How Eating Disorders Relate to Substance Abuse - TDH Guides
How Eating Disorders Relate to Substance Abuse

How Eating Disorders Relate to Substance Abuse

For people who struggle with an eating disorder, sitting with your closest friends and family around a table spread with food is a terrifying prospect. It’s what makes this time of year, with a bevy of social holidays centered around eating and drinking, so tricky.

Interestingly enough, it’s also a tough time of year for those of us recovering from drug or alcohol addiction. So, we decided to take a closer look at the relationship between eating disorders and substance abuse.

Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse Share the Same Stigma

There is a considerable stigma associated with people who have an eating disorder. When you think of someone who is struggling with an ED, you might think of female celebrities that appear on the covers of gossip magazine with the words “deathly thin” or “disappearing.” 

However, eating disorders don’t only affect women. Ten percent of cases detected are in males. Typically, the onset of eating disorders will start at a young age (12-25 years). According to Medical News Today, someone with anorexia has 5-8 times greater risk of dying early in life while bulimia doubles that risk. Furthermore, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health disorder. 

Somebody with anorexia has a 5.8-times greater risk of dying early, compared to healthy individuals with no eating disorders. Bulimia doubles the risk of premature death.1 

Spotting someone with an eating disorder can be more difficult than you think. Not everyone shows the same physical or psychological signs of disordered eating. While it might be physically apparent for some people (excessively thin), it’s also common to maintain healthy body weight or sometimes even overweight. 

Recovering addicts or alcoholics notoriously develop substitute addictions in the way of excessive exercise or orthorexia.

So, What is the Actual Definition of an Eating Disorder? 

eat·ing dis·or·der
ēdiNG diˈsôrdər/

noun: eating disorder; plural noun: eating disorders

  1. any of a range of psychological disorders characterized by abnormal or disturbed eating habits (such as anorexia nervosa).

Typically someone with an eating disorder seeks to control their food intake and their weight.  A skewed body image is one of the most common symptoms. For example, they will see themselves as “too fat” even if they are in fact, dangerously thin. They may participate in dangerous behaviors such as excessive exercise, binge eating (eating large amounts of food), purging behaviors (self-induced vomiting), use of laxatives or diuretics, and substance abuse. 

There are different types of eating disorders which include anorexia nervosa, bulimia, EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified). 

Substance abuse like eating disorders, are influenced by genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors. Scientists estimate that genetic factors account for between 40 to 60 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction, including the effects of environment on gene expression and function. Multiple shared neurotransmitters are thought to be involved in both eating and substance use disorders.2 – National Eating Disorders Association

50% of people with an eating disorder (ED) are also abusing drugs and alcohol.

What Do Eating Disorders Have To Do With Substance Abuse? 

There are various beliefs around whether we should consider eating disorders a type of substance abuse. Conflicting opinions aside, there is no denying the staggering similarities not to mention the rate of co-morbidity.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, nearly 50% of people with an eating disorder (ED) are also abusing drugs and alcohol. So, if someone has an eating disorder, they are 5 times more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol than someone without an ED. 

Sarah* struggled with disordered eating and spoke of her relationship with drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism.

“An eating disorder often goes hand in hand with drugs, alcohol, and depression,” she explained. “For me, my eating disorder came first, and I found that drugs – either prescription or otherwise – helped me get through the day. Just living became too much. It was too painful.”

Also, recovering addicts or alcoholics notoriously develop substitute addictions in the way of excessive exercise or orthorexia (and obsession with healthy eating).

A little empathy and understanding go a long way.

How to Help Someone With an Eating Disorder

When you haven’t experienced addictive behavior first-hand, it’s really hard to understand it. Simply being around our loved ones is difficult. Especially when they seem consumed by their eating disorder or alcohol or heroin. It’s like watching the events of a natural disaster unravel right in front of you. The nightmare of watching something terrible happen and you want to scream out, but when you open your mouth, all that comes out is silence. 

Show empathy. You may not understand exactly what they are going through but let them know you are here for them regardless.

A defining characteristic of addiction is isolation. When someone feels alone, they will find a way to make that feeling go away. A way to handle a world that seems unmanageable. 

“I think the drugs helped me get through a deep dark hole that I had dug myself into,” Sarah said of her drug use and ED. “Drugs made my life more livable. It allowed me to connect and go out with friends without food being the main focus.”

Journalist Johann Yari has said that instead of taking a “tough love” stance with your loved one, that we should just take a “love” approach? Yari has also said that the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s connection. We all just want to feel connected to someone or something, and for people struggling with eating disorders and substance abuse, they connect with their addiction.

So try this. Tell your loved ones that you love them. Show empathy. You may not understand what they are going through but let them know you are here for support regardless. Then try to help figure out a plan. That could mean exploring treatment program options, going to a support group meeting, or making a doctor appointment to discuss the next steps.

Overcoming Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse

Eating disorders are a very serious mental illnesses. It affects young women and men of all ages from all walks of life. However, it is treatable. 

“I can’t believe where I am now and how different my life is. I never thought I’d feel fulfilled,” Sarah shared with us recently. She’s been recovered from disordered eating for five years. “I went for the easy things to give me that momentary feeling of being fulfilled. It’s crazy to look back at that time. I’m so grateful for where I am and the people that stuck by me.”

If you know someone who is struggling with an eating disorder, substance abuse, or both call us today at 818.452.1676. We can help you, and your loved one find a new way to live.