Sleep Disorder Drug Provigil Could Help Treat Food Addiction

By Paul Gaita 12/30/16

A new study examined the drug's ability to reduce impulsivity that is commonly linked to food addiction.

Bottle of Provigil
Photo via YouTube

A new study has suggested that a prescription drug used to treat disorders associated with sleep, from narcolepsy to sleep apnea, may also prove useful in helping individuals struggling with an addiction to food. Researchers at the University of Warwick's Business School in the UK found what they described as a link between modafinil (or Provigil) and the impulsive behavior that is often associated with food addiction. 

Though scientists are unclear as to the exact nature of how modafinil works, the drug is believed to alter levels of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, which help to regulate sleep and wakefulness. It has also been attributed with increasing levels of dopamine, which studies have indicated as a contributing factor in impulsive behavior. Since impulsive eating spurs the release of dopamine in food addicts, the study's authors believe that modafinil could supplant that compulsive urge by boosting dopamine levels without the food trigger.

To conduct their study, Professor Ivo Vlaev and his co-authors enrolled 60 men between the ages of 19 and 32 who were separated into one of three groups. One group received a series of trials with modafinil, while a second was given the attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) drug atomoxetine and a third was given a placebo. The tests revealed that the group who had taken modafinil displayed significantly reduced levels of impulsiveness, while the atomoxetine and placebo groups showed approximately the same degree of self-control.

"[Modafinil] has been shown to reduce impulsiveness in a variety of disorders such as alcohol dependence, schizophrenia and ADHD," said Vlaev. "Food addicts suffer from the same neurobiological conditions so we believe it will help food addicts as well, and our initial tests have backed up that theory." 

"This drug could be a real help to those people struggling to control their desire for food, even though they know they should lose weight. [Modafinil] improves self-control, which is a key factor in determining obesity, so our hypothesis is that this drug should help in treating the disease."

Like all medications, modafinil has an array of side effects, including negative interaction with alcohol and a number of medications (including birth control pills). The drug is also not approved for use in children due to an increased risk in fatal skin reactions like Stevens-Johnson syndrome, so further study will be needed to balance all of those factors with its possible efficacy in treating food addiction.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.