The Connection Between Substance Use Disorder and Eating Disorders

More often than not, mental health conditions and substance use disorder (SUD) co-occur. When considering co-occurring disorders, people often think of conditions like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) paired with addiction. Thus, the connection between SUD and eating disorders often falls by the wayside. However, truth be told, eating disorders and substance abuse have an undeniable link. Many people struggle with these co-occurring disorders every year. By understanding the connection between SUD and eating disorders and the lasting impact they can have on an individual’s life, those who are struggling can develop the motivation to participate in professional treatment for lasting recovery.

At 12 South Recovery, we specialize in the treatment of alcohol and drug addiction as well as dual diagnoses. We are aware of the need to treat any mental health conditions that exist alongside substance abuse. It is our mission to help individuals safely cease their substance use while healing from any underlying emotional, behavioral, and mental health issues that informed the development of SUD. Moreover, at 12 South Recovery, our individualized treatment plans and programs allow individuals to regain control over their lives. We honor everyone’s unique needs and goals for recovery and aim to explore what healing looks like for each person.

Understanding Substance Use Disorder (SUD)

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines SUD as “a treatable mental disorder that affects a person’s brain and behavior, leading to their inability to control their use of substances like legal or illegal drugs, alcohol, or medications.” NIMH also notes that SUD occurs on a spectrum, causing symptoms that range from moderate to severe. Furthermore, addiction is recognized as the most severe form of SUD.

Unfortunately, many people who have not endured SUD themselves may perceive those who have it to be intentionally choosing to engage in recurrent substance use. However, if this were the case, recovery would not be the lifelong battle that it is. As the National Insitute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains, “The initial decision to take drugs is voluntary for most people, but repeated drug use can lead to brain changes that challenge an addicted person’s self-control and interfere with their ability to resist intense urges to take drugs.” Thus, SUD is not a result of poor lifestyle choices, but instead the result of a combination of factors, such as:

  • An individual’s unique biology
  • A history of trauma, such as abuse and neglect
  • Familial and peer influences
  • One’s ability to persevere amidst stressors
  • The developmental stage in which a person is first exposed to substances

Understanding Eating Disorders

In a similar way, many individuals hold the misconception that eating disorders result from poor lifestyle choices. According to NIMH, “Eating disorders are actually serious and often fatal illnesses that are associated with severe disturbances in people’s eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions.” The most common types of eating disorders include the following.

Anorexia Nervosa

This eating disorder is characterized by food avoidance and restriction caused by thoughts of being overweight, even if an individual is dangerously underweight. The NIMH notes the following symptoms of anorexia nervosa:

  • Restricted eating
  • Extreme thinness
  • Unwillingness to achieve or maintain a healthy weight
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Distorted body image
  • Having self-esteem that is heavily influenced by perceptions of body shape and weight

Bulimia Nervosa

This eating disorder is characterized by recurrent and frequent episodes of binge eating and compensatory behavior. The manifestations include “forced vomiting, excessive use of laxatives or diuretics, fasting, excessive exercise, or a combination of these behaviors,” according to NIMH. Symptoms of bulimia nervosa include:

  • Chronically inflamed and sore throat
  • Acid reflux disorder
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Severe dehydration from purging
  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Oral issues related to tooth decay as a result of stomach acid exposure

Binge-Eating Disorder

This eating disorder is characterized by binge eating episodes that, unlike bulimia nervosa, are not followed by compensatory behavior. Because of this, individuals with binge-eating disorders are often overweight or obese. Symptoms of this disorder include:

  • Eating abnormally large amounts of food in a short period of time
  • Continuing to eat despite being full
  • Eating quickly during binges
  • Feeling distressed or ashamed about eating behaviors
  • Frequent dieting
  • Eating in secret to avoid embarrassment

Why Do Eating Disorders and SUD Co-Occur?

A publication by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) highlights the relationship between eating disorders and SUD. The publication states that people often use a combination of food and substances to cope with stress. Those in recovery from eating disorders may turn to alcohol and other drugs to cope with recovery and vice versa, with many not recognizing the potential development of a new disorder. In both cases, self-medicating practices pose an undeniable concern to the lasting health and well-being of the individual engaging in them.

Further, an article published in the medical journal Cureus notes, “The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse mentioned that approximately 50% of women with EDs [eating disorders] have SUD. Similarly among those with SUD, the rates of EDs are high.” The article also notes that bulimia nervosa and alcohol use disorder (AUD) are the most common co-occurring disorders in the pairing of SUD and eating disorders.

Healing From Eating Disorders and Co-Occurring Substance Abuse

Regardless of what condition developed first, those struggling with both eating disorders and SUD must work to heal from both conditions simultaneously. This approach gives a person the best chance at securing lasting sobriety and recovery.

At 12 South Recovery, we offer the professional support and guidance that individuals need to address the underlying causes of self-medicating practices, including substance abuse and unhealthy food-related behaviors. We prioritize a client-centered philosophy of caring to facilitate these goals. Our expert clinicians are passionate about educating and empowering our clients to live fulfilling lives free from drugs, alcohol, and eating disorders.

Although eating disorders and substance use disorder (SUD) may seem unrelated, these conditions often co-occur. If you or a loved one are struggling with eating disorders and substance abuse, know that treatment is available and recovery is possible. At 12 South Recovery, we recognize how essential it is to treat co-occurring disorders together to establish lasting sobriety and healing. For this reason, we provide comprehensive, individualized care to all of our clients. We offer several outpatient treatment options including general outpatient, intensive outpatient (IOP), and partial hospitalization programs (PHP) in an effort to meet the unique needs and recovery goals of each client we serve. Learn more about our treatment approach for SUD and eating disorders by calling (888) 830-8374.

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