Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders

Individuals may find themselves dealing with substance abuse problems before or during an eating disorder and often time after recovery as well. The presence of eating disorders and substance abuse difficulties at the same time is often referred to by professionals as co-occurring disorders. Nearly 50 percent of all individuals with an eating disorder have abused alcohol or illegal drugs at some point. At a rate 5 times higher than the general population, these numbers indicate that the co-occurring symptoms of anorexia nervosa and alcohol abuse or bulimia nervosa and alcohol abuse are very common. As with any other co-occurring disorders, early intervention for eating disorders and addiction is essential.

What Are the Similarities Between Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse?

The diagnostic criteria for identifying anorexia or bulimia nervosa and alcohol addiction are very similar and because of this, there has been a push by doctors and researchers to broaden the definition of addiction to include other mental health conditions like eating disorders. However, when diagnosing a person who shows signs of eating disorders and addiction to alcohol or drugs, clinicians typically look for the following behaviors:

  • An obsessive preoccupation with or rituals surrounding an addictive behavior such as binge eating episodes or alcohol consumption
  • The inability to stop these destructive behaviors despite an awareness of the problem and repeated attempts to quit.
  • Continued eating disordered behaviors or use of a substance despite negative consequences.
  • An escalation in the intensity or frequency of the behavior over time.
  • Abandoning other interests to spend more time engaging in an addictive behavior.
  • Feedback from friends and loved ones expressing concern over compulsive behaviors.

With so many related behaviors between these co-occurring disorders, it makes sense that the root causes are similar as well. In fact, research has shown that there may be a very strong genetic component to both conditions. Other links including certain personality traits like environmental triggers, emotional trauma, and impulsivity are also found in both.

The substances most often abused by patients with eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa include:

  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco
  • Laxatives or Diuretics
  • Appetite Suppressants or Amphetamines
  • Cocaine
  • Heroin

Alcohol and Eating Disorders

To those who have never experienced addiction, alcohol abuse and eating disorders may seem like 2 completely different conditions. However, eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and addiction have many similarities that can help to explain why they often occur together. In addition to having similar root causes like past trauma and underlying stresses, both are coping mechanisms that provide patients with a sense of relief from pain or anxiety.

Additionally, those diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and alcohol abuse may also exhibit behaviors of “drunkorexia.” Because alcohol is high in calories, those struggling with both conditions will often alter their eating behaviors to offset a planned caloric intake of alcohol to help increase the effects of the substance.

Key Points to Consider When Seeking Treatment for Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders

Individuals and their loved ones should work to find an eating disorder specialist who has the training to address substance abuse issues as well. While most eating disorder treatment facilities are well-equipped to treat patients who may be abusing over-the-counter laxatives or diet pills, they may not have the tools necessary to accommodate those who require medical detoxification. It is also important to keep in mind that education and research are necessary as individuals seek a level of care to fit their specific needs.

Treatment for Co-Occurring Individuals with an Eating Disorder and Substance Abuse Diagnosis

At Oliver-Pyatt Centers, we place a higher focus on providing patients with access to medical and psychiatric care than most other eating disorder treatment centers. Whether a patient has shown signs of alcoholism and binge eating or anorexia and drug addiction, early intervention is essential to help aid recovery. With access to a highly-trained and supportive staff, patients who seek treatment at Oliver-Pyatt Centers can get peace of mind knowing they will receive the highest level of care outside of a hospital setting.

Thorough medical and psychiatric management are both necessary when approaching alcohol and bulimia recovery. For more information on the advanced treatment services provided at Oliver-Pyatt Centers, please contact us today.