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Posted: August 19, 2005

Spiritual Caregiving

Beyond the Late Night Binge: Crave Not, Want Not

Nighttime binge eating. For Ann, a typical evening begins after work with a trip to the supermarket to buy bags of corn chips and chunks of chocolate. Then she heads home, changes into comfortable clothes, and turns on the TV. Settling into bed, surrounded by her favorite foods, she begins what she calls "zoning out" -- eating until she feels calmer -- often to the point of falling in and out of sleep well before bedtime.

Three hours into her binge, Ann is amazed to find that she has eaten all the food. She knows that the chips and chocolate allay her anxiety, but she’s concerned about these binges. She wants to lose 50 pounds and stop zoning out. Dieting hasn’t helped. She hasn’t been able to control the binges through willpower or the techniques described in self-help books. She remains vaguely depressed and distressed, dependent on binges to manage her darker moods.


Researchers into a variety of chemical and behavioral addictions have theorized for decades about the causes of these disorders, from genetics and environment to brain chemistry and family dynamics.

"Negative affect" may be a unifying factor, says Cassandra Vieten, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and researcher who specializes in integrative healing and behavioral disorders at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco and the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, California.

"Negative affect is distress that is not limited to conscious emotions, but can be nonconscious, physiological, emotional, psychological, and/or spiritual," says Vieten. "Distress is part of life, but some haven’t developed the capacity to tolerate it."

Indeed, research on my integrative nutrition program revealed that negative emotions were the strongest predictor of overeating (Spirituality & Health, June 2003, "How to Beat Syndrome ‘O’").

Getting Physical

Many people experience negative affect as worry and anxiety, but for others, such as Ann, the negative feelings are suppressed, unexpressed, or unidentified, and can result in food addiction. "Some people are not able to recognize their emotions," says Vieten. "They may feel nondescript distress at certain times, but they can’t say why, nor can they put a name on it."

The symptoms of negative effect may include a tight stomach, muscular tension, or other physical manifestations. Sufferers may feel that they can’t survive the emotions and must stop them by any means available. Over-eating certain foods, taking drugs, or addictive behaviors such as self-injury, violence, or sex, can alter one’s physical and mental state and halt the distress for the moment, becoming powerful reinforcers.


Certain nutrients can cause the body to release hormones, or chemical messengers, that "medicate" negative emotions. Corn chips and chocolate, which are high in carbohydrates, may set off a binge because they stimulate the production of serotonin, which calms the psyche.

The glycemic index (GI) of food, or degree to which it increases blood sugar levels, also plays a role. High-GI foods such as corn and sugar increase serotonin levels. Certain alkaloids in chocolate, too, may raise serotonin levels. Chocolate contains caffeine and phenylethylamine, both drug-like ingredients. As your tolerance increases, you may become a "chocoholic," and need to binge not necessarily to feel better, but just to feel normal.

Spiritual Rx

When stress, distress, or sadness strike, Vieten suggests, learn to observe the feeling. Feel compassion for the desire -- that is, don’t judge it -- and watch it rise and pass without trying to stop it. "These skills guide you to move toward the distress, rather than expend your energy trying to avoid it," says Vieten. "In addition to helping to break the cycle of craving and reward, they can give you repeated experience of surviving emotional storms."

"Spirituality, connecting to something deeper than your individual craving or desire, can be incredibly helpful," notes Vieten. "Not only can it empower you to ride the waves of craving, it can restore your capacity to rely on intention and choice, rather than habit, to decide how you want to live in the world."


 Deborah Kesten’s latest book is The Healing Secrets of Food: A Practical Guide for Nourishing Body, Mind and Soul. 

This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at Contact staff directly via email at

© 2005 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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