In this post, we explore the relationship between caffeine and binge eating by answering the following question from a site visitor.
I have struggled with periodic binge eating for years. I have cleaned up my diet and follow and weighed and measured plan high in protein and non-starchy vegetables as well as some fats. My plan allows for black coffee and tea, which I drink liberally. I still struggle with periodic binging late at night. Is there reason to suspect that this is due to the caffeine intake? Thanks, Meg.
Yes, absolutely, caffeine can most definitely be a trigger for binging, compulsive overeating, or food addiction and here’s why.
Binge eating, compulsive overeating, or food addiction is caused by disrupted brain chemistry and impairment of the endocrine system. The goal in overcoming these eating disorders is to restore balance to the brain and the endocrine system.
One of the primary factors that must be addressed to achieve this goal is to maintain stable blood sugar levels at all times. When our blood glucose levels become elevated, it prompts the release of insulin. When insulin is released, then blood glucose levels plummet to very low levels and then low blood sugar symptoms like fatigue, depression, anxiety, irritability, and nervousness are experienced. This results in ravenous hunger and cravings for sugar and carbs as the brain will send out signals that say we need to bring blood sugar levels back up quickly.
However, when sugar and carbs are consumed, then glucose is elevated too high again and insulin is released and levels plummet again. A vicious cycle ensues that keeps one stuck in never-ending cravings for sugar and carbs. This cycle can be interrupted by removing all foods and substances that contribute to this roller coaster ride. If blood sugar levels remain stable, then cravings will subside.
Caffeine Causes a Spike in Blood Sugar
When we consume caffeine (in any form), it sets off the stress response system. When the stress response system is activated, norepinephrine instructs the liver to release the sugar it has stored (glycogen) into the bloodstream, because we need a lot of energy to deal with stress. However, this then leads to elevated levels of blood glucose, which as we described above will then lead to insulin release, low blood sugar, and insatiable cravings for sugar and carbs. Therefore, consumption of caffeine is about the same as eating sugar, because it has the same impact on the brain and endocrine system.
Caffeine Weakens the Adrenal Glands
Additionally, each time the stress response system is activated the adrenal glands are called upon to release stress hormones that are needed to help support the body through this stressful time. Initially, this can lead to elevated levels of cortisol, which is associated with weakened immune function, impaired brain function, high levels of anxiety and fear, panic attacks, lower bone density, muscle loss, and insomnia to name a few. However, eventually, the adrenal glands will become fatigued and then cortisol will not be produced sufficiently, which is associated with fatigue, loss of energy and stamina, blood sugar issues, inflammation, chronic pain, allergies, and autoimmune disorders. Each of these situations may result in cravings for sugar and carbs or binge eating, in an attempt to self-medicate the symptoms that develop as a result of the disruption. Not only that, the adrenal glands are critical for managing blood sugar levels, so once they become impaired, then blood sugar management does not operate properly, which can then perpetuate the whole vicious cycle with blood glucose from this angle as well.
Furthermore, when insulin is being released all the time on a continual basis, this eventually leads to insulin resistance, whereby glucose will not be able to get into the cells. This then leads to more cravings for sugar and carbs or binge eating as our cells will keep calling for glucose even though the system may be flooded with glucose.
The other side of the coin in overeating disorders is brain chemistry. Neurotransmitters that modulate cognitive functions, energy, thought, mood, and appetite may become out of balance, which then leads to cravings for sugar and carbs because these substances have the ability to artificially stimulate our receptors. High or low histamine, excess glutamate or insufficient levels of GABA, low levels of serotonin, endorphins, or dopamine, excess or deficient acetylcholine, can all lead to major cravings for sugar and carbs, binging or compulsive overeating. The other primary goal in overcoming an eating disorder is to maintain balance with neurotransmitters in the brain.
Caffeine is an Addictive Drug
Caffeine is an addictive, mind-altering drug, no different than cocaine and amphetamines that disrupts and then depletes many of these critical neurotransmitters that need to remain balanced. Consumption initially floods the brain with high levels of acetylcholine, norepinephrine, dopamine, and glutamate which is why caffeine produces more energy, enhances cognitive functions and boosts mood, but then when it leaves the system, neurotransmitters drop to lower levels. The brain responds to artificial or overstimulation, by downregulating production or responsiveness to the neurotransmitter. This is known as tolerance, and then more of the substance is needed to achieve the same results, which in this case is caffeine, and then one becomes addicted to caffeine to perform the roles of the depleted neurotransmitters. Caffeine also inhibits GABA, our primary calming neurotransmitter. All of which, can result in binging or compulsive overeating. Cravings may develop both in an attempt to downregulate the effects of a stimulatory neurotransmitter or replace an inhibitory one that is missing.
Furthermore, caffeine impairs the absorption of many critical nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, zinc, potassium, iron, B1, biotin, inositol, and others, many of which are vital for proper functions in the brain and the endocrine system and thereby controlling appetite and cravings for sugar and carbs.
Caffeine Encourages Overgrowth of Candida and Other Microbes
If the individual with food addiction, binging, or compulsive overeating has an overgrowth of Candida or bacteria, which is very often the case, then the elevation in glucose that develops in response to caffeine consumption is going to feed these microbes and increase levels of overgrowth. Higher levels of overgrowth equal higher levels of toxins released from the microbes. The toxins released by Candida and other microbes can impair neurotransmitter production and function and blood sugar management themselves, which can also lead to binging and/or compulsive overeating.
Therefore, as you can see, caffeine is one of the primary evils for the individual who is trying to overcome binging, compulsive overeating, sugar addiction, food addiction, or addiction of any kind, and it must be eliminated completely from the diet to achieve successful recovery. This includes caffeine from any source (coffee, tea, chocolate, green tea, soda pop, energy drinks, etc.) Even caffeine-free is not acceptable, because caffeine-free is not really free of caffeine — it still contains small amounts that will perpetuate this cycle. All other substances that impair brain chemistry and the endocrine system like sugar, grains, legumes, high-carb foods, artificial sweeteners, alcohol, marijuana, and other psychotropic drugs must be eliminated as well. The diet should be rich in animal protein and fat.
You can read about each of these issues in more detail on this page and this page. Additionally, you can learn more about overcoming binging, compulsive overeating, and food addiction in my free teleseminar, or you may want to take a look at my Break Your Sugar Addiction Today Toolkit, where you’ll find an abundance of tools to assist you in your recovery process.
Can Coffee be Healthy?
I know that many people in the Paleo community think that drinking Bulletproof Coffee is acceptable. It is not. Adding fat to your coffee does not change the fact that caffeine is an addictive mind-altering drug, no different than amphetamines and cocaine, or that it triggers the stress response system and everything else I’ve discussed on this page. A moderately healthy individual may be able to get away with consuming Bulletproof coffee, but the individual recovering from an addiction of any kind, as well as compulsive overeating, sugar addiction, binge eating, or an autonomic nervous system disorder, will likely have the same negative effects and it will perpetuate their condition.
Furthermore, in our quest for health, our goal should not be focused on trying to figure out ways to manipulate a mind-altering drug (caffeine) into some other form that might be a little less destructive. This is addictive behavior – trying to find a way to continue one’s addiction. It should simply be eliminated from the diet.
Additionally, many people may want to argue that some studies demonstrate coffee has some potential health benefits. Again, even if there are some benefits that can be gained from coffee, it still does not change the fact that it is an addictive mind-altering drug, triggers the stress response system, etc. Therefore, it doesn’t really matter if some benefit exists, because it is outweighed by all the destructive effects of caffeine.