Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders

stop addiction of drug and alcohol

“… compulsive eating is basically a refusal to be fully alive. No matter what we weigh, those of us who are compulsive eaters have anorexia of the soul. We refuse to take in what sustains us. We live lives of deprivation. And when we can’t stand it any longer, we binge. The way we are able to accomplish all of this is by the simple act of bolting – of leaving ourselves – hundreds of times a day.”

~Geneen Roth, Women, Food, and God: an Unexpected Path to Almost Everything

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, there is a “definite connection between mental illness and the use of addictive substances”. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that:

  • Almost 9 million US adults suffer with co-occurring conditions
  • ONLY 7.4% receive any treatment for both disorders
  • More than half – 55.8% never get any treatment whatsoever

The Connection between Addiction and Eating Disorders

More than half of all people suffering from any type of eating disorder also abuse alcohol and/or drugs. This rate is five times that of the population as a whole.  It is thought that many of the same neurotransmitters involved in one condition contribute to the other.

Either condition can trigger the other:

  • some abused substances suppress the appetite, facilitating an eating disorder
  • alcohol can help with regurgitation, a common eating disorder-related behavior
  • an individual may abuse drugs and/or alcohol to “self-medicate” or numb depression or other negative feelings manifesting due to their eating disorder

It is definitely true that disordered eating and substance abuse have much in common.

First, the conditions are very reciprocal.  For example, up to 55% of women who seek treatment for bulimia nervosa also meet the clinical standard for a diagnosis for an alcohol abuse disorder, while, conversely, 30-40% of women treated for alcohol abuse have eating disorders.

Dual diagnoses can happen to both sexes. 57% of males with an eating disorder also have lifetime substance abuse issues.

Secondly, both conditions can be considered to be part of separate continuums. One both continuums, the disorders – alcoholism, drug addiction, anorexia, bulimia, etc.— represent the extreme end of their spectrums.

Why is this perspective important?

Because the disorders are by definition extreme, professional counselors treating one condition can sometimes completely miss the other. And, because the two conditions are intertwined, real Lasting Recovery becomes that much more difficult.

For that reason, the best option may be to work with professionals who specialize in the treatment of co-occurring disorders.

Thirdly, both disordered eating and substance abuse share certain other critical characteristics:

  • Both are evidenced by compulsions and loss of control
  • Both involve “excessive” behavior –binge drinking or eating, for example
  • Both can be caused by and cause feelings of guilt, self-loathing, anger, depression, anxiety, shame, depression, and powerlessness
  • It has been suggested that behaviors common to both conditions are misidentified by the brain’s nucleus accumbens as positive activities worthy of “rewards” of pleasure-causing endorphins

Signs of an Eating Disorder

  • abnormally or dangerously low body weight
  • intense fear of weight gain
  • distorted self-perception of one’s shape or weight
  • excessively counting or limiting calories
  • obsessively exercising
  • irresponsible use of laxatives or diet aids
  • trying to lose weight even when already underweight
  • “binging” – greatly overeating
  • “purging” – inducing vomiting after eating

At their most severe, alcoholism, drug addiction, and eating disorders can all be life-threatening. If you believe that you or a loved one are suffering from any or all of these conditions, the best decision you can make is to seek professional treatment.

Balance, serenity, and an improved, much-healthier perception of health can be achieved and life can become manageable again. Lasting Recovery is possible for those who know to ask for help.

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The Relationship between Disordered Eating and Substance Abuse Problems among Women, Sherry H. Stewart and Catrina G. Brown