On the surface, a person with an eating disorder and a person with an addiction might seem strikingly different. One has an issue of image, while the other has an issue concerning sensation. One has an issue that’s often considered illegal and cause for scorn, while the other has an issue that could be considered beneficial, in some circles.
Dig a little deeper, however, and it’s easy to see how these two problems might share common roots, and how they might cause the same sorts of life problems. In fact, in some people, the addiction and the eating disorder are wrestling for control at the same time. Living with two major problems like this can be quite difficult, but with the proper help, people can put both of these conditions in the past.
Co-Occurring Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders are Common
Some people have substance abuse issues alone, or eating disorder issues alone. However, many people have both of these problems at the same time. In fact, nearly half of all people who have an eating disorder also abuse drugs and/or alcohol, according to the National Eating Disorders Foundation. This means people with eating disorders experience substance abuse at a rate five times greater than the rate seen within the general population. This could be due, in part, to risk factors the two conditions share.
Some eating disorders are linked to high levels of impulsivity in the people who have them. People with binge eating disorders or bulimia, for example, might struggle to keep their urges under control, and this little prompt allows them to gorge on foods that their intellectual minds would like them to avoid. This lack of control can also translate into drug abuse, as people could feel a little twinge of a curiosity to use and abuse substances, and they could be apt to pounce on that urge when their conscious mind has little control over the actions the body chooses to take.
Impulsivity can take many forms, according to a study in the journal Neuroscience and Reviews, and researchers aren’t clear about how those factors play out in people with eating disorders and addictions, but it’s clear that a lack of control could lead to poor choices, and those missteps could lead to a lifetime of misery.
The two problems also seem to be linked to a history of trauma, including:
- Sexual assault
- Emotional abuse
- Death of a loved one
- Sudden life transitions
People with poor coping skills may reach out for any solution they can find when they’re placed in a difficult situation like this, and both eating disorders and substance abuse may seem to provide a temporary relief from the pain the person is feeling at the moment. Adding the two together might seem to provide profound relief, even though the cost down the line can be severe.
Common Eating Disorders
About 20% of people who report substances also binge eating, and 12% reported some form of “inappropriate weight compensatory behaviors,” according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). The most common eating disorders include:
- Anorexia Nervosa: The most well-known eating disorder, Anorexia is when a person shows extreme weight loss and maintains an unhealthily low weight via starvation and extreme weight loss.
- Bulimia Nervosa: Bulimia is an eating disorder that causes an individual to binge on excessively large amounts of food in a short period of time, followed by a purging episode to rid the body of the food.
- Purging Disorder: An eating disorder characterized by recurrent purging, whether it is in the form of vomiting, laxative abuse or diuretics, to control weight. Purging Disorder differs from Bulimia in that the individual does not have binge eating episodes, but rather, purges after regular or small meals.
- Diabulimia: When someone diabetes significantly reduces their weight by tweaking, amending and sometimes even skipping their insulin injections altogether. Diabulimia can be both serious and fatal.
- Night-Eating Syndrome: Consistently consuming most of your calories between the dinner hour and breakfast time is a warning sign of night eating syndrome, or nocturnal eating syndrome (NES). NES is a serious eating disorder that has been linked to depression, stress, hormonal imbalances and abnormal sleep patterns.
- Orthorexia Nervosa: An eating disorder that limits your nutritional options to foods that are considered healthy or clean.While this might sound healthy, orthorexia can pose a risk to your health if your diet becomes dangerously imbalanced. People with this disorder may severely restrict their food choices.
- Pica: An eating disorder characterized by putting non-food items in one’s mouth, pica is a condition in which this practice persists for over a month and is a threat to the person’s health. Pica can also occur in adults, and it is most frequently seen in vulnerable populations.
- EDNOS: This stands for ‘Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified’ and this term is used to diagnose any person that exhibits disordered eating habits but misses one or more of the diagnostic criteria to be diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge eating. It’s an eating disorder that is without a technical definition that basically encompasses all eating issues that can’t be classified according to another eating disorder definition.
Eating Disorders and Substance abuse are often developed Concurrently
At times, substance abuse seems like a perfect solution for the pain an eating disorder can cause. For example, stimulant drugs like methamphetamine can reduce the sensation of hunger, allowing people with anorexia to severely restrict their diets without feeling gnawing pain most of the day. Relaxant drugs like marijuana can help people with any eating disorder to feel a dip in sensations of anxiety and stress, and this might make worries about discovery a little easier to tolerate. Alcohol can also be a boon for people with bulimia, as this drug makes vomiting easier to accomplish, and vomiting due to alcohol is often considered socially acceptable, so bulimics can cover up their activities by leaning on alcohol. Their purges just seem like youthful indiscretions, rather than a sign of disease, when alcohol is present.
Often, people with eating disorders develop their substance use and abuse issues later. For example, in a study in the journal Psychological Medicine, researchers found that people with anorexia were likely to develop their eating disorder before they developed any other mental illness at all.
There are times, however, when the substance abuse issue comes first, and the eating disorder becomes a coping mechanism for that addiction. For example, people who abuse marijuana may snack on huge amounts of food during a binge, and this can cause some people to gain weight. A restrictive diet or a purge could seem like an ideal way to make the weight disappear, without dealing with the addiction at all. When the two conditions are left in place, they can strengthen one another and increase the misery quotient to an untold degree. People with anorexia, for example, may walk closer and closer to the overdose line as their body weights drop and they continue to take higher levels of drugs. People with bulimia, on the other hand, may add corrosive alcohol to tissues ravaged by vomiting, and this could cause bleeding and intense pain. The two conditions can also become ingrained in a person’s daily habits, and it can be hard to work through those issues without help.