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The Link Between Depression and Eating Disorders continued...

To determine if depression is part of an eating disorder, doctors use a well-tested battery of questions that tease out the most common symptoms of depression. These include:

  • Feelings of sadness or unhappiness
  • Loss of interest in activities that once were pleasurable
  • Loss of libido
  • Irritability or anger
  • Sleep problems
  • Loss of appetite

Diagnosing serious depression is relatively easy, experts say. But finding an effective treatment for combined depression and eating disorders can be a challenge.

Treatment Approaches to Depression and Eating Disorders

Two very different approaches have been shown to help some patients. One approach is the use of antidepressant medications or mood stabilizers. In a 2001 study of 35 patients with anorexia who had managed to eat enough to achieve a healthy weight, for instance, the antidepressant Prozac (fluoxetine) was shown to reduce the risk of relapse.

For binge eating disorder, two different kinds of medications are sometimes prescribed by doctors -- antidepressants and an anticonvulsant drug called Topamax (topiramate). These drugs have been shown to reduce bingeing, either alone or in combination. Unfortunately, over time, many patients relapse.

Another approach is cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. The goal is to change the way people think about food and eating and encourage healthier eating behaviors. One CBT method is called dissonance therapy. People with eating disorders who have become obsessed with the idea that they must be extremely thin to be attractive are encouraged to reject this unattainable image in favor of a more realistic ideal. Studies show that this approach can significantly reduce symptoms of bulimia, especially bingeing and vomiting in some patients.

Researchers have also had success encouraging some patients to adopt healthier eating habits. This approach uses a combination of education about healthy food choices and techniques for monitoring change, such as keeping food diaries. When appropriate, patients are also encouraged to become more physically active. 

Evidence shows that CBT can be effective. In a 2003 study of 33 patients with anorexia nervosa, only 22% of who received CBT relapsed over the following year, compared to 53% of patients who received nutritional counseling only.

CBT has also been shown to help people control binge eating. In a study published in 2010, researchers at Wesleyan University in Connecticut tested an eight-session course of CBT in 123 patients with binge-eating disorders. The therapy helped patients restrain their binge eating behavior and reduced their symptoms of depression.

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