What’s the Relationship Between Eating Disorders & Substance Abuse

What’s the Relationship Between Eating Disorders & Substance Abuse

It’s common for substance use disorders to occur alongside eating disorders like bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa and binge eating disorder. On their own, these conditions can lead to complex mental, physical and social problems. When they occur together with substance abuse, the effects can be even more devastating, raising the risk for overdose, death and the need for outpatient rehab

What is a Substance Use Disorder? 

Substance use disorders (SUDs) include a wide range of problems related to drug and alcohol use. The exact cause for these disorders is not known, but it’s believed that there are various genetic, environmental and social factors. Roughly half of people in holistic outpatient treatment in Phoenix have depression, attention deficit disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder or another type of mental illness. 

SUDs don’t just pop up overnight. There are usually several stages that eventually work their way to addiction. Young people seem to move through these stages more quickly than adults, plus their brains are still developing. This is why early drug use is a major risk factor for the onset of addiction. 

Here are the main stages of substance abuse: 

  • Experimental use. Typically, teenagers are the ones to experiment with drugs and alcohol due to increased social pressures, the desire to defy authority figures and to loosen up in social situations. 
  • Regular use. It’s unclear why some people progress from an occasional habit to regular use. But when they do, other things in their life become less important. They may miss more work/school, change friends, build tolerance and use substances to “fix” their moods and emotions.
  • Risky use. By the time a person progresses into this stage, they are using on a regular basis and allowing drugs and alcohol to take full priority in their life. Financial troubles, relationship problems, behavioral changes, etc. are all common. 
  • Addiction. At this point, the user is no longer in control. They can’t face life without drugs but may still deny that they have a problem. This is the point when drug rehab in Phoenix becomes essential. 

What is an Eating Disorder? 

Eating disorders (EDs) are illnesses where people experience severe disturbances in their eating behaviors. People with EDs often become obsessed with food and their weight, but surprisingly, these disorders are much more complex than what’s on the surface. Poor self-esteem and a history of mental illness are common, and new evidence suggests that heredity may play a part as well. 

Here are the three main types of eating disorders: 

  • Anorexia nervosa. This condition is diagnosed when a person weighs 15 percent less than the normal healthy weight expected for their height. The main symptoms of anorexia are limited food intake, fear of being “fat” and problems with body image.
  • Bulimia nervosa. People with bulimia can be underweight, overweight or at a normal weight. They engage in frequent binge eating sessions, consuming a large quantity of food at one time. They often feel guilty afterward, purging or using laxatives for fear of gaining weight. 
  • Binge eating. With this disorder, people have episodes where they binge eat. However, they do not try to get rid of the food as people with bulimia will. Unfortunately, the binge eating gets out of control and can lead to problems like high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. 

girl laying on couch

What’s the Relationship Between Eating Disorders and Addiction? 

At first glance, you may be curious as to why there is a strong connection between eating disorders and substance use disorders. One has to do with food, the other has to do with drugs and alcohol. But, both are mental illnesses that have underlying components, which is why they often occur together. 

The rate of co-occurring eating disorders and substance use disorders varies from study to study – between 17 and 46 percent. One study, in particular, found that approximately 50 percent of people with eating disorders abused alcohol or illicit substances compared to only 9 percent of the general public. 

Here are some theories as to why people with eating disorders often suffer from addiction, and vice versa. 

  • Shared brain chemistry. Studies show people with eating disorders and substance abuse often share similar behavioral traits like impulsivity and a lack of self control. Both SUDs and EDs also have a similar impact on dopamine and serotonin levels. 
  • Family history. A family history of substance abuse or eating disorders may increase the risk for a co-occurring disorder. Not only are certain genes passed down, but also people may grow up in households centered on destructive behaviors. 
  • Traumatic events. A history of traumatic experiences, abuse or neglect is shown to raise the risk for mental health disorders. People with painful memories sometimes use food and illicit substances to cope with painful memories.
  • Unhealthy social norms. Social pressures can be powerful, especially on a young, developing brain. If a young person feels pressured to be thin, they may restrict their eating and abuse drugs to manage their anxiety. 
  • Mood-altering effects. Food, drugs and alcohol are often used for their mood-altering effects. We’re all guilty of indulging from time to time, but addicts use these substances to escape and avoid negative emotional states. 

Assessing and Treating an Addiction and Eating Disorder 

Because SUDs and EDs often occur together, anyone being treated for one condition should be assessed for the other. Unfortunately, there are few treatment centers that have fully integrated programs that screen, admit and treat individuals with both conditions. 

Additionally, many people who enter a Phoenix treatment center experience a surge in eating disorder symptoms, and vice versa. Working towards more integrated treatment for both disorders is a priority for many treatment centers. This way, individuals with a co-occurring condition can work on both recoveries simultaneously, leading to improved outcomes. 

Contact Continuum Recovery Center Today 

If you or a loved one is struggling with both a substance use disorder and an eating disorder, contact Continuum Recovery Center today. We can provide you with information on the best way to approach your co-occurring condition, as well as how our addiction rehab in Phoenix can help.