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Eating disorders and substance use disorders are two very serious mental health conditions that can severely impact your physical and mental health. Eating disorders are potentially fatal illnesses associated with dysfunctional behaviors, thoughts, and emotions involving food, and include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.1
Eating disorders affect a wide range of demographic groups, and over 30 million people in the U.S. suffer from one. While all eating disorders have elevated mortality risks, anorexia nervosa has among the highest mortality rates of any mental illness.2
Keep reading to learn more about eating disorders, how eating disorders and substance abuse affect each other, and what treatment may be affective for your recovery.
Eating disorders are characterized by persistently disturbed patterns of eating behaviors, thoughts, and feelings associated with food and weight issues.1, 3, 4 Eating disorders are extremely serious illnesses that can have significantly harmful health effects or even be fatal.3 Eating disorders affect all genders, racial groups, and ethnicities. 1, 3
While there is no one specific cause of an eating disorder, certain risk factors may make a person more likely to develop one. These can include: 1, 3, 4
Anorexia nervosa (AN) is a condition in which a person restricts what they eat to lose weight.1, 3 People with AN sometimes view themselves as overweight or believe they are fat despite being underweight.1, 3, 4 There are different types of AN, including a restricting type (restricting food and/or extreme amounts of exercise) and a bingeing/purging type (binge eating and vomiting or using laxatives, diuretics, or enemas to purge).4
Signs and symptoms of anorexia nervosa may include: 1, 3, 4, 5
Bulimia nervosa (BN) commonly involves a person regularly eating excessive amounts of food in a short time (binges).1, 3, 4 After binges, the person attempts to compensate for the calories they have consumed by purging.1, 3 People with BN may range from underweight to overweight.1, 3
Potential signs and symptoms of bulimia nervosa include: 1, 3, 4, 5, 6
Binge-eating disorder (BED) involves episodes of binge eating in a short period of time similar to BN, however such episodes aren’t followed by compensating behaviors.1, 3, 4 People with BED may experience feelings of embarrassment, guilt, shame, depression, or disgust over their binges.3, 4 People who have BED can range from a normal weight to obese.3 Signs of binge-eating disorder can include: 1, 3, 5, 6
Eating disorders and substance use disorders commonly co-occur. For instance, women who have either disorder are over 4 times more likely to develop the other disorder than women who didn’t have either. A review conducted in 2010 determined that in women with a substance use disorder, 14% each had AN and BN.5
Up to half of all people with an eating disorder abuse substances, while the average for people without an eating disorder is 9%. Among people with a substance use disorder, 35% have an eating disorder; among the general population, only 3% have some type of eating disorder.7
The strongest association between eating disorders and substance abuse is seen with BN, followed by BED. The lifetime prevalence of substance use among people with BN is roughly 30%.4, 7 As an eating disorder becomes more severe, a person may begin to use an increasing number of different substances.5
People with eating disorders may be more likely to abuse certain substances. Prevalent types of co-occurring substance use in people with eating disorders appear to be marijuana and stimulants, including amphetamines, cocaine, and ecstasy.8
In some instances, problematic eating and substance use behavior may serve as coping mechanisms, so attempting to manage just one could conceivably result in a compensatory increase in activity of the other.5 It may be helpful to treat both simultaneously to ensure that symptoms of one disorder don’t worsen or affect treatment outcomes for the other disorder.7, 8
For substance use disorders, there is a continuum of care that helps meet people’s needs at all levels of treatment. Some terms you may hear include:
Facilities like Oxford Treatment Center offer all of the above services so as to best maintain a continuum of care across many points in the recovery process.
A comprehensive treatment plan will include some sort of behavioral therapy to help a person work through an eating disorder and substance disorder. Some types of behavioral include:
If your loved one is struggling with an eating disorder and substance use, it’s important to help them get into treatment that is tailored to meet their unique needs. Programs at facilities like Oxford Treatment Center can help provide that care with effective behavioral therapies and medical support.
Successful treatment looks different for everyone. It can mean not engaging in certain behaviors and maintaining a healthy weight. Recovery from eating and substance use disorders isn’t an easy process—it’s an ongoing process. But recovery is possible if you work hard and don’t give up hope.