Awareness concerning eating disorders has increased significantly in recent decades. Most people understand that anorexia is a disorder characterized by restricting food intake or the attempt to lose weight by binging and purging. However, what is less known is that an eating disorder like anorexia is also considered an addiction.

Individuals who attempt to manage the symptoms of an addiction or mental health disorder might abuse another addictive substance or behavior. When this happens, an individual can struggle with an even more dangerous condition.

Anorexia and Substance Abuse

Using drugs or alcohol or restricting food intake or taking extreme measures to lose weight, seem like ways for individuals to suppress their internal struggles; however, these behaviors come at a dangerous cost.

Continued restriction of proper nutrients, mixed with abusing drugs or alcohol, may cause irreversible damage to vital organs and could even lead to death. The combination of a drug or alcohol addiction and anorexia can be especially serious because the body is already weaker due to the eating disorder, making increased negative side effects from drugs or alcohol more likely.

Substance use can exaggerate the eating disorder by making the individual feel a greater desire to participate in harmful eating behaviors. The substances most frequently abused by individuals with eating disorders include:

Drug Abuse as a Hindrance to Anorexia Treatment

Because individuals who suffer from eating disorders often feel out of place, insecure and overwhelmed, it is not difficult to see why drug use might be appealing to these people. Using drugs can boost one’s mood, making them feel a temporary sense of relief.  Nevertheless, consuming drugs will not treat mental and physical illnesses, and an individual’s physical and mental health can deplete very quickly.

While the depression and anxiety that lead to anorexia may seem to be suppressed by drug use, the individual sometimes continues the substance abuse as a “fix” to their unwanted feelings of guilt and anxiety. The anorexia and drug use will usually lead to a dangerous cycle.

Effects of Substance Abuse on Anorexia Symptoms

Anorexia already causes malnourishment of the body. When a malnourished individual consumes alcohol or drugs, the substance enters the bloodstream much faster than when it’s taken with food or on a full stomach. Consuming alcohol on an empty stomach increases the risk of blacking out, memory loss, alcohol poisoning, illness, and alcohol-related injuries, even brain damage.

Given the poor health resulting from anorexia, adding substance abuse from stimulants can create very detrimental side effects. Some of the symptoms someone with anorexia could experience from these drugs include:

  • Fatigue
  • Abnormal heartbeat
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Trouble breathing
  • Hair loss
  • Stroke
  • Death

Statistics on Anorexia and Drug Abuse

Even though eating disorders and drug addiction are separate and distinct issues, there is often significant overlap between the two illnesses. According to The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, approximately 50 percent of individuals with eating disorders abused alcohol or illicit drugs while up to 35 percent have eating disorders. Substance abuse problems may commence during an eating disorder or even after recovery.

More findings from the study by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse include age and gender-specific relations to eating disorders and substance abuse. Some of these specifics include showing that middle school-aged girls who dieted more than once a week were nearly four times more likely to become smokers, compared to those who were not watching their weight. Girls with eating disorder symptoms were almost four times more likely to have used inhalants and cocaine, compared to girls without eating disorder symptoms. Among high school-aged female students, 12.6 percent took diet pills to control their appetite or took laxatives to lose weight.

Though eating disorders are more prevalent among females, males are not immune to eating disorders. As many as 1 million males suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime. There is an increased risk of such disorders among gay and bisexual males.

Anorexia and Alcohol

The most commonly used substance used by individuals with eating disorders is alcohol. The combination of anorexia and alcohol abuse is most predominant among young, college-age females, though men may also have this combination of disorders as well.

Many college-age females who reported a combination of anorexia and alcohol abuse reported to have had a prior history of eating disorders, like restricted anorexia or binge-purge type anorexia. The college-age demographic is at a higher risk than others because, once in college, an individual is away from the familiar nurture and protection of their home. Some find themselves in unfamiliar, stressful, highly competitive situations where recreational drinking is a common culture encouraged by peers.

Some of these individuals are led into the arms of an eating disorder by the stress brought on by the unfamiliar and competitive situation in which they find themselves. Anorexia and alcoholism symptoms cause sufferers to grow worried at the thought of even consuming a meal, and people might consider a drink to be enough to make them feel satisfied without eating. Furthermore, alcohol can be used by some to activate vomiting and dehydration in order to assist in weight loss.

Marijuana Abuse and Anorexia

Some people who struggle with anorexia as an effect of a mental illness may rely on marijuana to calm their nerves or anxieties. The cannabis drug is considered a depressant, meaning it slows down certain internal functioning and messaging while providing a relaxing euphoric state. Since marijuana can provide tranquility, many people who struggle with anxiety or self-confidence issues will self-medicate with the drug for temporary relief.

However, marijuana can be addictive and lead to using other illicit or prescription drugs that provide more severe effects. Anyone who relies on marijuana to subdue self-confidence issues that could cause an eating disorder should consider medical rehabilitation.

Anorexia and Stimulants

Individuals can easily become addicted to medications that help them sleep, calm anxiety and alleviate stress. Some of these stimulants promote energy while repressing appetite. Many behavioral health studies are seeing a high level of abuse and addiction to stimulants, such as methamphetamines, cocaine, MDMA (ecstasy), coffee, nicotine, and specifically Adderall.

Due to the appetite-suppression effects, high rates of cocaine and amphetamine use have been observed in people with eating disorders. Bulimia has been known to correlate with the frequent use of MDMA, reporting that ecstasy aids in their weight loss.

Adderall, which is meant to treat narcolepsy and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), is a popular prescription stimulant that is abused by some suffering from an eating disorder. Conversely, in the past ten years, the abuse of Adderall among women between the ages of 20 and 44 has risen by over 264 percent. Adderall, like other stimulants, promises the ability to stay focused while studying or working and suppresses appetite.

Prescription stimulants can have some unpleasant side effects, including fatigue, abnormal heartbeat, anxiety, depression, and increased blood pressure, rate of breathing, hair loss, stroke, and sudden death.

Six of the top abused stimulants among those with anorexia include:

  1. Caffeine
  2. Nicotine
  3. Adderall
  4. Methamphetamines
  5. Cocaine
  6. MDMA (Ecstasy)

Caffeine may seem harmless in a normal cup of morning coffee or in a soda with lunch. However, it can be overused in other substances, such as high-energy drinks and over-the-counter pills and tablets that are advertised to help you “stay awake.” Consuming too much of it can be harmful and even though it is not considered an addictive substance, you can feel withdrawal symptoms if you stop consuming it suddenly.

Nicotine also stimulates dopamine levels, as well as the body’s adrenal glands which release a natural adrenaline called epinephrine. Unlike caffeine, nicotine is extremely addictive.

The top three illegal stimulants include cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA (“Ecstasy” or “Molly”). These drugs produce a large surge of dopamine that confuses the reward system in the brain and produces the “high” that you feel as a result of the confusion. The shot of dopamine from these specific stimulants increases the risk for addiction. Anorexia and illegal drugs like these create a dangerous recipe for serious illness or even death.

Drug Abuse as a Cause of Anorexia

Anorexia can cause an individual to choose to use substances to obtain their desired weight or to avoid feelings of depression or pain. However, there are times in which the substance abuse issue comes first and the eating disorder arises as a coping mechanism for a drug or alcohol addiction. For example, when an individual abuses marijuana or alcohol, the response to the binge from hunger or the weight gain could be a restrictive diet or purge to see the added weight disappear. When the two conditions are left untreated, they can become ingrained in a person’s daily habits and it can be hard to recover from those issues without help.

Treatments for Anorexia with Co-Occurring Substance Use Disorders

Individuals struggling with both substance abuse and anorexia have co-occurring disorders, which means they have two or more disorders at one time. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health finds that around 8 million American adults have co-occurring disorders. Of these 8 million or so, thousands of them struggle specifically with eating disorders and substance addiction.

When attempting to treat each disorder separately, the individual usually obtains help for either anorexia or the drug addiction. When that disorder later goes into remission the other condition creeps back up. The patient then goes to another treatment facility for recovery, then another, and another assuming they are making progress each time through actually ending up stuck in an unending cycle of treatment and relapse. More than 50 percent of co-occurring anorexia and substance abuse sufferers go through this endless treatment/relapse cycle. While 25 percent of these continue their struggle with the disease, around 10 percent of those who continue to struggle will die from the symptoms of the disease.

Those struggling with co-occurring substance use and anorexia should speak with their doctor or seek out a professional who can understand, diagnose, and treat both issues. Recognizing the presence of cross-addiction between the individual’s drug use and anorexia is important for proper and effective treatment. Some treatment centers, referred to as “dual-diagnosis” centers, have the resources to treat both conditions concurrently. This type of care facility is not easy to find. Most addiction treatment programs are not equipped to handle eating disorders because they rarely offer meal-time support, access to nutritionists, or medical observation. In turn, most eating disorder programs aren’t always helpful in treating substance abuse. Still, a large amount of anorexia research shows that this parallel approach is essential for a complete recovery.

The Recovery Village offers treatment plans designed to treat substance abuse and co-occurring mental health disorders, which could lead to anorexia, through inpatient, outpatient and aftercare treatment.  Contact a representative at The Recovery Village today to learn about programs that can help you or a loved one.