May 25, 2024

The Link Between Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders

Substance abuse doesn’t always exist on its own, meaning several co-occurring disorders frequently co-exist with addiction. Co-occurring disorders present unique challenges in addiction recovery and require specialized care. A relationship between substance abuse and eating disorders is often seen, especially in women. Understanding the signs, risks, and treatment needs is vital for taking care of your health.

Substance abuse and eating disorders share similar traits. Both are diseases with serious health risks.  In addition to addictive behaviors involving substances, the American Society of Addiction Medicine also recognizes certain behaviors that fall under the category of process addiction. 

Process addictions are fueled by a compulsion to engage in non-substance-related behaviors with the intent of receiving an “award.” This is similar to the high that’s experienced with drugs or alcohol. 

Although the behaviors of process addictions lead to negative outcomes, the allure of the reward is too strong to overcome. Along with eating disorders, gambling, shopping, sex addiction, and pornography addiction are other examples of process addictions. 

One factor in why comorbid substance abuse and eating disorders occur together is that they’re both fueled by the same reward mechanisms in the brain. In the case of substance abuse and eating disorders, we see this comorbid condition more frequently in women than in men – although the risk still applies to everyone. 

Men, in general, are more prone to substance use and addiction. However, when certain co-existing conditions, like eating disorders orders, are present, there’s an elevated risk of addiction for women in particular. As many as fifty percent of women who have an eating disorder also have a co-occurring substance abuse order.

Shared Psychological Effects of Addiction on Eating Habits

When substance abuse and eating disorders co-exist, there are some overlapping psychological effects and motivators. Recognizing these shared behaviors is important in effectively addressing these two conditions through dual-diagnosis treatment

Shared Dopamine Pathways: AKA The Pleasure Response

Drug or alcohol addiction and process addictions, like eating disorders, affect dopamine pathways, disrupting the brain’s reward system. The sense of reward is significant enough that it is continually sought. Like the dopamine reward of substance use, eating disorders cause a similar effect, leading to compulsive behaviors. 

Impulsive or Compulsive Behaviors 

Substance use and eating disorders are both diseases that are built on a foundation of impulsive and compulsive behaviors. With eating disorders, these behaviors manifest in ways such as binging and purging, or a compulsive avoidance of food. 

Trauma and Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorders 

The percentage of individuals with a mental health disorder who are also struggling with addiction or eating disorders is high. There is a well-established connection between addictive behaviors of all types and mental health issues. Dual diagnosis therapy can help treat multiple diagnoses simultaneously, leading to more favorable outcomes for the individual. 

Eating Disorders Exacerbated by Drug Abuse

Drug abuse worsens the symptoms and health risks of eating disorders. Substances like stimulants, often misused to suppress appetite, lead to dangerous weight loss and nutritional deficiencies.

On the other hand, depressants and alcohol can trigger binge eating episodes and intensify feelings of guilt and shame. This interaction between drug abuse and eating disorders creates a vicious cycle where each condition aggravates the other, complicating treatment and recovery. 

Understanding this interplay helps develop effective, comprehensive treatment plans that address both issues simultaneously.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is a mental health condition that’s characterized by a distorted sense of body image. Individuals with anorexia often see themselves as being overweight, even if their body weight is in the dangerously low category. There’s a strong fear of gaining weight, which is addressed by food avoidance and starvation. 

Drug abuse can increase feelings of low self-esteem and paranoia revolving around thoughts of how others see their body. Anorexia can be a life-threatening condition if left untreated. 

Bulimia Nervosa 

Similar to anorexia, bulimia nervosa is a serious mental health condition characterized by an intense fixation on negative body image. Individuals with bulimia engage in repeated episodes of overeating, known as binging, where they consume large quantities of food in a short period. 

This binging is typically followed by compensatory behaviors such as purging, which involves vomiting, excessive exercise, or the use of laxatives, to prevent weight gain by expelling the ingested food before the body can absorb its nutrients and calories.

This cycle of binging and purging can have severe physical and psychological consequences, making it vital to seek professional treatment.

Binge Eating 

Binge eating is a mental health condition characterized by compulsive consumption of large amounts of food in a short period. Unlike bulimia, binge eating does not involve immediate purging behaviors to counteract the overeating.

Individuals who engage in binge eating often feel a loss of control during the episodes and experience intense negative emotions such as guilt, shame, and distress afterward. These feelings can be exacerbated when substance abuse is also involved, creating a complex and challenging cycle that can severely impact one’s mental and physical health.

Seeking professional help is essential to address both the eating disorder and any co-occurring substance abuse issues. 

Risks of Untreated Eating Disorders

Like addiction, eating disorders are chronic diseases that require a dedicated approach to recovery. Both substance use and eating disorders carry serious risk factors, making it important to reach out for help if you’re suffering.

The Health risks associated with anorexia nervosa include:

  • Malnutrition
  • Anemia
  • Bone loss
  • Muscle loss
  • Heart conditions
  • Organ failure
  • Hormone changes, including infertility
  • Bowel changes
  • Low blood pressure 

Health risks associated with bulimia nervosa include:

  • Dehydration
  • Malnutrition
  • Digestive issues
  • Changes in hormones, including infertility
  • Tooth decay and dental issues 
  • Heart conditions, including cardiac failure 

Health risks associated with binge eating include:

  • Weight gain
  • Obesity 
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure 
  • Metabolic disease 
  • Type II diabetes

If you or someone you know needs help for addiction or eating disorders but is unsure where to turn, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is a valuable resource. SAMHSA provides support for those struggling with addiction and mental health disorders. SAMHSA offers a 24-hour National Helpline that can be reached at 800-662-HELP (4357).

Finding Treatment for Dual Diagnosis of Eating and Substance Disorders

Co-morbid substance abuse and eating issues require an individualized approach to treatment that is centered on evidence-based treatment and compassionate care. At Massachusetts Center for Addiction, we can introduce you to the recovery strategies for substance abuse and eating disorders while supporting you through the process. 

Recovery from all types of addiction is challenging, but you can regain control of your life with the right type of treatment. Contact the Massachusetts Center for Addiction today to learn more about our addiction treatment programs, including dual-diagnosis treatment for substance abuse and mental health disorders. Contact our admissions team today at 844-486-0671.


Substance Use and Eating Disorders

MCA Staff
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