The Relationship of Eating Disorders and Bipolar Disorder

Sunflower in the Woods

It’s not uncommon for someone to have more than one mental illness at a time. In fact, 94% of people with an eating disorder also deal with another mental illness [1].

Sometimes eating disorders are a result of an unresolved mental illness, like anxiety or depression. Similarly, people with bipolar disorder are at an increased risk of developing an eating disorder [2].

What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a serious mental health issue. People with bipolar disorder suffer from shifts in their mood, energy, activity level, ability to concentrate and complete daily tasks [3].

These changes are known as mania or bipolar depression. Signs of mania include:

  • Feeling jumpy or wired
  • Not sleeping or needing to sleep
  • Loss of appetite
  • Talking really fast about different things (topic changes rapidly)
  • Racing thoughts
  • Risky behavior, such as spending too much money or binge eating
  • Viewing themselves as really special in some way (i.e smarter than other people, etc)

Signs of depression include:

  • Feeling really sad
  • Loss of interest in things that used to be enjoyable
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Loss of appetite or eating too much
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Trouble concentrating or making decisions

People with bipolar cycle between mania and depression. The three kinds of bipolar disorder are:

Bipolar I
  • Manic episodes that last at least seven days or are so severe the person has to be hospitalized
  • Depressive episodes that last about two weeks
Bipolar II
  • Hypomanic (episodes that are less severe than mania seen in bipolar I and don’t require hospitalization)
  • Depressive episodes
  • Can have episodes with hypomanic and depressive symptoms happening at the same time
Cyclothymia
  • Cycles of hypomania and depression that last for at least two years (one year in people under 18)
  • These symptoms don’t meet the requirements for bipolar I or II [3]

Bipolar & Eating Disorders

Research shows that approximately one in three people with bipolar disorder also struggle with an eating disorder [2]. The most common eating disorders in people with bipolar are binge eating disorder and bulimia [2].

Even though eating disorders are super common in this population, there aren’t currently any treatment approaches that are specific for people with both of these disorders.

However, there are evidence-based treatments for people who have mood disorders and eating disorders. It’s just that research is showing people would benefit from specialized interventions that support people recovering from eating disorders and dealing with bipolar.

The problem with this is that people with bipolar disorder are more likely to neglect their mental health. This makes it less likely that they will get treatment or benefit from eating disorder treatment [2].

We’re Still Learning

The mental health field knows a lot about each of these disorders. However, there’s things we still need to learn in order to figure out the best treatment approaches for someone who has an eating disorder and bipolar disorder [2].

Here’s what we need to figure out:

  • More understanding on whether eating disorders look differently in people with bipolar disorder
  • Which factors increase the risk for co-occurring bipolar & disordered eating
  • What psychological factors contribute to disordered eating and bipolar disorder

Researchers are currently looking into this. In the meantime, there’s still treatment options available. There are many programs that treat mood disorders (bipolar, included) and eating disorders. Use Eating Disorder Hope’s Treatment Finder to find a program near you.


Resources:

[1] National Eating Disorders Association. (n.d). Statistics and Research on Eating Disorders. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/statistics-research-eating-disorders

[2] McAulay, C., Hay, P., Mond, J., & Touyz, S. (2019). Eating disorders, bipolar disorders, and other mood disorders: Complex and under-researched relationships. Journal of Eating Disorders, 7(32), 1-4.

[3] National Institute of Mental Health. (2020). Bipolar disorder. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/bipolar-disorder/


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published August 10, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on August 10, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

About Samantha Bothwell, LMFT

Samantha Bothwell, LMFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, writer, explorer, and lipstick aficionado. She became a therapist after doing her own healing work so she could become whole after spending many years living with her mind and body disconnected. She has focused her clinical work to support the healing process of survivors of sexual violence and eating disorders. She is passionate about guiding people in their return to their truest Self so they can live their most authentic, peaceful life.