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Understanding the Relationship Between Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse

Written By Recovery Centers - June 14th, 2022
Understanding the Relationship Between Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse

Eating disorders and substance use disorders are both behavioral disorders that involve compulsive behaviors. With eating disorders, individuals may exhibit compulsive behaviors surrounding eating and food. On the other hand, addiction causes people to compulsively use drugs or alcohol.

Some eating disorders like binge eating disorder share symptoms with addiction, as the person compulsively eats food similar to how they would abuse substances. With eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, people begin to limit their food intake, which could involve the use of stimulant drugs that inhibit one’s appetite.

According to the National Eating Disorder Association, “Up to 50% of individuals with eating disorders use alcohol or illicit drugs, a rate five times higher than the general population.”[1]

Understanding Eating Disorders

There are several different types of substance use disorders. While one individual may be addicted to heroin, another may become addicted to benzodiazepines. This is similar to eating disorders, as there are several different types of these conditions people may suffer from.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that is characterized by extreme caloric intake restriction or complete starvation. While these individuals begin to rapidly lose weight due to their refusal of food, they continue to see themselves as overweight. In other words, they suffer from extreme body dysmorphia.

The symptoms of anorexia nervosa include:

  • Restricted food intake
  • Emaciation (below-average body mass index)
  • Relentless pursuit of thinness
  • Unwillingness and fear of maintaining a normal body weight
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Body dysmorphia
  • Self-esteem is influenced by body weight and shape
  • Denial of how dangerous low body weight can be

This eating disorder is considered to be the most lethal, as the starvation associated with it can lead to serious damage to one’s internal organs. Oftentimes, anorexia leads to hospitalization and life-threatening medical complications.

Bulimia Nervosa

People who struggle with bulimia nervosa tend to go through stages of binge eating. This causes them to overeat in a compulsive manner that is out of their control. As a response to this high intake of food, the individual will purge (vomit) to avoid gaining weight from the binging they engaged in.

Individuals with bulimia nervosa may force themselves to throw up, abuse diuretics to lose weight, fast, exercise excessively, or use stimulant substances to control their appetite. People with this condition often do not display the physical signs of an eating disorder such as extreme weight loss or extreme weight gain. Instead, they display behavioral changes such as not eating in front of people or heading directly to the bathroom after eating.

The symptoms of bulimia nervosa include:

  • Inflamed esophagus
  • Sore throat
  • Raspy voice
  • Emaciated tooth enamel
  • Sensitive and decaying teeth caused by increased stomach acid
  • Swollen salivary glands in the neck and jaw
  • Acid reflux
  • Gastrointestinal issues and damage
  • Intestinal distress or irritation from laxative abuse
  • Severe dehydration
  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Stroke
  • Heart attack

Binge Eating Disorder

Individuals with binge eating disorders engage in periods of compulsive overeating. This condition is different from bulimia, as the affected person does not engage in purging or vomiting. People who struggle with this condition often display the signs of obesity and struggle with intense feelings of guilt associated with their eating habits.

The symptoms of binge eating disorder include:

  • Eating large amounts of food at one time
  • Continuing to eat even when full or not hungry
  • Eating rapidly during periods of binging
  • Eating beyond the point of being uncomfortably full
  • Being alone while eating to keep it a secret
  • Feeling distressed, ashamed, or guilty about eating
  • Frequently dieting without experiencing weight loss

How Are Eating Disorders and Addiction Connected?

Eating disorders and addiction are common co-occurring disorders. Additionally, both of these conditions are often caused by a mental health disorder, meaning an individual with an eating disorder can suffer from three or more mental health conditions simultaneously.

One of the most common reasons substance abuse and eating disorders co-occur is because the person begins to use substances to stop themselves from eating or as a part of a binge.

Statistics on eating disorders and addiction include:[2]

  • About 50% of individuals with eating disorders suffer from substance abuse, compared to 9% of the U.S. population
  • Among individuals with addiction, 35% report having an eating disorder compared to a 1-3% lifetime prevalence among the overall population
  • About 24% of individuals with anorexia nervosa struggle with alcoholism and 18% struggle with drug addiction
  • After alcohol, marijuana is the second most commonly abused substance among individuals with an eating disorder
  • About 33% of individuals with bulimia nervosa struggle with alcoholism and 26% struggle with drug addiction

What are the Similarities Between Substance Use Disorders and Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders and substance use disorders tend to share a lot of symptoms. This is because both conditions include compulsive behaviors and rituals.

To begin, both mental health conditions stem from trauma, genetics, and personal experiences or traits. Additionally, both addiction and eating disorders commonly co-occur with mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, ADHD, and PTSD.

When doctors diagnose eating disorders and addictions, they often look for similar symptoms. The similar symptoms common in eating disorders and substance use disorders include:

  • Cravings, rituals, and obsessions surrounding a specific behavior
  • Giving up on interests or social activities to engage in the behavior
  • Inability to stop engaging in the harmful behavior despite facing consequences
  • Escalation in frequency and intensity over time
  • Inability to stop using substances or engaging in the behaviors despite repeated attempts to do so
  • Concern from friends, family members, and loved ones about the addiction or eating disorder

Finding Help for Addiction and an Eating Disorder

If you or a loved one suffer from co-occurring addiction and an eating disorder, it’s time to seek help. Both conditions can lead to devastating health effects and even life-threatening conditions. Because of this, attending professional treatment is of the utmost importance.

Contact Recovery Centers today for more information on how to get connected with the right treatment program for you.