Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that affect individuals of every gender, race, sex, age, and socioeconomic group. Various research suggests that around 50 percent of people who have an eating disorder are also abusing alcohol and/or drugs, and this rate is five times higher than that of the general population. It is important to be aware that eating disorders can turn into drug addiction so that the necessary action can be taken to stop the problem before it starts.
According to The National Eating Disorder Association, eating disorders can occur at any point in the substance use disorder process:
“Directionality of onset is not clearly understood but it is important to note that substance abuse can develop before, during, or after treatment for an eating disorder. In some individuals, substance use may cause appetite suppression leading to significant weight loss that can trigger the onset of an eating disorder.” In other cases, eating disorders and substance abuse can be relied upon for avoidance-based coping. Such strategies are both ineffective and counterproductive in that emotions remain unaddressed, problems go unresolved, and healthy strategies to cope are not developed. Treatment that attempts to address both disorders in an integrated way holds promise to help reduce the all too common pattern of patients vacillating between their eating disorder and substance abuse.”
According to WebMD, there are three main types of eating disorders:
Anorexia nervosa — This disorder occurs when an individual excessively diets and exercises, to the point of starvation and exhaustion. Even if they are extremely thin, people with anorexia nervosa feel like they are “fat.”
Bulimia nervosa — Individuals with this disorder have periods of binging followed by purging (or other behaviors) to make up for overeating. Bulimia nervosa makes individuals feel as though they have no control when it comes to eating.
Binge eating disorder — This disorder makes individuals have regular episodes of extreme overeating, while feeling like they have lost control over their eating habits.
What Are Co-Occuring Disorders?
Co-occuring disorders, previously known as dual-diagnosis, occur when an individual has both a substance use disorder and a mental health disorder. Substance use disorders can range from drug and alcohol dependence (when the body relies on the substance to function properly) to drug and alcohol addiction (the substance takes over all aspects of the individual’s life). Mental health disorders can range from mood-related disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder, to anxiety-related disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge-eating, are also very common mental health disorders that come along with substance abuse.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), about 7.9 million adults had co-occuring disorders in the United States in 2014. SAMHSA explains what co-occuring disorders are in further detail on their website:
“People with mental health disorders are more likely than people without mental health disorders to experience an alcohol or substance use disorder. Co-occurring disorders can be difficult to diagnose due to the complexity of symptoms, as both may vary in severity. In many cases, people receive treatment for one disorder while the other disorder remains untreated. This may occur because both mental and substance use disorders can have biological, psychological, and social components. Other reasons may be inadequate provider training or screening, an overlap of symptoms, or that other health issues need to be addressed first. In any case, the consequences of undiagnosed, untreated, or undertreated co-occurring disorders can lead to a higher likelihood of experiencing homelessness, incarceration, medical illnesses, suicide, or even early death.”
Eating disorders are a serious illness that involves an individual becoming obsessed with their body weight, appearance, food, and physical shape. The rates of eating disorders are higher among women than men, according to the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH). There are many biological, psychological, social, genetic, and behavioral factors that cause eating disorders among individuals, especially those already suffering with a substance use disorder. For example, if an individual faced many hardships in their life growing up, they may have turned to drugs or alcohol to cope with stress, and also formed an eating disorder due to the anxiety they have experienced in their life. Substance use disorders and eating disorders are commonly intertwined.
Substance abuse is common to accompany eating disorders to encourage dehydration and regurgitation. People who have substance abuse disorders use illegal drugs such as cocaine, marijuana, meth, crack, or hallucinogenic drugs. Individuals with eating disorders may also abuse prescription medications, such as insulin, thyroid medications, steroids, or psychostimulants. Water retention pills over the counter, diuretic pills over the counter, or other over the counter diuretics can also fuel a person’s eating disorder. Similar to how substance use disorders require drugs and/or alcohol to fuel their problem, eating disorders may also be accompanied with substances.
Are Eating Disorders a Form of Addiction?
According to an article from The New York Times, eating disorders can be like a form of addiction. They explain how a new study from Nature Neuroscience found that:
“The extreme dieting characteristic of anorexia may instead be well-entrenched habit — behavior governed by brain processes that, once set in motion, are inflexible and slow to change. They also add to increasing evidence that the brain circuits involved in habitual behavior play a role in disorders where people persist in making self-destructive choices no matter the consequences, like cocaine addiction or compulsive gambling.”
Dr. Joanna E. Steinglass, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the New York State Psychiatric Institute at Columbia University Medical Center, was leading this study. The researchers looked at the brain activities of 21 women with anorexia and 21 healthy women while they made decisions on what foods they chose to eat, and this found an abundance of information regarding the correlation between eating disorders and addiction.
“As expected, both the anorexic and the healthy women showed activation in an area known as the ventral striatum, part of the brain’s reward center. But the anorexic women showed more activity in the dorsal striatum, an area involved with habitual behavior, suggesting that rather than weighing the pros and cons of the foods in question, they were acting automatically based on past learning.”
Substance abuse and mental health disorders have many things in common: both can appear in the individual’s life during stressful times, both disorders involve a pattern of compulsive behaviors, both have similar risk factors such as family history, childhood abuse, and brain chemistry imbalances, they can both form due to low self-esteem, anxiety and depression, and both disorders can lead to potentially fatal side effects. For these reasons, it is essential to get help as soon as possible so that you can get on your way to long-term recovery from both ailments.
If you or a loved one is suffering from both a substance abuse disorder and a mental health disorder, get help as soon as possible to avoid the life-threatening effects that can arise from these problems. Call Stop Your Addiction today to learn about the many different forms of treatment for your unique situation so that you can achieve recovery!