Did you know that eating disorders can begin before you have substance abuse problems and even during recovery? In fact, there’s a strong link between these issues. That’s because eating disorders and addiction share several common risk factors: brain chemistry, family history, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and social pressures. Other shared characteristics include compulsive behavior, social isolation, and risk for suicide.
Up to 50% of individuals with eating disorders have abused alcohol or illicit drugs – a rate five times higher than the general population. And up to 35% of people who abused alcohol or other drugs have eating disorders – that’s 11 times greater than the general population.
Eating disorders are a group of mental health conditions that disrupt a person’s eating habits and the way they think and feel about food. The common denominator is that people who have them tend to be obsessive about how their body looks. The National Eating Disorders Association reports that 20 million women and 10 million men in the U.S. experience a major eating disorder sometime in their lives.
Those of us with eating disorders usually contend with anxiety and depression as well. We turn to alcohol and drugs to reduce the physical or emotional pain about how we look. Of course, this only makes us feel worse in the long run. Understanding the connection between eating disorders and addiction is key to unlocking recovery from both conditions.
Every type of eating disorder has unique causes and different symptoms which sometimes require different treatment approaches. The most common eating disorders are:
Anorexia Nervosa. Anorexia causes a disconnect between what we see in the mirror and how we imagine ourselves. For example, people can feel overweight, even when they’re extremely underweight. Anorexics are usually consumed with the idea of losing weight through extreme restrictions on food consumption and/or excessive exercise. Some people use laxatives to shed the pounds. Anorexia has devastating effects on the body, including: Osteoporosis; constipation; cardiovascular damage; brain damage; and infertility.
Bulimia Nervosa. Bulimia involves frequent binges when a person eats exceptionally large amounts of food in one sitting, followed by purging (forced vomiting or excessive laxative use) to “make up for” the compulsive eating. Bulimia is less visually obvious than anorexia because people with the condition may be any weight. The disorder is marked by feeling wildly out of control, and some people attempt to quell the associated anxiety with substance use.
Binge-eating Disorder. Much like bulimia, this disorder is marked by episodes of excessive eating. However, there is no purging element, so people with this disorder are usually overweight. Almost 3% of people in the U.S. are affected by a binge-eating disorder at some point in their life.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Body dysmorphic disorder leads people to fixate on perceived flaws in their appearance. These flaws are often very minor and not noticeable to others, yet they cause the sufferer immense shame and anxiety. People with this disorder often use drugs and alcohol to numb anxiety about their appearance.
Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. This is a diagnosis new to the DSM-5. Like anorexia, ARFID involves limiting the amount and type of food a person consumes. Yet, the motivations are different. People with ARFID control food intake because they have concerns about the food itself, such as unwanted textures. The disorder is commonly accompanied by anxiety, which can lead to self-medication with alcohol or drugs.
If you think you may be suffering from an eating disorder, L.A. CADA urges you to get help. Eating disorders are often a trigger for substance use and mental health relapse, so protect yourself with counseling and peer support meetings.
Here are some resources:
- Eating Disorders Anonymous. EDA is a fellowship of individuals who share their experience, strength and hope to solve shared problems and assist others in recovery.
- Overeaters Anonymous: This program of recovery from compulsive eating uses the Twelve steps and Twelve Traditions to addresses the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of individuals with eating disorders.
- Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous. ABA is a fellowship of individuals whose primary purpose is to find and maintain recovery in their eating practices, and to help others gain recovery.