Eating disorders are unhealthy patterns of eating that are bound by obsessive thinking and compulsive behaviors. Although these disorders tend to be more common among young women, men and people of any age can be affected by them.
In any case, people who suffer from these conditions may engage in a variety of behaviors around their eating habits, body shape, and weight. And unfortunately, many also turn to substance abuse as a means to cope. Or, in some cases, it may even help them in their quests, such as to control appetite or increase strength and endurance.
Eating Disorder Basics
There are several different forms of eating disorders, and here are a few of the most common:
Anorexia is characterized by self-induced starvation, skipping meals, eating very little, and sometimes excessive exercise or vomiting up the minimal amount of food that they do eat.
Bulimics use purging as a means to maintain weight. This approach might include vomiting, laxatives, or both to prevent the calories they eat from making them fat. Bulimia is closely associated with bingeing, and in fact, it is often hallmarked by a binging-followed-by purging cycle—but not always.
Binge eating, referenced above, is a common form of an eating disorder. At its heart, it is characterized by uncontrollable eating, which can continue to the point that it becomes dangerous. Depending on how often a person binges, whether or not they purge, and how active their lives are, he or she may or may not be overweight.
Compulsive eaters are less likely to purge their food and are frequently obese. They may be house-bound and need considerable care from others in their daily lives just to get by. For them, food is the ultimate comfort and not merely a means to sustain their existence. Like a drug addict is obsessed with heroin, their drug of choice is food, and lots of it.
These disorders can be very stressful, painful, and even life-threatening. While the etiology of eating disorders is not entirely understood, experts believe that they are related to psycho-emotional problems, such as those caused by deep-seated issues or trauma in childhood. These problems can be exacerbated by the media’s obsession with beautiful, perfect-looking celebrities, and unrealistic expectations for themselves and others.
Finally, many people with these problems also have body dysmorphic disorder, a condition in which they are obsessed with some part or parts of their bodies, which they deem to be severely flawed, even though others frequently disagree with their perception.
The Role of Drug Abuse and How Two Disorders Interact
Like all psychological disorders, the existence of an eating disorder will increase the risk that a person will try to self-medicate with substances to ease some of their distress. And like all people who abuse drugs or alcohol, once they get used to the pleasant chemical changes these substances provide, they are setting themselves up to become dependent on them, and, ultimately, develop a full-blown addiction.
And as noted, some drugs yield benefits for those suffering from an eating disorder. For example, the abuse of stimulants, such as Adderall, meth, or cocaine, is not uncommon. These drugs can suppress appetite and increase energy at the same, offering the person a double-whammy that can help them feel good and active even though they are not eating.
And despite the many calories that alcohol has, it can also be useful for people with eating disorders by lowering their inhibitions or relieving stress surrounded by food intake.
As a side note, a relatively recent phenomenon that has come to light is often referred to as “drunkorexia.” This term is used to describe a person, usually female, who consumes most of their calories in the form of alcohol. Someone who operates like this can indeed stay thin and also buzzed all the time. Amy Winehouse, the famous blues/jazz singer, was often touted as having this unique condition, as she was always extremely thin and frequently intoxicated. She died in 2011 of alcohol poisoning.
In one study, researchers found that people who had eating disorders were as much as five times likely to abuse substances when compared to the rest of the population. Conversely, more than one-third (35%) of those who abused drugs or alcohol suffered from eating disorders, compared to just 3% of the general population.
Sadly, individuals with eating disorders often consider drugs and alcohol beneficial because of their ability to make things easier for them, at least temporarily, and possibly in more than one way. But drugs and alcohol deceive us into thinking this is true. They can alter the brain in profound and sometimes irreversible ways, and the people experiencing them may not realize that this is happening.
Moreover, substance use disorders can develop rapidly in those who are particularly susceptible, all while the person thinks their drug or alcohol use is under control, or they can stop any time they want.
Getting Integrated Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders Treatment
Living with any form of an eating disorder can be extremely challenging and stressful. If a person is compelled to engaging in self-medicating using drugs and alcohol, it’s clear that their condition causes a significant amount of pain. For this reason, the person may be willing to do nearly anything to make themselves feel better.
Fortunately, individuals who suffer from eating disorders can get better when they seek the right kind of care. Recovery rates for those who undergo comprehensive treatment programs, in general, have high rates of short- and long-term recovery.
With the right kind of therapy, people with eating disorders can learn the importance of proper nutrition, and how to consume food more reasonably. But when substance abuse is being used to dull negative feelings or trauma that are underlying causes of an eating disorder, this can significantly impede the healing process.
It is, therefore, vital to treat both conditions simultaneously to foster the best outcomes. A person who relapses back to actively engaging in substance abuse is also far more likely to return to eating disorder habits. Moreover, re-engaging actively in either disorder can destroy one’s feelings of control and willpower, so people can easily find themselves reverting to poor eating after a drug or alcohol relapse.
What’s more, individuals who are in recovery from an active eating disorder might continue to encounter intense cravings for drugs when faced with triggers. For example, if they dependent on wine or a glass of beer to make dinner less stressful, when this time comes around, a relapse into both bad habits may be imminent when a person hasn’t developed an entire set of coping skills to deal with these problems.
Because these disorders are closely related, interact, and are grounded in many of the same underlying issues, they may be hard to disentangle. That said, comprehensive treatment programs, such as those offered by Harmony Recovery Center, can effectively address both of these disorders, as well as all aspects of a person’s health and well-being. And fortunately, these conditions can be treated with the same therapies and services, and both can be combated at once.
Our center offers the following programs, therapies, and services, and much more:
- Partial hospitalization
- Individual and family counseling
- Group support
- Medication-assisted treatment
- Treatment for co-occurring mental health conditions
- Substance abuse education
- Health, wellness, and nutritional education
- Activities including art and music therapy
- Aftercare planning
If you or someone you love is suffering from both an eating disorder and substance abuse, please know that you don’t have to do this on your own. Please contact us as soon as possible and discover how our programs can help you free yourself from the unhealthy and potentially life-threatening habits that bind you!
We are here to help you recover! Call us today!