Eating Disorders and Depression: How They’re Related

Which came first – the chicken or the egg? Does being depressed lead to developing an eating disorder or does having an eating disorder lead to depression?

The truth is there is such a complex emotional and biochemical interplay between depression and eating disorders that we are not sure which does come first. What we do know is both depression and eating disorders feed on each other causing great suffering for the person who is trying to cope. Fortunately, many strategies exist to help someone get better.

Some facts about depression:

  • According to a recent Department of Health survey, one in 8 New Yorkers suffers from symptoms of depression. (Although New York does not represent the whole of the U.S., it is a good guess that other cities and towns also have their share of depressed men and women).
  • The report goes on to say that major depressive disorder is the single greatest source of disability in New York City. At any given time over half a million adult New Yorkers are estimated to have
depression yet less than 40% report receiving help.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services now recommends pregnant and postpartum women should be routinely screened for depression.
  • About 15% of the U.S. population will experience major depression in their lifetime.
  • Depression is twice as common in women as in men, in part due to hormones.
  • Up to 40% of the risk for depression is inherited.
  • When you add an eating disorder – binge eating disorder, anorexia, bulimia, or body image unhappiness – on top of depression, people often feel hopeless and helpless to ever get back on track with healthy eating or a healthy sense of well-being. Keep in mind that helplessness and despair are actually symptoms of depression and will get better with treatment.

    What is the connection between eating disorders and depression?:

    • Eating disorder behaviors help people feel better temporarily. Overeating is a soothing activity, purging provides a cathartic relief, starving is an attempt to feel strong and in control.
    • Bingeing, purging, starving, or obsessing about weight helps people distract themselves from emotional pain.
    • Both depression and eating disorders often involve shame and secrecy. People with these disorders often feel a stigma about admitting their problems.
    • Psychotherapy and sometimes medication can help people resolve their eating disorder and depression.

    What does depression feel like?

    When we think of depression, we picture a person who is constantly tearful or doesn’t want to get out of bed in the morning. But, in fact, depression can take many different and unexpected forms: some people get agitated, some people get irritable and argumentative, others feel like they are moving in slow motion as if their arms and legs are heavy, others feel body aches and pains such as headaches or stomach aches. Depression can cause people to have contradictory and confusing symptoms: some binge and gain weight while others do not want to eat and lose weight; some have insomnia while others sleep too much.

    What steps should I take?

    • Acknowledging that you are depressed and that you are struggling with overeating, under eating, or purging is the first step. Do not be ashamed – we humans are biochemical and emotional people and sometimes we need help.
    • Speak with your medical doctor. Blood tests can rule out hormone abnormalities, diabetes, thyroid issues, or premenstrual distress.
    • Have a consultation with a psychotherapist to evaluate the emotional stresses you may be facing and a discussion of strategies to improve your eating behaviors as well as techniques to improve the stress in your life.
    • The therapist may also recommend a consultation with a psychiatrist to evaluate if anti-depressant medication can help jump start your recovery.

    There is no virtue in suffering in silence. Help is available. Reach out.


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