Are Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders Linked?

Have you observed a loved one develop an eating disorder while their addiction progressed? Are you struggling with persisting eating problems during recovery? The connection between substance addiction and eating patterns is a complicated one. Understanding these layers of complexity can help you better cope or better support a loved one.

Co-Occurring Symptoms

Substance use tends to have many co-occurring symptoms, such as mental health issues and behavioral abnormalities. Some people had experienced depression before they began using drugs and alcohol to self-soothe. Others develop new symptoms such as insomnia or eating disorders after they develop an addictive lifestyle. 

Therefore, substance use and behavioral issues such as eating disorders can have a high risk of co-occurring. This means that people with eating disorders are more likely to use drugs and alcohol, and those with addiction are also more likely to develop eating disorders. 

Among different substances, some can directly contribute to eating disorders: alcohol, heroin, and cocaine, to name a few. These substances tend to change the brain’s chemistry and neurological structures, making eating disorders more likely to happen. In other words, addiction to certain substances and eating disorders have some shared chemical processes in the brain, particularly related to dopamine and serotonin levels. Therefore, both conditions have significant effects on the brain’s reward system. 

The commonalities between substance use and eating disorders have even made the American Society of Addiction Medicine expand the definition of addiction to include processed food items. Both display the following adverse effects on a person’s overall health:

  • The brain’s reward system changes, making the substance and food less enjoyable but still desperately needed.
  • Intense cravings and compulsive behaviors happen.
  • There is an intense desire and tolerance for larger and larger amounts (dosing). However, once the substances and food are taken away, there can be withdrawal symptoms.
  • It is hard to quit after repeated attempts and failures.
  • There is denialism in the form of avoiding the problem.
  • There are signs of secrecy, shame, deception, and stigma on the behavioral level.
  • Despite negative consequences to one’s health, one still prefers to continue consuming.
  • Other mental health issues such as depression and anxiety are common co-occurring symptoms.

Causal Precedents and Impacts

The most common addiction-related eating disorders include anorexia nervosa (self-starvation), bulimia nervosa (over-eating followed by self-induced vomiting), and binge eating disorder (compulsive over-eating). These trends tend to affect female teens and adults. Sometimes there are conditions that preceded these issues, including trauma, low self-esteem, peer pressure, over-exposure to media influence, and family history of addiction. Addiction-related obsessive-compulsive disorder can also trigger eating disorders.

It is essential to identify the dual conditions of addiction and eating disorders because, first of all, this combination may lead to severe malnutrition. Secondly, having both problems may lead to higher relapse rates even when the addicted person wants to receive treatment. Both complications can be progressive and tend to become chronic, so early intervention and treatment are critical.

Treatment and Therapy

If you or a loved one wants to begin treatment from addiction and a co-occurring eating disorder, you can find a trustworthy interventionist who can connect you with a team of health professionals. Again, early intervention is critical. Depending on the severity of the addictive person’s co-occurring eating disorders, health experts can help you decide the initial treatment level. 

Usually, an outpatient treatment center offers the most flexible level of care. There, you can meet with recovery experts and nutritionists who help diagnose your conditions. They might recommend treatments that require two to three visits a week. 

If the severity of a person’s illness requires a higher level of care, they can be referred to inpatient treatment. These residential facilities often provide 24-hour care, and a person’s ongoing recovery, whether detox or therapy, can be closely monitored. 

Primary therapies for addiction and co-occurring eating disorders may include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy focusing on negative patterns of thinking and beliefs. Patients are coached to identify problematic assumptions and learn to cope with emotions in healthy ways. CBT has traditionally been effectively used to help those who suffer from eating disorders. It addresses a range of risk factors, such as the home environment, trauma, and societal triggers. 

Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is often used to help patients identify and cope with painful emotions. This approach integrates relaxation techniques such as mindfulness and other emotional self-regulation skills. It can effectively alleviate the pains of emotional instability, preventing the use of substances and food.

Another effective approach is medical nutrition therapy (MNT), a holistic method using customized meal plans designed by registered dietitians. The whole process includes assessment, dietary changes, and ongoing patient education. 

Do you have a loved one battling addiction and an eating disorder? Are you informed about these co-occurring diseases? More education can help you better support your loved one. It would help if you learned from health professionals and experienced recovery interventionists. At South Florida Intervention, we provide customized recovery coaching to you and your family. We have served many clients in the past years, including families with addictive teens, young professionals, and entrepreneurs. Everyone’s story is different, but they all need trustworthy and professional advice. Our interventionists have the expertise and experience to walk alongside you. It is also our commitment to connect you with trusted health professionals who have plenty of experience in treating addiction and co-occurring health conditions, including eating disorders. Other peer support services at South Florida Intervention include parent coaching, sober escort service, and detailed case management. Early intervention is critical, so do not wait another day! Call us at (202) 390-2273.