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Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse: Is there a connection?

During Alcohol Awareness Month, it is important to understand the link between substance use, such as alcohol or drugs, and eating disorders. Substance use disorders can precede the onset of an eating disorder, or develop because of an eating disorder. Those with a substance abuse disorder may develop abnormal eating behaviors, even when sober. It is estimated that nearly 50% of people with an eating disorder are also abusing drugs and/or alcohol, a rate that is five times higher than the general population. The reverse is also true as 35% of individuals who abuse alcohol or drugs have had an eating disorder.


NEDA Substance Abuse


Individuals with bulimia compulsively binge on large amounts of food and purge their calories through vomiting, use of laxatives, diuretics, or excessive exercise. They have a far greater tendency to abuse drugs or alcohol than those suffering from anorexia or binge eating disorder.


NEDA Substance Abuse 2


What is the connection though between an eating disorder and substance abuse?

Eating Disorders and substance abuse share several of the same risk factors such as brain chemistry, low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety.  While there is no concrete evidence on why the two often exist together, it is suggested they often co-occur because of the following:

  • Self-medication: Individual suffering from eating disorders will often use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate when suffering from depression, low self-esteem, or negative body image. Others may self-medicate to deal with mood swings, to satisfy cravings, or to avoid withdrawal symptoms.
  • Weight Control: For those with anorexia, caffeine, nicotine, diet pills, and stimulants can suppress appetite and increase metabolism. On the other hand, those with bulimia may abuse diuretics, stimulants, or laxatives for purging purposes. Alcohol is often used to limit calorie intake when suffering from an eating disorder.
  • Coping Mechanism: Individuals will also use food and substances to cope with stressors such as recovery, or compensate for the lack of chemical reinforcement.

How do you know if there is a problem?

Eating disorders are serious mental health disorders that can have life-threatening consequences. Each type of eating disorder has its signs and symptoms, however, may have several signs or symptoms. All eating disorders can involve problematic behaviors related to eating and body image.

Like eating disorders, substance use disorders can also have life-threatening consequences. Signs and symptoms of addiction may vary depending on the substance and the individual. However, the most common signs of addiction include:

  • Taking drugs or alcohol in more significant amounts and for longer than intended
  • Loss of interest in friends and activities
  • Secretive behaviors and lying
  • Increased need for cash
  • Excessive absenteeism from work or school
  • Changes in sleep pattern or appetite
  • Sudden onset of mood swings
  • Nausea, sweating or shaking
  • Deterioration of physical appearance

Treating an Eating Disorder and a Substance Use Disorder

When an eating disorder co-occurs with a substance use disorder, treatment and recovery can become more complicated. Comprehensive treatment is needed from professionals with expertise in both issues. At Magnolia Creek, we treat co-occurring substance use disorder that is secondary to an eating disorder. Our holistic treatment program is comprehensive and strengths-based, incorporating the principles of 12-step recovery and requiring individuals to attend at least three 12-step meetings per week.

Our certified and trained professionals work with individuals to identify triggers and develop coping skills to manage those triggers, while at the same time addressing the underlying eating disorder that fuels the substance abuse. Through a program that emphasizes self-acceptance, validation, and personal empowerment, our goal is to help individuals establish abstinence from substances and begin maintaining recovery. Clients play an active role in treatment and work with their treatment team to develop a customized plan that identifies treatment goals and the support needed to achieve and maintain the desired change. Magnolia Creek instills a sense of hope and empowerment as clients learn recovery is possible.

If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder or mental health disorder, Magnolia Creek can help. Using evidence-based treatment modalities, we work with you to help you fully recover. To learn more about our program, please call us at 205-678-4373 or complete our contact form.