The Link between Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse

eating disorders and addiction

Is your loved one compulsively drinking or using drugs? Is your daughter is exhibiting signs of anorexia or bulimia? Are you worried that she may be suffering from both an eating disorder and substance abuse?

Your cause for concern is not uncommon among parents of teen girls. Today, many young females are fighting a very similar battle: the battle between popularity and good health, between looking good and eating well, between fitting in, being cool, and being left out.

The problem is, many teenage girls do not have the resources to address these challenges on their own. This is because the part of their brains responsible for rationality and decision-making is not yet fully mature. Their priorities, as a result, are often skewed. At a young age, being accepted among peers feels like the absolute, most important thing—no matter the costs.

In efforts to fit in, many adolescents and young adults develop poor eating habits. In order to be popular, they believe, you need to be thin. This is currently affecting over 62 percent of teenage girls, who all reported that they are trying to lose weight in a recent survey by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. According to this same survey, over 19 percent of teenage girls fast for at least 24 hours, 12.6 percent use diet pills, and 7.8 percent vomit or take laxatives to lose weight.

This is a similar case for substance abuse among teens. In efforts to be cool, many adolescents and young adults fall subject to peer pressure and try drugs or alcohol. In order to get invited to parties, they believe, you need to show everyone that you are not afraid to act out. This belief is affecting 66 percent of high school students, who report having drank alcohol by the end of 12th grade. Almost 50 percent of high schoolers have already used an illicit drug in their lifetime.

The overlap between eating disorders and substance abuse seems clear, leading them to be of the most common co-occurring disorders among women of all ages. Approximately 50 percent of people with eating disorders today also abuse drugs or alcohol. Those afflicted are five times likelier to abuse substances than the general population. Individuals who abuse alcohol or illicit drugs, similarly, are up to 11 times likelier to have eating disorders.

It is true that, at the forefront, substance abuse and eating disorders seem like very distinct diseases. Substance abuse is more often an issue among males, while eating disorders most frequently affect females. Substance abuse is a problem associated with severe cravings and compulsive drug use, while eating disorders involve a lack of consumption of food. Substance use disorders indicate an issue with self-control. Eating disorders indicate an issue with self-image.

These two disorders, however, actually have more in common than we outright assume. Both are indicative of problems with satiability. They house themselves in individuals who are incapable of feeling fully satisfied. Addicts cannot get enough drugs. For them, no high feels high enough. Those with eating disorders never feel thin enough. For them, the scale is never low enough.

You see, both eating and substance use disorders affect the areas of the brain associated with reward. Just as addicts have difficulty experiencing the pleasurable effects of drugs over time, those with eating disorders are unable to experience the pleasures of food. This is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, in which dopamine receptor levels are especially low. As a result, these disorders often co-occur. Many individuals who have eating disorders replace their need for food with a stronger need for drugs.

Those with eating disorders may abuse a variety of different substances. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, alcohol is of the most commonly abused substances among the young demographic. Despite being caloric, many teen girls will use alcohol to facilitate vomiting. Individuals with eating disorders may also abuse prescription drugs such as thyroid medications, stimulants, and steroids in efforts to lose weight. Abuse of illicit drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and club drugs like Molly is also not uncommon.

As chronic, relapsing diseases, eating disorders and substance use disorders are associated with many of the same characteristics. Both disorders require intensive therapy, as they stir:

  • Obsessive preoccupations with a substance (drugs or food)
  • Ritualistic and compulsive behaviors
  • Secretiveness
  • Social isolation
  • Loss of control
  • Other psychiatric disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and mood disorders

According to Social Work Today, these disorders also share many of the same risk factors. Your daughter’s eating or drug issue may be a result of:

  • Genetics
  • Low self-esteem, depression, anxiety
  • Social pressure
  • Messages from the media
  • Stressful or transitional life events
  • History of sexual or physical abuse

To help prevent eating disorders and substance abuse in your child, always promote healthy, positive habits in your home. Encourage appropriate eating and exercise behaviors, and deliver consistent messages surrounding the dangers of drug abuse.

If you believe your daughter is already experiencing one or both of these disorders, seek help right away. Eating disorders and substance abuse are both life-threatening issues. The good news is that both are also treatable disorders. With early, professional intervention, dual diagnosis treatment, and careful one-to-one care, your loved one can be on the path to recovery and a healthy lifestyle once again.

Call Turnbridge at 877-581-1793 to learn about our drug and eating disorder treatment program in CT.