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Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse

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Many studies have showed that eating disorders and substance abuse—both maladaptive, destructive behaviors—are intimately linked with one another. In fact, according to a report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, it was found that as many as 50 percent of those with an eating disorder also abuse different substances, such as drugs and alcohol. This is a huge overlap given that only 9 percent of the general population struggles with substance abuse. In addition, just over one-third of individuals addicted to illicit drugs also have an eating disorder. This is in contrast to the general population where only 3 percent of people overall struggle with disordered eating habits.

The former US Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, Joseph A. Califano, Jr. says: “This lethal link between substance abuse and eating disorders sends a signal to parents, teachers, and health professionals–where you see the smoke of eating disorders, look for the fire of substance abuse and vice versa.”

The CASA report highlighted the substances most often abused by those with an eating disorder. Not surprisingly, each of the drugs has an appetite suppressant capability and help to suppress difficult emotions including:

  • Alcohol
  • Amphetamines
  • Caffeine
  • Cocaine
  • Diuretics
  • Heroin
  • Laxatives
  • Tobacco

Common Characteristics of Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse

There are certain characteristics both addicts and those with an eating disorder share. Given that the destructive behaviors surrounding both issues are similar, it is no wonder that there is such a significant link between the disorders. Both addicts, those with an eating disorder and individuals suffering from both, may experience issues including the following:

  • Obsessive preoccupation and cravings
  • Compulsive behavior
  • Secrecy
  • Engage in rituals surrounding the disorder
  • Causes mood altering effects
  • Leads to social isolation
  • Linked to other mental illnesses and suicide
  • Results of behavior can be life-threatening
  • Considered a chronic diseases
  • High rates of relapse
  • Requires professional treatment

What Are the Risk Factors for Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse?

Each issue also has many of the same risk factors. The good thing for prevention and treatment is if you can change a risk factor you may be able to improve the course of both disorders. Risks for drug abuse and eating disorders that are similar include:

  • Similar emotional factors: poor self-esteem, depression, anxiety
  • Tendency towards impulsivity
  • Either neglectful or abusive parental behavior
  • Shared family history
  • Common brain physiology
  • Past sexual or physical abuse, especially if untreated
  • Susceptible to peer pressure
  • Vulnerability to messages from ads, TV and movies

Still, eating disorders and substance use disorders do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. Hence, not every teen with an eating disorder will have a substance use disorder, and no every teen with a substance use disorder is at risk for an eating disorder. However, the behaviors that lead to one of the disorders often lead to the other as well. For example, a teen with an eating disorder often will use substances like diet pills or illegal drugs to curb their appetite. Hence, such ancillary use often can open the door to a new issue.

Without question, there is overlap between eating disorders and substance abuse. At the same time, there is support available in treating these disorders. If you or someone you know and love is struggling, please don’t hesitate to seek help. There are many resources available and help is just a call away.

Photo courtesy of iStock.