Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders

While it has been shown that individuals suffering from eating disorders are frequently shown to engage in substance abuse, no one definitively has identified why. Some reasons could be:

  • While the two disorders have varied causes, the presence of one disorder may increase the chances of an individual developing the other
  • An independent disorder plays a role in a patient developing both disorders
  • Both disorders are shared manifestations of a shared underlying of causes

What we do know is that in both eating disorders and substance abuse, it is common for patients to have a family history of drug and alcohol abuse. Other similarities between the two conditions are:

  • Cognitive dysfunction
  • Use of food or substances to relieve a negative affect or feeling
  • Social isolation
  • Secretiveness of the behavior
  • Frequently experience depression.

Individuals who suffer from eating disorders and substance abuse also tend to continue engaging in the problematic behavior despite the negative consequences. In fact, they will often deny having a problem and/or downplay the severity of their disorders.

Treating Your Disorders

Eating disorders are as psychologically and biologically damaging to an individual’s health as substance abuse. While society has worked hard to raise awareness regarding the dangers of substance abuse, for many people the dangers of eating disorders are not well known.

At The Meadows Ranch, we know that both of these disorders can be life-threatening situations. That is why we address these issues with our patients by utilizing treatments that have shown to be effective, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

Alcohol is generally avoided by patients with restricting anorexia because it contains calories. However, in individuals with anorexia nervosa, binge-eating/purging type, and in those with bulimia, alcohol is frequently used and then purged.

Alcohol is a sedative. Many ED patients start using alcohol to self-medicate anxiety. In low amounts, alcohol calms the nerves and creates disinhibition. Over time, it takes more alcohol to potentiate the anxiolytic effect, such that self- medication can become alcohol dependence.

All patients admitted to Remuda at The Meadows with alcohol dependence and some with alcohol abuse are placed on a detoxification protocol that safely and effectively manages withdrawal symptoms. Detoxification is not a substitute for treatment, but is one component of a comprehensive treatment strategy. The long-term consequences of alcohol abuse/dependence may not be known for months. Mild mental confusion, common in the first weeks of detoxification, may be prolonged in severely malnourished ED patients.

Stimulants are often used by eating disorder patients for weight control. Amphetamines and cocaine are appetite-suppressing drugs. When someone uses stimulants, massive amounts of dopamine are released. Stimulants are very addicting, because dopamine creates pleasure. The consequence of chronic stimulant use is decreased dopamine activity. Ultimately, it may take months for recovering stimulant addicts to achieve stable dopamine levels so they are able to feel normal without using drugs.

We Can Help

At The Meadows Ranch, we understand the complexities of eating disorders and substance abuse. Through our decades of eating disorder treatment, we have been able to help treat individuals with this dual-diagnosis concern.

We know recovery is possible, and the earlier treatment is sought for both substance abuse and eating disorders, the better the outcome will be. Based on feedback from patients, families and professionals, the vast majority of our patients remain committed to a life of health, balance and purpose.

For additional information about the treatment of eating disorders, please call to speak to a Counselor at 866-390-5100 or complete a form, and we will contact you with the information you need.

Lilenfeld, L. & Kaye, W. (1996). The Link Between Alcoholism and Eating Disorders. Alcohol Health and Research World, 20, 94-

Leave a Reply