Alcohol and Anorexia

Anorexia and alcohol use co-occur frequently. The National Eating Disorder Association has estimated that half of all people with eating disorders have a co-occurring substance use disorder. To understand the relationship between anorexia and alcohol use, it ’s helpful to first understand anorexia and alcohol abuse as separate disorders.

Anorexia nervosa, more commonly referred to as anorexia, is characterized by restricting caloric intake for the purpose of weight loss. Someone with anorexia is not simply dieting or cutting back on calories. Instead, someone with anorexia will ignore their hunger and refuse to eat.

Minimal amounts of food may be consumed but not without planning and rationalization of all calories consumed. Someone with anorexia is likely to have many obsessive and usually delusional beliefs about their weight, eating, dieting and weight loss in general.

While anorexia and alcohol addiction may seem unrelated, especially when considering that alcohol is full of empty calories, there are several similarities. For example, both disorders:

  • Feature obsessive thinking patterns (obsessing over weight, obsessing over the next drink)
  • Are based in control, albeit different ends of the spectrum (anorexia is an extreme level of control and alcohol use disorders being an inability to maintain control)
  • Are more prevalent in individuals with a history of childhood trauma
  • Co-occur frequently with depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem

When examining the similarities of these disorders in addition to the criteria for each disorder, the anorexia alcohol connection can become more apparent.

While at times the relationship between anorexia and alcoholism can be unclear or confusing, multiple studies have found connections between the two disorders. Correlation does not necessarily mean causation but there is a relationship between anorexia and alcohol use disorders.

Some people with anorexia report drinking suppresses their appetite and helps to numb hunger pains. Other people diagnosed with anorexia report that drinking relieves their obsessive thoughts about food and their bodies. When these disorders are present in someone who has a history of trauma, alcohol may be used to further cover-up emotional pain. If treatment has anorexia and alcoholism symptoms it is important that they be transparent with their treatment provider. If a provider is unaware of both disorders, insufficient treatment may be given.

There is no specific research evidence that alcoholism can be a cause of anorexia. The relationship between the two disorders suggests the question of “Can alcoholism cause anorexia?” is valid and requires further investigation and research.
Alcohol-induced anorexia has garnered attention in recent years. It appears to be especially common among college women. Cultural ideals for being thin combined with the college culture of binge drinking may cause some people to withhold eating food and consume alcohol as their primary calorie source.

This practice has become so common that a slang term for it has been created —drunkorexia. Someone who engages in drunkorexia may avoid eating or limit eating to be able to drink excessively without gaining weight.  The most common drunkorexia side effects include becoming malnourished because alcohol provides no nutritional value.

There are also some people who may choose to restrict their caloric intake during the day so that they can experience intoxication more quickly and intensely. A person with this form of drunkorexia may not present the same symptoms of an eating disorder as those concerned primarily with weight.

Alcohol also causes adverse effects on nutrient absorption and retention even when a regular diet is maintained. Someone with drunkorexia may feel that becoming intoxicated from less alcohol is positive but what is often overlooked is the increased risk for alcohol poisoning, which if left untreated may be fatal.

People with co-occurring eating disorders and substance use disorders typically have more severe symptoms and poorer treatment outcomes. However, that does not mean that treatment cannot be successful. Researchers have found including additional features in a treatment program leads to better treatment outcomes. These features include:

  • Educating the patient about similarities between the disorders and risks of the disorders
  • Dietary education and planning
  • Challenging unhelpful attitudes and beliefs
  • Increasing coping skills
  • Identifying potential obstacles
  • Creating a relapse prevention plan

Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) has been shown to benefit people diagnosed with an eating disorder and a substance use disorder. DBT consists of individual therapy, group skills training, and phone coaching between sessions. Someone in DBT will be taught coping skills and engage in assignments intended to help practice the skills.

If you believe your loved one has an alcohol use disorder, you can take this self-assessment offered by The Recovery Village to further understand symptoms that may be present.

Using the information from this assessment may better prepare someone to help guide their loved one to treatment. Learn more about treatment options or reach out to a member of our team today.  

Some relevant facts to remember about Anorexia and Alcohol include:  

  • Alcohol use disorders with co-occurring eating disorders like anorexia are extremely dangerous.
  • When these disorders co-occur no matter which disorder came first, it is vital that both disorders are treated concurrently.
  • Restricting calorie intake to avoid gaining weight from binge drinking is dangerous.
  • Avoiding eating to become intoxicated more quickly can lead to negative health consequences including alcohol poisoning.

If you or someone you know struggles with an alcohol use disorder and anorexia, help is available. At The Recovery Village, a team of professionals offers several treatment programs for substance use and co-occurring disorders. Call and speak with a representative to learn more about which program could work for you.

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