Updated: Oct 9
- Teresa Jacobson, DBH, LPCC-S, NCC
October 5, 2023
In a world of increasing stress in adult and adolescent lives, many are turning to over-indulgence. What can seem as a benign beginning can lead to intense cravings and addicting habits, feelings of shame, and many more negative consequences.
Binging may seem innocent. Some things we may tell ourselves include: "What will it hurt if I have one night of fun?" "It's my body, I can indulge if I choose to." "I work hard, I deserve to play hard." "I should be able to treat myself."
Regardless of the message, powerful things happen in our brain when we indulge, and over-indulge repeatedly. Changes can translate into neurological, psychological, biological, social, and behavioral domino effects that can negatively alter one's trajectory in life.
Binging is participating in large quantities or over-indulging in an activity with little ability to stop. Binging involves repeated failed attempts to reduce continued overuse despite negative consequences. Regardless of any momentary elation or comfort a binge may bring, there is always a down side.
This article examines two common binge disorders, their consequences and symptoms, as well as tips to help overcome them.
Binge Eating Disorder
Though many of us overindulge on occasion, overeating while feeling out of control about how much you eat in a short period of time is likely a binge eating disorder. Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States, estimated to impact 3-6% of the population (Murray et al, 2021). It is the most prevalent eating disorder worldwide.
Binge eating disorders are believed to be caused by a variety of complex factors that interact, such as genetic, psychological, biological, social, and behavioral (National Institute of Mental Health, 2023). Dieting in unhealthy ways, like skipping meals, not eating enough foods, or avoiding some kinds of food may also contribute to binging.
An important underlying commonality in those with binge eating disorder includes a deficiency in emotion regulation "which refers to the ability to regulate emotional responses and inhibit impulses for immediate gratification in the service of waiting for larger, delayed rewards" (Via & Contreras-Rodriguez, 2023). Binge-eating events are considered maladaptive strategies to cope with negative emotions like sadness, boredom, restlessness, loneliness, and/or to obtain a pleasureful or comforting experience.
Binge eating disorder symptoms often include:
Eating unusually large amounts of food in one setting
Eating even when you are full or not hungry
Eating fast during binge episodes
Eating until you are uncomfortable
Eating alone or in secret to avoid uneasiness
Feeling distressed, ashamed, embarrassed, or guilty about your eating
Frequently gaining and losing weight
Complications from binge eating disorder can lead to becoming overweight or obese, and food addiction. Binge eating disorder can also put people at a higher risk for: diabetes, heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, gallbladder disease, kidney and liver disease, digestive system problems, reproductive system difficulties, depression, anxiety, suicide, as well as non-suicidal self-harm. Those with binge eating disorder can also experience sleep difficulties, cognitive decline, memory issues, poor self image, and overall reduced quality of life
Some tips to help you take steps for your health include:
Eating three meals a day and two healthy snacks with no restricting
Drinking a gallon of water or more per day
Increasing fiber intake to allow you to feel more full and satisfied including nutritious, high-fiber foods like apples, avocados, bananas, barley, beans, berries, brown rice, brussel sprouts, carrots, green beans, nuts and seeds, oatmeal, whole grain bread, and whole wheat pasta
Participating in physical activity and intentional relaxation
Practicing intuitive eating, which includes eating when you feel hungry and stopping when you are full while you give yourself permission to trust your body
Binge eating disorder is severe and can be life-threatening. It is also very treatable. Because of its severity, treatment by a professional who specializes in eating disorders can be very beneficial.
Binge drinking has become even more prevalent since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Binge drinking is hazardous to one's health and is responsible for almost half (46%) of all alcohol related deaths in the United States (Fan, Goldfarb, Lacadie, Fogelman, Seo & Sinha, 2023).
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA, 2023) defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings one's blood alcohol concentration to 0.08% and more, which happens if a woman has four or more, or a man has five or more standard drinks in a short amount of time.
The NIAAA describes a standard drink as:
12 ounces of regular beer; 8 ounces if alcohol content is 7%
5 ounces of wine
1.5 ounces of distilled spirits
Binge drinking disorder (alcohol use disorder) include two or more of the following symptoms:
Drinking habitually (those who binge drink five or more times a month are considered "heavy alcohol users" and are at even more increased risk of developing dependence)
Making excuses, explaining, or defending behavior
Drinking that leads to risky behavior due to impaired judgement and lowered inhibitions
Experiencing memory lapses
Drinking alone or in secret, hiding evidence of drinking, drinking fast intentionally
Needing more and more alcohol to feel its effects
Continuing to drink even if it is making a health or mental health problem worse, or when relationships are being impacted
Thinking about drinking and spending time to get alcohol, spending time using, or experiencing hangovers
Feeling distressed, ashamed, embarrassed, or guilty about your drinking, or denying a problem
Having difficulty trying to cut down how much you drink, or drinking more than you planned to
Having withdrawal symptoms when alcohol effects wear off
Recurring use resulting in failure to meet obligations
Binge drinking is a risky pattern with bidirectional relationships to stress, trauma and socioeconomic hardships. In addition, it triggers the body's stress response, resulting in changes to the neuroendocrine circuit as well as the release of cortisol. Brain images obtained through magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) show clusters of lower gray matter in binge drinkers versus moderate drinkers in the hippocampal and prefrontal areas, impacting cognition, logic, and stress response (Fan, Goldfarb, Lacadie, Fogelman, Seo, & Sinha, 2023). These are changes that can be long-lasting.
In addition to changes to the brain, other complications from binge drinking can include being at higher risk of: (a) heart disease (hypertension, high blood pressure, arrhythmias or irregular heartbeats, heart attack, heart failure, stroke and death); (b) alcohol dependence; (c) cancer of many types; (d) liver disease and digestive issues; (e) sexually transmitted diseases; (f) injuries due to violence as well as unintentional injuries to self or others; (g) pancreatic inflammation and pancreatitis; (h) nerve damage; (i) sleeping problems; (j) birth defects; (k) seizures and coma; (l) kidney failure; (m) weight gain; and (n) mental health disorders. "People experiencing depression or anxiety may turn to alcohol to ease their symptoms, but binge drinking over time can worsen these symptoms" (Mayo Clinic, 2023).
"What you drink (beer or wine) doesn’t seem to be nearly as important as how you drink" (Harvard, 2023). "Having 7 drinks on a Saturday night and then not drinking the rest of the week isn’t at all the equivalent of having 1 drink a day. The weekly total may be the same, but the health implications aren’t." It is important to weigh the risks of alcohol use and ask yourself: Is the momentary pleasure really worth it?
Some tips to help you take steps for your health include:
Recognizing if you are drinking more than a healthy amount
Cutting back to no more than 2 standard drinks per day for men; and 1 standard drink per day for women; or stopping drinking completely
Identifying and avoiding triggers to drink
Engaging in relaxation activities, physical movement, and healthy nutrition (instead of drinking) to help maintain a well-balanced life
Setting up support for yourself with family, friends, or your treatment provider
Counseling and therapy to learn how to control thoughts and behaviors, and seeking help to manage any underlying distress
Finding a support group or alcohol recovery group
Developing goals for your future (realizing alcohol use can hinder achieving these goals)
Break Out of the Unhealthy Cycle of Binging
With a culture that sends messages of over-indulgence that encourages use of alcohol and food as a coping mechanism, the desire is often one that is difficult to manage, and the habits are very addictive.
There are many healthy ways to celebrate and commiserate in our society that don't have to involve over-indulgence. While overindulging in comfort food or alcohol may seem like it is alleviating stress or distress in the moment, the continued cycle creates even more which often impacts you, your health, and our loved ones.
Should you have any of the symptoms above, please consider revisiting your goals and what is truly important in your life. Just because you may not have seen evidence of unhealthy consequences of binging does not mean your brain and body, or other important parts of your life are not being impacted.
Binge disorders can bring an intense amounts of shame. Knowing the reasons behind these harmful habits and addressing the underlying issues, breaking out of the cycle and beginning new healthy habits can help so much. Regardless of whether you break out of the cycle of binging alone or with support, know that every step you take directly impacts your quality of life.
Should you need help in finding professionals or would like more information, the Substance, Alcohol, Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a free National Helpline that is available 24/7, 365-days a year for information in English and Spanish, 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
The National Hotline for Mental Health Crisis line, 9-8-8 is also available 24/7, 365 days a year.
Teresa Jacobson is a Doctor of Behavioral Health and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Supervisor who provides therapy using evidence-based practices to counsel Ohio and Kentucky adults of all ages and life experiences via secure Telehealth visits. An empathetic, strength-based, person-centered multi-cultural counselor with an existential philosophy, Teresa can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org ,
calling (513) 206-3026, or visiting
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