When ED and Substance Abuse Co-Occur

Written by Journey Pure Staff

Many people with ED—eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia nervosa, avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), binge eating disorder—show a tendency toward substance abuse disorders, requiring a special level of diagnosis and treatment.

In the groundbreaking 2003 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, Food For Thought: Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders, research suggested that nearly half of people with ED abuse alcohol or drugs, compared to 9 percent of the general population. Similarly, up to 35 percent of those who abuse alcohol and illicit drugs suffer ED, compared to just 3 percent of the general population.

The study also found that teenage girls showing eating disorder symptoms are nearly four times as likely to use inhalants and cocaine. Also, girls between the ages of 10 and 14 who diet more than once a week are nearly four times likelier to start smoking.

Numerous studies have followed in recent years, with the large majority suggesting a strong link between substance abuse and eating disorders.

Some Reasons for Co-Occurring Disorders

Why are substance abuse disorders and eating disorders so frequently co-occurring? There are a handful of contributors. On a physical level, both substance abuse and ED involve similar regions of the brain, such as its reward pathways and stress responses. There’s also the complementary aspects of the two disorders, as substances like cocaine and amphetamine are used for weight control and appetite suppression purposes.

Also contributing to these disorders’ tendency to co-occurrence is what the medical community calls “overlapping genetic variabilities.” What this means is that personality traits like impulsiveness, anxiety, and low self-esteem are often connected to both disorders. There’s also a high probability that both disorders stem from what the medical community calls “overlapping environmental triggers” such as a traumatic event in the person’s past.

Because of these overlapping characteristics, it is necessary to diagnose and treat both the substance abuse disorder and the eating disorder at the same time. But treatment is tricky, as there is a tendency among patients that the disorders work in a kind of tandem–just as the symptoms of one condition recede, symptoms of the other come to the fore.

Understanding the nature of the addictive behavior, and getting at its underlying cause, is the most effective way to treat co-occurring disorders. JourneyPure provides dual diagnosis treatment to address co-occurring mental health issues and root out the underlying triggers that are causing these behaviors. Care goes beyond just addiction cessation to offer practical coping skills, as well as imparting the values of good nutrition, exercise, social connectivity and spiritual grounding.

Eating Disorder Treatment at JourneyPure At The River

JourneyPure At The River now treats all secondary eating disorders and their co-occurring conditions in our Nashville facility. We offer medically-assisted detox services, individual and group counseling, and experiential therapies. Our friendly and knowledgeable staff is ready for you to get healthy and stay healthy.