The Link Between Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse Explained

Substance use disorder affects users’ physical health, causing many harmful symptoms and side effects. One of the common and noticeable changes accompanying drug and alcohol abuse is weight fluctuations. Unfortunately, these rapid changes to a person’s weight aren’t only a side effect of substance use. They can represent signs of co-morbidity and can be an indicator of eating disorders. If you are struggling with addiction and other co-occurring disorders, we can offer you a safe environment to heal. At Little Creek Recovery Center, we have experience treating substance use disorder and all the common co-morbidities. Today, we would like to share our insights and explain the link between eating disorders and substance abuse.

What are Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are classified as mental disorders that can cause harmful eating habits. The abnormal habits caused by eating disorders can directly affect an individual’s physical and mental health. There are several types of known eating disorders, most of which usually start occurring during adolescence. The current scientific consensus states that individuals cannot suffer from more than one eating disorder at a time. An important distinction is that eating disorders do not include obesity, which is a separate medical condition. Another common occurrence with eating disorders is that they are frequently accompanied by other mental disorders. The most prominent co-occurring disorders are anxiety, depression, and substance use.

Treatment for eating disorders typically includes counseling and nutritional advice. Depending on the type of disorder a patient is dealing with, treatment can include medication or eliminating unnecessary exercise. However, individuals who suffer from eating disorders and substance abuse must undergo mental health counseling and addiction therapy. Eating disorders can cause individuals to obsessively monitor their weight or their perceived body image. Professional treatment is necessary because co-occurring disorders can make it hard to recover from obsessing over body weight and shape.

Man with eating disorders and substance abuse looking at a reflection.
Patients with eating disorders have a distorted body image.

Is There a Link Between Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse

When we look at the occurrence rates and demographics for eating disorders, we can draw a few obvious conclusions. Individuals suffering from eating disorders also struggle with depression and anxiety. Additionally, many of those with eating disorders are adolescents who don’t know how to deal with stress and trauma. Unable to find a healthy way to cope, individuals can turn to excessive substance use. They mistakenly believe that drugs or alcohol can ease their physical or emotional pain.

On the other hand, excessive substance use has a profound impact on a person’s overall physical and mental health. Prolonged use of drugs or alcohol can cause numerous lasting harmful effects, and in extreme cases, even death. However, even casual drug or alcohol use can lead to weight fluctuations. These fluctuations are caused by dehydration, disrupted sleep patterns, lack of appetite, or gastrointestinal problems – all common symptoms of addiction. Over time these behaviors can become adopted as a routine and potentially cause eating disorders.

Does Substance Abuse Cause Eating Disorders

So far, no evidence exists that substance abuse can directly cause eating disorders. However, many troubling behaviors accompanying addiction can put users at risk of developing an eating disorder. For example, alcohol consumption can trigger binge eating in people with bulimia. In this case, continued alcohol use can lead to eating disorders or compound the effects of an existing one. Furthermore, both substance use disorder and eating disorders have shared risk factors. They are both predominantly influenced by genetic and environmental factors.

On the other hand, eating disorders can cause substance use disorder. People with an eating disorder experiencing other mental disorders or trauma are at risk of developing an addiction. Eating disorders often resemble addiction, and people can perform compulsive actions related to eating. They may abuse substances to deal with hunger or to accelerate weight loss. Alternatively, they can use alcohol as a replacement for their caloric intake.

Couple holding hands on a park bench.
Peer pressure and group behavior can lead to eating disorders and substance abuse.

Risk Factors for Developing Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse

To understand the leading causes of eating disorders and substance abuse, we must look at the shared risk factors. Besides a genetic predisposition, these risk factors can include:

Peer pressure. Being part of a group where it is important to fit in can cause individuals to participate in dangerous behavior. Many adolescents start drinking or doing drugs to fit in with their friends. Similarly, being part of a group where appearances matter can cause group members to become obsessed with their looks.

Susceptibility to advertising and pop culture. We live in a time when ads and magazines continually tell us we should exercise, lose weight, and look terrific. The pressures to conform to modern beauty standards can cause individuals to develop eating disorders. Some may even turn to drug use to rapidly lose weight or provide them with energy.

Depression and anxiety. Mood and personality disorders can cause people to turn to substance use. However, depression and anxiety can also lead to eating disorders. People can develop extreme dissatisfaction with their appearance or even turn to stress eating.

Physical or sexual abuse. Any abuse can cause lasting trauma. Unless resolved and processed, this trauma can cause problematic behaviors such as eating disorders and substance abuse.

The Types of Eating Disorders Associated with Substance Use

Although there is no direct connection between various types of eating disorders and specific addictions, there is a positive correlation. In other words, certain eating disorders commonly appear alongside substance abuse. There are three main types of eating disorders associated with substance use: anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and avoidant food intake disorder.

Anorexia Nervosa 

This body image disorder is characterized by low weight and limited food intake due to body image distortion. Individuals with anorexia nervosa experience a severe disconnection between what they see in the mirror and how they imagine themselves. They might see themselves as overweight although they have troublingly low body weight. Even when those individuals accurately see themselves, they might have the desire to lose more weight. These ideas can stem from viewing low body weight as beautiful or an aspirational ideal.

To lose weight, people suffering from anorexia will restrict their food intake and starve themselves. They also turn to excessive exercise to accelerate their weight loss. Unfortunately, sometimes even more dangerous methods are applied, such as taking laxatives or using hard drugs. However, regardless of which methods individuals use, anorexia is always dangerous and can cause harmful effects. Anorexia can lead to infertility, and women can stop having their periods. Osteoporosis, cardiovascular and brain damage are also common results of malnutrition.

White letters on a wood background.
Binging and purging are common behaviors for Bulimia.

Bulimia Nervosa

Binge-eating large quantities of food, followed by purging (either by vomiting or through laxatives), is typical for bulimia nervosa. Unlike other eating disorders, people suffering from bulimia may be of any weight. Individuals with bulimia often feel out of control and deal with their anxiety through substance use, primarily alcohol.

Avoidant Food Intake Disorder

Sometimes also called restrictive food disorder, is a type of eating disorder where people eat very restricted types of food. Individuals may limit the volume or variety of food which can lead to nutritional deficiencies. Sometimes these imposed limitations come from body image issues, while in other cases they can be unrelated to body appearance. In these situations, individuals can give various reasons for the limitation, such as food texture, taste, presentation, or even brand.

What Kinds of Substance Use Accompany Eating Disorders

Most forms of substance use will cause weight fluctuations due to how drugs affect our brains and metabolism. For example, cocaine is sometimes referred to as ‘the skinny drug’ because of the intense weight loss it causes. However, there are numerous short and long-term effects of cocaine use. Prolonged use of cocaine can damage the heart, lungs, brain, and digestive system, along with many other organs. If left untreated, cocaine addiction can even result in death. However, with the help of professional addiction treatment, most of the damage caused by cocaine can be reversed.

Another illegal drug that can cause sudden weight loss is heroin. It causes rapid weight loss by suppressing appetite and causing nutrient deficiencies. Addicts who use heroin frequently suffer from nausea which prevents them from eating. However, heroin use can also lead to rapid weight gain, particularly when combined with other drugs. For example, if affected individuals turn to marijuana to combat nausea, binge eating can lead to weight gain. Thankfully, individuals with heroin addiction can enter therapy and learn to overcome their cravings.

On the other hand, alcoholism is a form of substance use typically associated with weight gain. Regular drinking can significantly increase your caloric intake leading to weight gain. Sadly, being aware of this, some alcoholics will reduce their food intake to attempt to balance things out. This strategy can be extremely dangerous since it can deprive the body of necessary nutrients. The best course of action would be to undergo detox and alcohol rehab. At the Little Creek Treatment Center, we can teach you effective ways to manage your addiction.

How Substance Abuse Affects Pre-existing Eating Disorders

Not only can substance abuse lead to eating disorders, but it can also worsen the symptoms of existing eating disorders. Studies show that patients who abuse drugs and alcohol have poorer expected outcomes for their eating disorder treatments. This is due to the numerous medical complications arising from excessive drug or alcohol use.

Patients undergoing treatment for their eating disorder who turn to substance abuse can expect a longer recovery time. Additionally, when the treatment is complete, there are generally poorer outcomes and a higher risk of relapse. For this reason, it is highly recommended to treat both disorders concurrently.

Patients who arrive at Little Creek suffering from substance use and a co-occurring disorder are given a dual diagnosis. This allows us to treat both disorders simultaneously leading to better-expected outcomes. During treatment, we also offer our patients dietary education and we stress the importance of self-care.

A tape measure around a fork.
Eating disorders cause patients to limit their food intake.

How to Tell a Loved One is Struggling With Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse

Sadly, many people who suffer from eating disorders and substance abuse struggle to ask for help. When confronted, they might deny they have a problem or even get angry at you for bringing up the topic. However, the best way to help a loved one is to ensure they get the treatment they need. That’s why we made it our mission to raise family awareness by educating and informing the community regarding substance abuse.

We have a large list of helpful links and resources for rehabilitation in Pennsylvania on our website. Additionally, you can contact us if you want to inquire regarding the admission of a family member or loved one. Although, the first step must necessarily be realizing that a problem exists. Here are some obvious signs to look for:

  • Weight fluctuations. One of the easiest ways to tell a loved one has an eating disorder is rapid weight changes.
  • Worrying about their figure. Individuals with an eating disorder will frequently obsess about their weight and how they see themselves.
  • Extreme exercising. While workouts are considered healthy, taking things to the extreme can be worrying. Especially when the exercise isn’t coupled with an adequate caloric intake.
  • Excuses after meals. Odd behavior after eating might be an attempt to purge.

If you realize your loved one is suffering from eating disorders and substance abuse you should consider staging an intervention. Talking to your loved ones about their struggles is always difficult, but you must realize that addiction is a progressive disease. Things will only worsen if they don’t undergo rehab and get professional treatment. We understand how hard it is to confront your loved ones, and we offer family intervention services. Contact us if you need help staging an intervention and convincing your loved one into entering rehab.

How to Treat Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse

One of the best methods of treating eating disorders and substance abuse is behavioral therapy. In many situations, both of these disorders have their roots in emotional trauma. Therefore, patients should undergo cognitive behavioral therapy to understand and work through their trauma.

We also offer dialectical behavioral therapy where patients can learn to recognize and understand their triggers. This form of therapy helps patients understand the main causes of their addictive behavior. Recognizing addiction triggers, avoiding harmful situations, and developing healthy coping skills are core components of DBT.

Both CBT and DBT treatment programs include individual and group sessions. During individual sessions, patients will work with an addiction psychotherapist and learn to productively cope with their stress. Group sessions allow patients to listen to the struggle of others, and to offer and receive support. Belonging to a group is an essential part of recovery, and this is why we include CBT and DBT as part of inpatient and outpatient therapy programs.

Patients who need help managing their eating disorders and substance abuse can enter our residential program. During inpatient rehab, patients are admitted to our residential treatment center. The minimum required length of stay is 30 days, but patients can stay for longer.

Another option is to participate in outpatient rehabOutpatient therapy includes attending regular sessions while spending nights and evenings at home. This can be a decent alternative for patients who wish to balance their family life and obligations.

Learning that you are enough can help overcome eating disorders and substance abuse.
Therapy can help you build a better self-image.

What Makes the Little Creek Approach Unique

At Little Creek, we focus on evidence-based effective forms of treatment. We provide our patients with a safe and comfortable environment for healing. However, we ask them to seriously commit themselves to a structured treatment plan. The best way to recover is to put in a serious effort and to be willing to face your problems head-on.

Patients with substance use disorder and other co-occurring disorders will be given a personalized treatment plan. Treating co-occurring disorders should be done concurrently with addiction treatment. We teach patients to develop productive coping mechanisms that help them make healthy choices for a sober and happy life.

What’s particularly central to treating eating disorders is educating patients on the importance of nutrition and exercise. At Little Creek, we treat the bodies and minds of our patients, emphasizing a holistic approach. One of the core tenets of our rehab program is reminding patients that sober life is exciting, fun, and joyful. We have had tremendous success with our recreational therapy program and outdoor adventure workshops. Here, patients can re-discover their sense of adventure and engage their bodies as part of their healing process.

Entering Rehab for Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse

If you or a loved one require treatment for eating disorders and substance abuse, we urge you to seek treatment. These disorders can cause many harmful effects and permanently damage your physical and mental health. You can contact our admissions specialists who will explain how you can enter rehab. Help is available, and we can teach you to manage your addiction and eating disorder. Treatment can allow you to lead a sober and fulfilling life. Reach out to us today and begin your first steps toward recovery.

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Little creek lodge is such an amazing place for people who want to make a serious change in their life. I’ve watched my loved one grow immensely through his recovery with the help of the caring staff and engaging programs. Adventure trek is always popular on the agenda!

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