Can a decrease in dopamine lead to binge eating?


In medical school, we were repeatedly advised that there is both a science and an art to the practice of medicine. In these days of doc-in-a-box online consultations for obesity, it’s tempting to think that there’s a one-size-fits-all purely scientific approach for these new weight loss medications. Yet, for every nine patients who lose weight seemingly effortlessly on this class of medication, there is always one whose body stubbornly refuses to submit.

Adam is a 58-year-old man who came to me recently because he was having difficulty losing weight. Over the past 20 years, he’d been steadily gaining weight and now, technically has morbid obesity (a term which should arguably be obsolete). His weight gain is complicated by high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obstructive sleep apnea. His sleep apnea has caused such profound exhaustion that he no longer has the energy to work out. He also has significant ADHD, which has been left untreated because of his ability to white-knuckle it through his many daily meetings and calls. A married father of three, he is a successful portfolio manager at a high-yield bond fund.

Adam tends to eat minimally during the day, thereby baffling his colleagues with the stark contrast between his minimal caloric intake and his large belly. However, when he returns from work late at night (kids safely tucked into bed), the floodgates open. He reports polishing off pints of ice cream, scarfing down bags of cookies, inhaling trays of brownies. No carbohydrate is off limits to him once he steps off the Metro North train and crosses the threshold from work to home.

Does Adam simply lack the desire or common-sense willpower to make the necessary changes in his lifestyle or is there something more complicated at play?

I would argue that Adam’s ADHD triggered a binge-eating disorder (BED) that festered unchecked over the past 20 years. Patients with BED typically eat massive quantities of food over short periods of time – often when they’re not even hungry. Adam admitted that he would generally continue to eat well after feeling stuffed to the brim. It is well known that ADHD is a leading cause of binge-eating tendencies. So, what is the link between these two seemingly unrelated disorders?

The answer probably lies with dopamine, a neurotransmitter produced in the reward centers of the brain that regulates how people experience pleasure and control impulses. We believe that people with ADHD have low levels of dopamine (it’s actually a bit more complicated, but this is the general idea). These low levels of dopamine lead people to self-medicate with sugars, salt, and fats to increase dopamine levels.

Lisdexamfetamine (Vyvanse) is a Food and Drug Administration–approved treatment option for both ADHD and binge eating. It raises the levels of dopamine (as well as norepinephrine) in the brain’s reward center. Often, the strong urge to binge subsides rapidly once ADHD is properly treated.

Rather than starting Adam on a semaglutide or similar agent, I opted to start him on lisdexamfetamine. When I spoke to him 1 week later, he confided that the world suddenly shifted into focus, and he was able to plan his meals throughout the day and resist the urge to binge late at night.

I may eventually add a semaglutide-like medication if his weight loss plateaus, but for now, I will focus on raising his dopamine levels to tackle the underlying cause of his weight gain.

Dr. Messer is a clinical assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York. She disclosed no relevant conflicts of interest.

A version of this article first appeared on

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