ADHD and Eating Disorders

Introduction

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Eating Disorders (ED) are two conditions that are increasingly being recognised as co-existing in many individuals. ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects the executive functioning of the brain, while ED is characterised by abnormal eating habits that can lead to physical and mental health problems.

Recent research suggests that there is a strong association between ADHD and ED, and this article explores the link between the two conditions, how one can exacerbate the other, and what treatment options are available.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is a condition that affects around 6.1% of children and 4.4% of adults in Australia. The disorder is characterised by symptoms such as inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. These symptoms can negatively affect the individual’s ability to concentrate at school or work, maintain relationships, and perform daily tasks.

While the exact cause of ADHD is unknown, scientists believe that genetics, brain development, and environmental factors may play a role in its development.

What are Eating Disorders?

There are several types of Eating Disorders, including Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, and Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID).

Anorexia Nervosa is characterised by severe weight loss, an obsessive fear of gaining weight, and a distorted body image. Bulimia Nervosa involves binge eating followed by purging through vomiting or excessive exercise. Binge Eating Disorder is characterised by excessive food intake and feelings of guilt or shame, while ARFID is characterised by a lack of interest in food or aversion to certain textures or smells.

Eating Disorders can lead to serious physical and mental health problems, such as malnutrition, heart problems, and anxiety.

ADHD and Eating Disorders: What is the Link?

Research has shown that there is a higher prevalence of ADHD among individuals with Eating Disorders compared to the general population. One study found that around 18% of those with Eating Disorders also had ADHD compared to only 4% of the general population.

The exact reason for this association is not yet fully understood. However, scientists believe that there may be a shared genetic predisposition or brain chemistry differences that contribute to both ADHD and Eating Disorders.

Additionally, some have suggested that the impulsive behaviour seen in ADHD could lead to binge eating or other disordered eating behaviours.

How Can ADHD Exacerbate Eating Disorders?

ADHD can make managing and recovering from an Eating Disorder more challenging. Individuals with ADHD may find it difficult to stick to a strict meal plan, stay on top of their medications, and make healthy choices consistently.

Moreover, the impulsivity and distractibility associated with ADHD can make it harder to recognise and address disordered eating behaviours. These individuals may be more prone to binge eating or other impulsive eating behaviours due to their ADHD symptoms.

Untreated ADHD can also make it harder for individuals to regulate their emotions, leading to negative feelings that may trigger disordered eating behaviours.

Finding Treatment for ADHD and Eating Disorders

It is important to recognise the link between ADHD and Eating Disorders to find the best treatment options for those affected by both conditions. A multidisciplinary approach that addresses both conditions holistically is essential.

Treatment options may include medication for ADHD, psychotherapy, behavioural therapy, and nutritional counselling. Lifestyle changes such as implementing good sleep hygiene, practicing mindfulness, and regular exercise may also be helpful.

In some cases, a residential treatment facility may be recommended, where individuals can receive intensive, round-the-clock care and support.

The Importance of Self-Care

Living with both ADHD and an Eating Disorder can be overwhelming and stressful, but self-care is essential for recovery. This could include setting boundaries, finding healthy outlets for stress and emotions, adopting a self-compassionate attitude, and seeking support from loved ones.

Conclusion

ADHD and Eating Disorders can coexist, and the two conditions can exacerbate each other. It is essential to recognise the link between the two conditions and seek appropriate, multidisciplinary treatment options that address both.

Self-care is also essential for those living with ADHD and an Eating Disorder, and adopting a compassionate attitude towards oneself can form the foundation of a successful recovery. Seeking support from loved ones and healthcare professionals is also key to managing the challenges of these two conditions.

FAQs

What is the Link Between ADHD and Eating Disorders?

Research indicates that individuals with ADHD are at an increased risk of developing eating disorders, such as binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, and anorexia nervosa. This may be due to the fact that the executive function deficits commonly experienced by individuals with ADHD can also contribute to difficulties with emotional regulation and impulse control, leading to disordered eating patterns.

What Are the Symptoms of an Eating Disorder in Someone with ADHD?

The symptoms of eating disorders in individuals with ADHD may be similar to those experienced by individuals without ADHD, but it is important to consider the impact that ADHD-related executive function impairments may have on their eating behaviors. For instance, individuals with ADHD may struggle with planning and organization, leading them to eat impulsively or skip meals regularly. ADHD-related impulsivity may also contribute to binge eating episodes, while depression and anxiety, which are commonly comorbid with ADHD, could exacerbate disordered eating behaviors.

What Treatment Options are Available for Individuals with Both ADHD and an Eating Disorder?

Because the presence of ADHD may exacerbate disordered eating behaviors, it is important to consider treating both conditions concurrently. Treatment options may include medications as well as psychotherapeutic interventions, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, to address both ADHD symptoms and disordered eating patterns. Nutritional counseling and lifestyle changes may also be recommended to support overall physical and mental health.


References

1. Ulfvebrand, S., Birgegard, A., Norring, C., Hogdahl, L., & von Hausswolff-Juhlin, Y. (2015). Psychiatric comorbidity in women and men with eating disorders results from a large clinical database. Psychiatry research, 230(2), 294-299.

2. Yadollahi, S., Tehranidoost, M., Foroughi, A., & Pishyareh, E. (2020). The relationship of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder with eating disorder behaviors in overweight and obese women. Eating and Weight Disorders-Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 25(4), 1075-1082.

3. Zerwas, S., Larsen, J. T., Petersen, L., Thornton, L. M., Quaranta, M., Koch, S. V., … & Bulik, C. M. (2015). Eating disorders, autoimmune, and autoinflammatory disease. Pediatrics, 136(5), e1419-e1428.