Individuals struggling with anorexia may use drugs or alcohol to supreess their appetite and lose weight; however, these behaviors come at a dangerous cost.

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 addictive behaviors, such as anorexia, might use substances to suppress unwanted feelings of guilt and anxiety. When this happens, an individual can struggle with an even more dangerous cycle of destructive behavior.

Drug Abuse as a Hindrance to Anorexia Treatment

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:

  • Alcohol
  • Laxatives
  • Emetics
  • Diuretics
  • Amphetamines
  • Heroin
  • Cocaine

While the depression and anxiety that lead to anorexia may seem to be suppressed by drug use, the individual sometimes continues using drugs as a “fix” to their unwanted feelings of guilt and anxiety. Anorexia and drug abuse 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 various substances can create detrimental side effects. Some of the symptoms a person with anorexia could experience from drug abuse include:

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

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.

Anorexia and Stimulants

Stimulants are a class of drugs that promote energy while repressing appetite. Due to the appetite-suppression effects, high rates of cocaine and Adderall use have been observed in people with eating disorders.

Adderall, like other stimulants, promises the ability to stay focused while studying or working and suppresses appetite. However, prescription stimulants like Adderall 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 which can be even more dangerous in someone with anorexia.

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 Eating Disorders Association, approximately 50 percent of individuals with eating disorders abused alcohol or illicit drugs and up to 35 percent of individuals dependent on alcohol or other drugs have also had 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 anorexia. 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.

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.

Treating Anorexia with Co-Occurring Substance Abuse

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 have dual-diagnosis programs designed to treat both conditions concurrently. 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 research shows that this parallel approach is essential for 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. Our central Florida facility, Orlando Recovery Center, specializes in inpatient care for substance abuse eating disorders. Contact a representative at The Recovery Village today to learn about programs that can help you or a loved one.

a man in a purple shirt smiling at the camera.
Editor – Devin Golden
Devin Golden has worked for various print and digital news organizations. Devin's family has been affected by addiction and mental health disorders, which is a large part of why he wants to help others who have either directly or indirectly been affected by these diseases. Read more
a woman in a yellow top posing for a picture.
Medically Reviewed By – Krisi Herron, LCDC
Krisi Herron is an Adjunct Psychology Professor, a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor and a freelance writer who contributes to several mental health blogs. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.