Eating Disorders

Eating Disorders & Substance Abuse

A comprehensive study of the link between eating disorders and substance abuse reveals that up to one-half of individuals with dual disorders abuse alcohol or illicit drugs, compared to nine percent of the general population.

Conversely, up to 35 percent of alcohol or illicit drug abusers have dual disorders compared to 3 percent of the general population.

For many young women, eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are joined at the hip with smoking, binge drinking, and illicit drug use.

This lethal link of dual disorders send a signal to parents, teachers and health professionals – where you see eating disorders…there will probably be substance abuse disorders as well.

Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are the eating disorders most commonly linked to substance abuse and there are shared risk factors and shared characteristics of both afflictions.

Caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, diuretics, laxatives, emetics, amphetamines, cocaine and heroin are substances used to suppress appetite, increase metabolism, purge unwanted calories and self-medicate negative emotions.

Because health professionals often overlook the link between the dual disorders, treatment options are minimal for these co-occurring conditions.

The public health community, parents and policy makers must educate our children about healthy body images from a very young age, and treatment and prevention programs must be addressed for both disorders.

Unrealistic Body Images

Advertisers put children at greater risk of developing an eating disorder through the portrayal of unrealistic body images.

The average American woman is 5’4″ tall and weighs approximately 140 pounds, but the average model that exemplifies our standard of beauty is 5’11” tall and weighs 117 pounds.”

Women’s magazines contain more than ten times more ads and articles related to weight loss than men’s magazines.

While only 15 percent of girls are overweight, 40 percent of girls in grades one through five and 62 percent of teenage girls are trying to lose weight.

These girls are especially vulnerable to eating disorders and related substance abuse problems.

More Dual Disorder Statistics

  • Middle school girls (10–14 year olds) who diet more than once a week are nearly four times likelier to become smokers.
  • Girls with eating disorder symptoms are almost four times likelier to use inhalants  and cocaine.
  • 12.6 percent of female high school students take diet pills, powders or liquids to control their weight without a doctor’s advice.
  • Bulimic women who are alcohol dependent report a higher rate of suicide attempts, anxiety, personality and conduct disorders and other drug dependence than bulimic women who are not alcohol dependent.
  • Hispanic girls are slightly more likely than Caucasian girls and significantly more likely than African-American girls to report having fasted for 24 hours or more and having vomited or taken laxatives to lose weight.
  • As many as one million men and boys suffer from an eating disorder.

Shared Risk Factors

  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression and/or anxiety, brain chemistry alteration
  • Tendency to be impulsive (especially those with bulimia or purging form of anorexia)
  • Experiencing stress or transition
  • Family history of the behavior
  • Vulnerability to messages from others (such as advertising or other media), approval seeking personality

Shared Characteristics

  • Chronic diseases with a high rate of relapse
  • Require intensive treatment
  • Produce mood-altering affects
  • Characterized by secretiveness, rituals, and compulsive behavior
  • Preoccupation with the behavior (drinking, drug use, eating or not eating)
  • May be life-threatening

Bulimia VS Anorexia

Bulimia, just like anorexia nervosa, is considered an eating disorder. A person with bulimia eats a lot of food in a short amount of time (binges) and then tries to prevent weight gain by getting rid of the food, called purging.

Purging might be done by:

  • making yourself throw up
  • taking laxatives — pills or liquids that speed up the movement of food through your body and lead to a bowel movement.

A Bulimic person often exercises a lot, sometimes few times per day. A person with bulimia often feels a loss of control over their eating as well as guilt over their behavior. They are usually aware that their behavior is abnormal.

Bulimia is most common in adolescent and young adult women.

People with bulimia are often of normal or near-normal weight, which makes them different from people with anorexia.

Bulimics, Drugs, And Alcohol

It is estimated that approximately 30-50% of bulimics also abuse alcohol or drugs. The number is much lower among anorexics.

Some individuals developed an eating disorder after they became sober. They substituted one for the other. Individuals will go to great lengths to keep these problems hidden from people.

They are very secretive about their behaviors, usually because they are very ashamed and feel guilty.

Alcohol and drugs are abused for much of the same reasons as food. Individuals use these substances to try and block out feelings and emotions. They abuse substances to numb themselves because they never learned how to cope with life’s problems in a healthy way.

Many bulimics are left with feelings of guilt and shame about their disorder behaviors, and some will turn to alcohol or drugs to help relieve these feelings. They try to self-medicate by abusing substances.

It is possible to become totally abstinent from alcohol and drugs, but it is not possible to abstain from food. The individuals will need a great deal of support when dealing with these problems together.

Treatment may be started within a drug and alcohol rehab center, but if the person’s disorder is considered life threatening, then treatment should begin in a dual disorder program.

It is usually best to try and treat eating disorders and substance abuse problems simultaneously.

It is also beneficial for these individuals to attend a 12 Step Program and still continue with regular therapy. It’s important that the individual deal with the underlying issues causing the behaviors so that they can work to overcome them. Then they can begin to learn new ways of coping with difficult emotions and daily life problems.

Both disorders have high relapse rates and the individuals should be educated on how to avoid a relapse. They must also be assured that if they do relapse, that they don’t have to hide it and they can ask for help.

Most feel very guilty and ashamed after a relapse and try to keep it a secret, which usually leads to the continued abuse of both disorders.

Most individuals benefit more when they have a strong support system which should include family, friends, therapy, physicians, and support groups.

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