Anorexics have lost the ability to eat in a healthy way. Food, body image, diet and exercise becomes obsessions. Many also use laxatives, diuretics, enemas and compulsive exercising to achieve their unrealistic, if not impossible, goals. For those suffering from ADD/ADHD this gives focus to the chaotic ADD/ADHD brain.
For one woman, the reality of the ADD/ADHD and eating disorders connection came as a surprise. Barb, a middle aged, married mother of two, struggled with weight. All of her problems, she deduced, were related to her inability to achieve and maintain weight loss. She believed that if she could stop the continuous over eating, she could finally be content with herself. Remembering her childhood, “I was the chubby insecure child in elementary school and was often the target of bullying.” “Sometimes, I would sit in class paralyzed fearing recess.” As she grew, it became easier to ignore the insults, but her struggle with food continued. “I blamed all of my problems on weight and it became an obsession.. I could think of nothing else.”
Success for Barb came, but failure always followed. The binge eating continued sporadically, but the compulsive eating was an almost daily battle. It interfered with her daily life, making it difficult to concentrate on work. Projects sat half finished. She would often forget things and couldn’t sit still long enough to read the newspaper. Anxiety and depression creeped in along with a quick temper.
After over 40 years, Barb finally sought treatment. Initially only for her anxiety and depression, being too ashamed of her eating problems, but she soon realized she needed help for that as well. “My therapist suggested I have a full psychological evaluation. I was diagnosed with ADD. Once the shock wore off, it all started to fit. It was a complete sense of relief. I finally had a direction to take.” Treatment for Barb included individual therapy with a trained psychologist and medications including Prozac and Adderall.
According to the National ADD/ADHD Association, a variety of secondary problems may develop in untreated, undiagnosed people including anxiety, depression, substance abuse, difficulties in school and on the job, marital and emotional problems. Besides alcohol and drug abuse, people with ADD/ADHD may use caffeine, tobacco and food to self medicate the restless ADD/ADHD brain.
Barb realized she was trying to ease her symptoms with food. The impulse to overeat was too great to control, especially in the evening, when the stress of the day was at it’s peak. This satisfied the impulse but it would always lead to regret and shame.
Less obvious to Barb was her mind and body’s attempt to focus and stay alert. One morning cup of coffee would turn into a pot of coffee, all in an attempt to thin clearly enough to fulfill her job duties. Some days returning home from work edgy and with indigestion.
May adults with ADD/ADHD find that eating sugary foods can calm and help them focus. The neurotransmitter, serotonin, helps regulate sleep, mood, impulses and appetite. Low levels can cause irritability, anxiety and depression. Eating foods high in sugar and carbohydrates can temporarily increase the level of serotonin.
Medications that can help regulate serotonin levels include Paxil, Prozac and Zoloft to name a few. They can help those diagnosed with both ADD/ADHD and an eating disorder by controlling impulses, allowing them more time to think before eating.
It is essential that people suffering from ADD/ADHD and an eating disorder get comprehensive treatment for both. When ADD/ADHD is treated, those affected are better able to follow through with treatment of their eating disorder. Recovering from an eating disorder alone is hard but when you also have ADD/ADHD it is even tougher.
Barb continues to struggle with her Compulsive Eating Disorder, but since getting the appropriate treatment for her ADD and her Anxiety, she has made slow but steady progress. “I have a fresh outlook on life and am enjoying every day of it.”