The fact that hormones can induce out-of-control eating is not a new idea—PMS-fueled Ben & Jerry's run, anyone? But now, a new study is connecting hormonal imbalances with binge eating.
"Previous research has shown that women who develop binge eating often have irregular menstrual cycles associated with a dysfunction in estrogen, suggesting that hormones play a role in this behavior," says Yong Xu, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor and the lead author of the study.
The researchers were able to confirm previous reports that lowering estrogen increased binge eating behavior and consequently that raising estrogen levels decreased binging. They found the effect to be true even in the same woman. As her hormone levels fluctuated, so did her tendency to binge. What gives? Estrogen appears to work on the same neural receptors that release serotonin—a neurochemical associated with everything from happiness to appetite. More estrogen allows the body to produce more serotonin which, in turn, inhibits the urge to binge eat.
Binge Eating Disorder, defined as a pattern of eating large amounts of food in a short period of time, is the most common eating disorder. It affects between five and 10 percent of the population. For years, sufferers have been told to "just stop eating so much" but Xu says while we still don't know exactly how binge eating starts, this research is a huge step to finding a way to stop it.
Estrogen therapy seems like an obvious treatment, but Xu says the problem with current regimens is they can drastically increase a woman's risk of breast cancer. However, the researchers were able to identify the region in the brain where estrogen is inhibited and developed a compound called GLP-1 that can reach those serotonin receptors specifically without targeting other estrogen-sensitive areas of the body like breast tissue.
Xu adds that there are many types of foods and plant substances that mimic estrogen in the body—soy is probably the best known—but that the research on their effectiveness is mixed. Some studies show benefits to certain foods while other studies have shown negative health impacts from others, so don't try to self-medicate with foods, herbs, or creams. For now, the research is still in the works, but researchers are in the process of patenting the compound with hopes that clinical trials in humans can begin quickly.