Research suggests that about half of all eating disorder sufferers also abuse drugs or alcohol. This rate is 5 times greater than the average population. As alarming as this rate is, it is also unsurprising. If individuals are willing to compromise their physical health by practicing unhealthy eating habits, it is likely that they will also be willing to compromise their physical health for drugs or alcohol. Both eating disorders and drug abuse carry life-threatening consequences, and they often go hand-in-hand since they share several risk factors, causes and characteristics.
While individuals with eating disorders appear to have the clear objective of losing weight or obtaining a specific body image, there is always an underlying issue serving as the driving force for their self-destructive behavior. The same goes for substance abusers. While the surface issues may seem simple, as if the individual simply wanted to have a good time, there is always an issue or combination of issues that have caused him or her to use drugs to the point of harm.
Both addiction and eating disorders have several biological, genetic and environmental causes. They share similar risk factors that include:
- Family history
- Mental health issues
- Low self-esteem
- Anxiety disorders
- Impulsive disorders
- History of sexual or physical abuse
- Social pressures
- Unhealthy peer norms
- Unhealthy home life
While the initial intent of an individual is never to develop an addiction or a serious eating disorder, his self-destructive tendencies can be fueled by the need to cope with his underlying issues. Both eating disorders and substance abuse are characterized by an obsessive preoccupation and compulsive behavior. Individuals tend to perform their habit ritualistically and in secret, and despite seeing several negative effects, they continue to put their own lives and others in harm’s way.
In the case of eating disorders and substance abuse, either disorder can be the onset of the other. Several individuals with eating disorders use drugs or alcohol to curb food cravings, increase energy, break social barriers or cope with deep-rooted psychological or emotional pain. In turn, people abusing drugs or alcohol tend to develop eating disorders because addiction eliminates the need to take care of basic human needs such as eating. Drug users often have poor physical health because their addiction has gotten in the way of proper diet, nutrition and exercise. In either case, it is highly common for drug abuse and eating disorders to co-exist and result from a more complex, deep-rooted issue or emotional trauma.
Eating disorders, like drugs, can also help ease pain by offering distraction or control. Individuals can focus on improving themselves, unfortunately to the point of obsession. It offers a distraction, or an outlet for a person to physically deal with their emotional pain. Co-occurring substance abuse and eating disorders are a messy situation. Both are life-threatening diseases, and both require professional treatment, especially psychological treatment. Treating these issues simultaneously is the best way to achieve long-term recovery, as the causes of either disorder are most likely shared.
By identifying the causes of each disorder in treatment, individuals can learn how one issue may fuel the other and vice versa. They can undergo treatment and therapy to heal from both shared and independent causes of the disorders and rebuild self-confidence, self-worth and other essential characteristics that enable recovery. As both eating disorders and substance abuse are chronic, self-destructive issues, individuals can re-establish tendencies and even the desire to take care of themselves and the precious life they have the opportunity to live.
If you or a loved one is suffering from a drug abuse problem, an eating disorder or both, we urge you to seek help. Our toll-free, 24-hour helpline is operated by recovery professionals who can assist you with your questions, concerns and needed information. We have connections to treatment and recovery services across the country, and can help you find the programs that will work for you, if you are ready.