Can Medication Help Treat Eating Disorders?

As mental health treatment is discussed during this Mental Health Awareness Month, a common question people have about is the efficacy of medications for treating mental illness. After all, there are a variety of mediations available for mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and OCD. Is it possible that eating disorders including bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, ARFID, OSFED, and binge eating disorder can also be helped with medications?

The quick answer is “yes, but…” The longer answer is “Not really, and here’s why.” The fact is that as of today, there are no medications designed specifically to treat eating disorders. These disorders are highly complex and involve many factors aside from brain chemistry. Some medications are useful in treating co-occurring disorders but are not focused on the eating disorder. Thus the use of medications in eating disorder treatment is hotly debated among clinicians, therapists, and psychiatrists.

Although it’s a much-debated subject in the eating disorder treatment community, medications can help control symptoms of binge eating disorder and support individuals as they undergo therapy. By using this multi-faceted approach to treatment, the treatment team can apply both psychiatric and therapeutic methodologies to these disorders. People who’ve taken the courageous first step and sought out treatment for an eating disorder should be aware of the options they have for recovery, including medication.

Why Should I Consider Medication for Eating Disorder Treatment?

With the right medications, it is possible to control many of the symptoms associated with eating disorders. As with individuals with chronic mental health disorders like depression, a course of psychiatric medication can reduce disordered thoughts and emotions and set a baseline for reasoned CBT or other talk therapy. These medications can also help control co-occurring mental health conditions, removing a potential roadblock to recovery. As co-occurring disorders are extremely common in people who have eating disorders, a complete recovery often hinges on appropriately managing those conditions.

What Are the Types of Medications Used to Treat Eating Disorders?

The staff (especially psychiatrists) at an eating disorder treatment center may use several types of drugs to manage their clients’ recoveries. As part of a comprehensive continuum of care, a new client’s medical history, psychological background, and other factors determine the best medication to use for their needs. Following the assessment, one of several different types of medication might be used:


People with an eating disorder can take an antidepressant medication daily to help control feelings of hopelessness and urges to binge eat and/or restrict. These medications work by adjusting serotonin and other mood-oriented chemicals in the brain. Through these adjustments, compulsions and obsessive thought patterns are lessened, and the urge to engage in disordered eating behaviors tends to decrease as well.

Depression is one of the most common dual diagnoses with any form of an eating disorder. The two disorders tend to amplify each other, and in individuals who have both, antidepressants may help control depression, allowing the eating disorder to be more effectively treated.

Anti-Seizure Medications

Anti-seizure medication has shown some promise in reducing the incidence of disordered thought patterns and behaviors. This medication is not the first choice, however, as it does not adjust brain chemicals nor help treat co-occurring mental health conditions.

Psychiatrists are usually wary to prescribe anti-seizure medications for eating disorders for another reason; they can produce serious side effects affecting sleep, which is troublesome during a focused recovery effort. On the other hand, in some cases, they are highly effective in controlling behaviors, making them a good choice for those who do not respond favorably to the other medication options.

Specialized Eating Disorder Medication

There have recently been inroads into the development of binge eating disorder-specific medications like Vyvanse made by major pharmaceutical companies. Although they are put into practice, the side effects can be extreme and people with kidney or liver issues, or who may become pregnant, are urged not to use them. These medications are normally a supplementary part of a treatment program that stresses talk therapy rather than the main pillar of a binge eating disorder recovery program.

Using Medications to Support Eating Disorder Therapy

This last part is true not only for eating disorder-specific medications but for any medications as part of a treatment program. The program should be centered around mindfulness and talk therapy, not medication. With a stabilizing base provided by antidepressants or other drugs, the therapy sessions can be easier and more conducive to behavior modification. Individuals in treatment can then purposefully challenge the disordered thoughts and behaviors to eliminate them, ceasing the need for symptom control through medication. If medications are prescribed for co-occurring disorders like depression, though, the individual might be encouraged to continue taking them after discharge.

The Takeaways

As we hope is abundantly clear by now, medication is not always the best choice to treat binge eating disorder or other common eating disorders. Even when the psychiatric member of the care team prescribes medication, a complete spectrum of therapy is necessary to treat mental health disorders, including talk therapy, other psychiatric treatment (if needed), and family counseling.  A professional treatment center will make sure the program is tailored for the individual, and that may not include medication.

The good news is that eating disorder treatment centers are experienced in treating all forms of eating disorders. Individual programs are designed for each client’s particular needs, and that includes the possibility of medication. For example, if a client has anorexia nervosa and OCD, they might be prescribed an anti-anxiety mediation to supplement a behavioral therapy like CBT. However, they wouldn’t be prescribed an anti-psychotic or other medication on the off chance it might help.

When you or a loved one decides to go into eating disorder treatment, make sure you discuss all options with your psychiatrists and the team working at the facility. The more information they have, the better suited they will be to aid your recovery. Medication may not be an integral part of every recovery plan, but it’s a viable option in some cases. Use every tool you have to ensure your chance at a happier, healthier life in recovery.

With 20 years of behavioral health business development experience, Carrie combines world-class marketing, media, public relations, outreach and business development with a deep understanding of client care and treatment. Her contributions to the world of behavioral health business development – and particularly eating disorder treatment – go beyond simple marketing; she has actively developed leaders for her organizations and for the industry at large.