Addiction and Eating Disorders

According to the National Eating Disorders website up to 50% of individuals with eating disorders abused alcohol or illicit drugs, a rate five times higher than the general population. Up to 35% of individuals who abused or were dependent on alcohol or other drugs have also had eating disorders, a rate 11 times greater than the general population.  Eating disorders are complex mental health disorders that occur in many different forms.

Co-occurring disorders, also known as dual diagnosis, refer to the combination of substance abuse and the presence of a mental disorder such as an eating disorder.  Many individuals who enter treatment for substance abuse are also diagnosed with a co-occurring disorder. Treating all aspects of a co-occurring disorder is imperative for an individual’s success in long-term recovery.

When I was 15 years old my parents got divorced and the perfect little world I thought I was living in was shattered into a million pieces.  I had no idea where I fit into any part of my life or where I belonged. I felt absolutely lost and had no control over anything around me.

At the time the only thing I could control in my life was food.  I began restricting my eating and drinking. I later learned that this was the beginning of my battle with addiction and with an eating disorder.  I had no idea that what I was doing was restricting and this became the constant cycle in my life at times of stress. I would either restrict my food intake, or binge so that I didn’t have to feel my feelings or deal with what was going on around me.  

This was a vicious cycle because when I would restrict I was irritable and depressed.  When I would binge I was literally eating my feelings which led to serious self-esteem issues because I would put on weight.  I always felt that if I looked perfect on the outside no one would know what a mess I was on the inside.

Eating Disorders and Related Health Consequences

Compounding the problems that eating disorders cause, drugs and alcohol also damage the heart, liver and other organs. This enhances the risk of serious complications and organ failure.

  • Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia Nervosa can be very damaging to the body as food intake is highly restricted. Over time, individuals living with it may experience the thinning of their bones, infertility, brittle hair and nails, and the growth of a layer of fine hair all over their bodies.  In severe cases, anorexia can result in heart, brain, or multi-organ failure and death.

  • Bulimia Nervosa

Side effects of bulimia nervosa can be very damaging as purging occurs most commonly after binging or overeating. Individuals can suffer from inflamed and sore throats, swollen salivary glands, worn tooth enamel, tooth decay, acid reflux, irritation of the gut, severe dehydration, and hormonal disturbances.  In severe cases, bulimia can also create an imbalance in body levels of electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, and calcium. This can cause a stroke or heart attack.

  • Binge Eating Disorder

People with binge eating disorders are often overweight or obese. This may increase their risk of medical complications linked to excess weight, such as heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

  • Pica

Individuals with pica crave and ingest non-food substances which can include chalk, dirt, paperclips, soap, and other small objects.  Individuals with Pica may be at an increased risk of poisoning, infections, gut injuries, and nutrition deficiencies. Depending on the substances ingested, pica may be fatal.

  • Rumination Disorder

Individuals with this condition regurgitate food they have previously chewed and swallowed, re-chew it, and then either re-swallow it or spit it out.  Due to food restrictions and fear of eating in public, there is a risk of weight loss and becoming dangerously underweight.

  • Avoidance or Restrictive Food Intake Disorder

Individuals with this disorder experience disturbed eating either due to a lack of interest in eating or a distaste for certain smells, tastes, colors, textures, or temperatures.  This can cause interference in social situations and the inability to eat with others. Avoidance or restriction of food intake that prevents the person from eating sufficient calories or nutrients.

Recovery is Possible

Eating disorders are mental disorders with seriously damaging physical and emotional consequences.  Since the addictive nature of eating disorders, addiction, and alcoholism are similar the underlying issues of both conditions may overlap.  It is necessary to treat eating disorders and addiction simultaneously in the recovery process. This requires the involvement of a comprehensive treatment team that can adequately address the various needs.  Dual-diagnosis treatment centers for eating disorders and substance rehabilitation can provide appropriate care for these complex diseases. Addressing these disorders in this manner can improve the chances that you or your loved one can recover from both a substance addiction and an eating disorder.

I live a beautiful, healthy, and happy life today!  I have worked the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous and have been living a clean, happy, healthy, and sober life for the last three years.  It is not easy to overcome addiction or an eating disorder but there is a life beyond your wildest dreams waiting for you!

Written by:

Crystal Hampton, 37 years old, with 3 years sober.

I work for Recovery Local, a digital marketing company that advocates spreading awareness of the disease of addiction. Our company was founded by and staffed with recovering addicts cultivating recovery resources through sharing our own experience, strength, and hope.

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