When you have binge eating disorder, you often eat large amounts of food and have trouble stopping. You don’t eat because you’re hungry, but because you feel empty or sad inside.

Researchers are increasingly learning that binge eating disorder, like other eating disorders, is a mental health condition. People who binge often have anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues.

Binge eating disorder often responds to antidepressant medicines because of its roots in mental health. Here’s a look at the link between depression and binge eating, and how medicines used to treat depression might also help binge eaters.

What’s the Link Between Depression and Binge Eating Disorder?

Binge eating disorder and depression share a strong connection. Up to half of people who binge are either currently depressed or were depressed in the past. Anxiety and stress are also linked to binge eating.

How Can Antidepressants Help with Binge Eating Disorder?

Antidepressants may help reduce binge-eating episodes in one of a few ways. Lower-than-normal levels of chemical messengers in the brain, such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine may affect appetite, mood, and impulse control. This can contribute to binge eating. Antidepressants increase levels of these brain chemicals, which may help control binge eating.

A side effect of some antidepressants is a decrease in appetite. Research has also shown that antidepressants may help people with bulimia binge less often. Binge eating disorder is similar to bulimia, except that people with bulimia purge the food afterward by vomiting.

People with binge eating disorder often have other conditions, like depression, panic disorder, or generalized anxiety disorder. Antidepressants can be used to treat these conditions.

Types of Antidepressants Used to Treat Binge Eating Disorder

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a class of antidepressants, are sometimes used to treat binge eating disorder. SSRIs increase the amount of a chemical messenger called serotonin in the brain. Serotonin helps boost mood.

SSRIs used for binge eating include:

  • fluoxetine (Prozac)
  • paroxetine (Paxil)
  • sertraline (Zoloft)

Other types of antidepressants, including tricyclic antidepressants and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), have been studied for treating bulimia. In bulimia, these drugs help with both bingeing and purging. It is not yet clear if they help people with binge eating disorder.

How Effective Are Antidepressants at Treating Binge Eating Disorder?

People who’ve taken antidepressants for binge eating disorder have reported that they feel less of an urge to binge while on the medication. A review of studies found that people who took antidepressants were more likely to stay in binge eating remission than those who didn’t take the medicine. Antidepressants also relieved depression in people with binge eating disorder.

Not enough studies have been done to prove that these drugs work long term for binge eating, though. Existing studies have only lasted for a few weeks or months, so researchers have not been able to see whether people started to binge again after the studies ended.

The authors of the review didn’t recommend using antidepressants alone as a first treatment for binge eating disorder. They concluded that more research is needed to find out exactly how antidepressants can help with binge eating and how these drugs should be used.

What Are the Side Effects of Antidepressants?

Just like any other medicine, antidepressants can cause side effects. One potential side effect, appetite loss, can actually be helpful for those who binge eat. But sometimes antidepressants can have the opposite effect, increasing appetite and leading to weight gain, which can make them counterproductive for people with binge eating disorder.

Other side effects of antidepressants include:

  • dizziness
  • dry mouth
  • fatigue
  • headache
  • nausea or vomiting
  • nervousness
  • reduced sexual desire
  • trouble sleeping

Ask Your Doctor About Antidepressants

You have a few different options for treating binge eating disorder. Your doctor might start you on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps you overcome the negative thoughts that cause you to binge eat. Or, you could try the medicine lisdexamfetamine dimesylate (Vyvanse), the only drug that’s approved by the FDA to treat binge eating.

If these treatments don’t work for you, antidepressants may be another option. Discuss with your doctor whether depression might be a factor in your binge eating. Also talk about the possible benefits and side effects of antidepressants to decide whether they’re right for you.