Does bulimia affect the way my brain works?

Richard Kerr's picture

Having bulimia can cause your brain to start working in a different way. This has a lot to do with Endorphins, Malnutrition and Serotonin.


Endorphins are powerful, natural drug-like chemicals that allow you to experience pleasure, a reduction in pain and lower levels of stress.

Endorphins are natural opiates which have a very similar effect to heroin on your brain. This can explain why having bulimia can sometimes feel like an addiction. Bingeing and purging triggers waves of endorphins which helps to establish the powerful compulsions you feel when you get the urge to binge and purge.

Has bingeing and purging ever given you that ‘high’ feeling? One explanation for this is the ‘flood of endorphins’ that surge through your brain. Of course over time your brain becomes accustomed to your elevated levels of endorphins and needs more to create the same effect. This demand and reliance usually compels you to increase episodes of bingeing and purging.

The obsessive behaviour that you often experience when you have bulimia is often caused by nutritional deficiencies.


Protein malnutrition

With restriction (remember bulimia is a form of restriction) the activity of the brain shrinks. When this happens your natural brain chemistry becomes disrupted and you can experience anxiety, depression, irritability, obsessiveness and low self esteem. This is primarily a result of protein malnutrition because the four brain chemicals that control your mood are all derived from the amino acids in protein.

Tryptophan, Serotonin and Bulimia

You have probably heard of serotonin – it is one of the most well know mood regulators. Serotonin is made from an amino acid called tryptophan. When you don’t get enough tryptophan serotonin levels can drop very low very fast. Tryptophan is just one of the nine essential proteins needed for your brain to function properly.

Regardless of your life circumstances or accomplishments, when your serotonin levels drop so do your feelings of self-esteem. As the brain continues to be starved it can only deteriorate further and become more self-critical. When this happens you become even more trapped by your bulimia.

Just as a vitamin C deficiency results in an outbreak of red spots, a tryptophan (and serotonin) deficiency results in an outbreak of obsessive and compulsive behaviour.

Of course there may be additional psychological elements in the picture too, but a low-serotonin brain is ill equipped to resolve them.


In many people a drop in serotonin and a lack of essential nutrients causes a loss of appetite, but in some people, for reasons that we don’t entirely understand the appetite and desire to binge actually increases.   

What about the evidence?

  • In one study people with bulimia were deprived of the protein tryptophan. As a result their serotonin levels dropped and they binged more violently, eating and purging an average of 900 calories extra each day.
  • In a separate study adding extra tryptophan to the diet reduced bulimic binges and mood problems.
  • Recently it was suggested that even years into recovery, people could experience a return of their cravings, compulsions to binge and purge and mood problems after only a few hours of tryptophan depletion.


This evidence suggests that not getting enough tryptophan could actually lead to the development of bulimia.

Here at bulimia help, while we understand that there are often psychological elements to consider in relation to the development of bulimia we KNOW that taking practical steps to reverse malnutrition and vitamin and mineral deficiencies really is the main key to recovery.



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The information provided in this website is for information purposes only. The information on this website is NOT a substitute for proper diagnosis, treatment or the provision of advice by an appropriate health professional. Please refer to the full disclaimer and copyright. If you do think you might suffer from an eating disorder, it is important that you talk to your General Practitioner, as there are many physical complications that can arise from being at an unhealthily low weight or from losing weight very quickly, or from purging. We advise you to seek professional help with working on an eating disorder.


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