Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse

eating disorders and substance abuseThere is a strong correlation between eating disorders and substance abuse. In fact, up to half of people who have an eating disorder also abuse drugs or alcohol – compared to only 9% of the general population. And 35% of those who abuse drugs or alcohol have an eating disorder – compared to only 3% of the general population.

Many of the same personality characteristics, beliefs, and risk factors drive people to both issues.  Some of the situations and conditions that put people more at risk for eating disorders and substance abuse include times of transition or stress, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, impulse tendencies, history of abuse, unhealthy parental behaviors, and social pressure. Both issues are potentially life-threatening chronic diseases with high relapse rates and difficult to treat. They involve craving, compulsive behaviors, attempting to hide the issue, and rituals. To overcome them, intensive therapy is usually required.

But which comes first, the eating disorder or the substance abuse? It’s different for different people, and understanding the cause and effect can help you get better treatment for both eating disorders and substance abuse.

When Eating Disorders Cause Substance Abuse

In some cases, people start using a substance as a way to lose weight. When alcohol, cocaine, nicotine, or amphetamines are used, the brain feels it is receiving what it needs and wants, helping suppress the appetite. It may also be a way that people self-medicate to deal with negative psychological symptoms related to the feelings that drove them to their eating disorder. These people are more likely to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, and social phobia.


When Substance Abuse Causes Eating Disorders

For other people, the substance abuse may cause the eating disorder. For example, since the substance may suppress the individual’s appetite, he or she may stop eating properly. Or an individual may be driven to overeat during withdrawal from a substance since stimulation to the pleasure center of the brain decreases. These people are more likely to suffer from a dependency on multiple substances and to have developed this dependency at an earlier age.

Those who struggle with eating disorders and substance abuse face more issues than those who experience one or the other. For example, women who are bulimic and abuse alcohol have higher rates of attempted suicide, anxiety, negative conduct, personality disorders, and dependence on other drugs.With both eating disorders and substance abuse, early detection and intervention is important for the success of treatment.  If you know someone who is struggling with these issues, seek help.Back to

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