An eating disorder is a type of mental health disorder that features unhealthy eating patterns. As with other mental health disorders, there is a high occurrence of comorbid substance use disorders (SUD) among people with eating disorders. Substance use is often sought as a way to provide some relief from the effects of disordered eating, as well as co-occurring anxiety or depression that often accompanies eating disorders.
According to an in depth study conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, up to 50% of men and women with an eating disorder also abuse substances, compared with 9% among the general public. Also, up to 35% of those with a SUD will also have a co-occurring eating disorder, compared to about 3% in the general population.
There are some similarities between people with eating disorders and those with SUD. Both disorders involve compulsive behaviors that the individual is unable to control. Also, the triggers that cause someone to engage in disordered eating patterns are similar to those that compel someone to use a substance. Continue reading to learn more about the connection between eating disorders and SUD.
What are Eating Disorders?
Eating disorders are behavioral disorders that feature compulsive actions around food. They affect two to three times more women than men, depending on the eating disorder. The three most common types of eating disorders include:
Anorexia Nervosa. Anorexia is characterized by extreme restriction of food, which, when left untreated eventually leads to dangerous health conditions such as malnutrition and cardiac arrhythmia. Anorexia can even cause organ failure and death. Symptoms include restricting caloric intake to less than what is needed for maintaining a healthy body weight, a distorted self-image, misuse of laxatives to reduce weight, and fatigue, weakness, and fainting.
Bulimia Nervosa. Bulimia is characterized by a pattern of binge eating followed by purging, usually by vomiting soon after the food is consumed. This cycle of disordered eating can cause health problems such as electrolyte imbalances, dehydration, tooth decay, and wounds in the mouth. Symptoms include eating large quantities of food, often sugary or high fat foods, eating in isolation, vomiting after meals, and engaging in excessive exercising.
Binge Eating Disorder. Binge eating disorder is similar to bulimia, where excessive amounts of food are consumed to the point of feeling sick, but the purging element is absent. Instead of vomiting the food up, the individual engages in diets and fasting as a way to offset the high caloric intake. Symptoms include eating in secret, obesity or heart problems, eating in response to emotional turmoil, feelings of shame and guilt, and eating more rapidly than normal.
A related mental health disorder called body dysmorphic disorder involves distorted perceptions of weight or body features. While the individual’s weight is appropriate for their size, they hold an irrational view of themselves as being grossly overweight. This results in obsessing over food intake, calories, and body shape, and thus disordered and obsessive thought patterns around eating.
Connection Between Eating Disorders and SUD
One of the consequences of having an eating disorder is the increased tendency to engage in substance use. Some common behavioral tendencies drive both disorders. These include:
- Low self-esteem
- An existing mental health challenge, such as anxiety disorder or depression
- Exposure to social pressure from cultural norms and peers
- A parent that exhibited unhealthy substance use or eating habits
- A history of trauma or abuse
- An impulsive nature
- A tendency to struggle socially
Treatment for individuals with an eating disorder and a co-occurring SUD will require a dual diagnosis program. These programs address both disorders during treatment, providing psychiatric support along with the evidence-based SUD treatment elements.
Ashley Addiction Treatment, formerly Father Martin’s Ashley, is a nationally recognized nonprofit leader in integrated, evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders and is accredited by The Joint Commission. We offer holistic care that encompasses the mind, body and spirit through inpatient and outpatient treatment, provide drug detox, relapse prevention plans, family wellness programs and a variety of other services tailored to each patient’s unique needs. Our driving principle – “everything for recovery” – reinforces our mission to transform and save lives through the science of medicine, the art of therapy and the compassion of spirituality, and is complemented by our philosophy of healing with respect and dignity. For information about our comprehensive programs, please call (866) 313-6307.