Eating Disorders and Addiction: Is There a Connection?

A look into the relationship between addiction and eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. And a discussion of their treatment. Take hope!

minute read

A Common Co-Occurrence?

I recently had the honor of hosting the “Enterhealth and Eating Recovery Center Luncheon” with Dr. Stephanie Setliff, Medical Director for Eating Recovery Center of Dallas, an international center for eating disorder recovery providing comprehensive treatment for anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder and other unspecified eating disorders.

One of the major focuses of our presentation – and the subject of this discussion – is the surprisingly high co-occurrence of drug addiction and eating disorders. At Enterhealth Ranch and the Enterhealth Outpatient Center of Excellence, we find that approximately 20 to 30 percent of the patients who come to us for help with alcohol or drug addiction also suffer from an eating disorder.

Let me repeat that.

20-30% of people we treat for addiction are simultaneously dealing with an eating disorder.

Even more alarming, Dr. Setliff reports that approximately half of her patients at the Eating Recovery Center of Dallas also suffer from co-occurring substance abuse, whether it be drugs or alcohol. Both issues, addiction and eating disorders, also present with many of the same comorbidities, which can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

…and other mood disorders co-occuring with substance addiction.

Why is There This Common Overlap?

There are several reasons why we both tend to see this substantial overlap.

First, we need to recognize that both of these conditions – addiction and eating disorders – are mental illnesses. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), addiction and eating disorders are identified as chronic brain diseases. Additionally, both of these disorders commonly arise from shared comorbidities (i.e., depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc.), with many of these stemming from a low sense of self-worth and/or self-esteem.

The overlap between addiction and eating disorders seems to occur most frequently with young adults, though it certainly does arise in older adults. This is likely a result of several factors, including the tendency of young adults to be exposed to more societal expectations and pressures than older adults. Additionally, media such as TV and film tend to glamorize drug and alcohol use and frequently present people with unrealistic expectations of beauty and the human body.

The Dangers Are the Same

Drugs and alcohol not only tax your body, taking a toll on various vital organs, they also alter the chemistry – and even certain functions – of the brain. What the public needs to know is that eating disorders can have the same effects, both on the body and the brain. You see, there is a reason that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) classifies these disorders as chronic brain diseases.

They actually cause damage to your brain.

What it really comes down to is this: over time, addiction saturates the brain with “feel-good” neurotransmitters as a result of stimulation from drugs, alcohol or an eating disorder. Our brains have special reward centers which are generally stimulated by certain behaviors, such as:

  • being praised
  • taking care of our bodies
  • exercising
  • feeling loved

… and these substances and behaviors have the ability to hijack this system. This process of hijacking our reward system causes the brain to block unpleasant feelings in response to the stimulus – such as drugs, alcohol, or food – making it a desperately desired substance, eventually creating addiction and dependency.

Addiction and Eating Disorders are Treatable

The good news is that both addiction and eating disorders are treatable conditions. Enterhealth offers a science-based alcohol and drug addiction treatment program created by a dedicated team of addiction experts determined to dramatically improve treatment outcomes. Based on the latest NIH research identifying addiction as a chronic brain disease, this program is implemented by a full-time staff of addiction-trained physicians, psychiatrists, nurses and therapists, beginning with a thorough medical and psychological assessment designed to create a personalized treatment plan for each patient.

Enterhealth also specializes in treating drug and alcohol addiction with Co-Occurring issues such as mental illness or eating disorders, otherwise known as Dual Diagnosis Treatment. Most treatment programs simply are not equipped to treat clients with a dual diagnosis. However, our board-certified medical team and overall medical approach enables us to uniquely address the diagnostic and treatment challenges of Dual Addiction Disorders. We address the two disorders with a very personal, integrated approach. We believe that treatment of co-occurring disorders is a collaborative process between the treatment team and the patient and, often, the patient’s family.

What is the “Take Home”?

Take hope!

Recovery is a lifelong process, not a short-term cure, and should include education about the disease and development of coping skills to handle life’s challenges. With science-based medical treatment, the brain can usually be revitalized, or “reset” within a year of treatment.

About the author
Dr. Urschel is Co-Founder and Chief Medical Strategist for Enterhealth, one of the finest residential and outpatient treatment programs in the nation. Known as one of the country's foremost authorities on substance abuse and addiction, Dr. Harold Urschel is the author of the New York Times best seller, “Healing the Addicted Brain.” He is a coveted speaker on substance abuse and the latest treatments of the chronic brain disease of addiction on both the local and national stage.
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