Someone with an eating disorder is five times more likely to also have a substance use disorder than the general population. Together, eating disorders and substance use disorders pose significant health risks but can be treated.

Eating disorders and substance abuse are both life-threatening conditions. In cases of dual diagnosis eating disorders and substance abuse, stakes are exceptionally high. Researchers have wondered, “Is there a link between substance abuse and eating disorders?” and have found that both disorders share common factors and can influence the prognosis of the other.

Similarities Between Eating Disorders and Addiction

Center on Addiction reported on the link between eating disorders and addiction finding shared risk factors and characteristics between the two disorders. Both disorders have the following risk factors:

  • Most likely to occur during times of stress
  • Similar imbalances of brain chemicals
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings of depression and anxiety
  • Poor impulse control
  • History of abuse
  • Unhealthy parenting style
  • Unhealthy peer norms
  • Increased susceptibility to media messages and social pressures

Both eating disorders and substance use disorders were also found to have the following shared characteristics:

  • Obsessive preoccupation or craving
  • Compulsive behaviors
  • Genetic
  • Secretive behaviors
  • Rituals
  • Social isolation
  • A high rate of co-occurring disorders
  • Increased rate of suicide
  • High relapse rate

Effects of Drug Abuse on Eating Disorders

When eating disorders and drug abuse co-occur, the adverse health effects of each disorder compound. The risk of symptom substitution increases. Symptom substitution occurs when a person switches to one behavior as the other is in remission and then shifts again at relapse. For example, a person may engage in binging and purging behaviors while not using drugs but when a substance use relapse occurs, they will stop binging and purging.

Alcohol and Eating Disorders

The relationship between alcohol and eating disorders has many possible explanations. Someone may be more likely to engage in eating disorder related behaviors such as binge eating after drinking due to lowered inhibitions. Other people may feel anxious or depressed after drinking which can lead to acts such as binging and purging to attempt to change their feelings. Some people with anorexia report that drinking helps to suppress their appetite or minimize hunger pangs. Drunkorexia refers to the practice of restricting food to drink excessively without gaining weight.

Marijuana and Eating Disorders

An eating disorder significantly impacts the relationship between marijuana and eating disorders. A person with anorexia is not likely to use marijuana due to hunger-inducing side effects. However, a person with binge eating disorder or bulimia may engage in marijuana use before binging. A person in recovery from either of these disorders may have a higher risk of binge relapse if they consume marijuana due to having their appetite stimulated artificially.

Eating Disorders and Stimulants

The relationship between eating disorders and stimulants is relatively clear. Stimulants are used primarily by individuals with anorexia. Stimulants are known to suppress appetite and produce artificial energy. Someone with anorexia likely struggles to ignore hunger throughout the day; artificially suppressing the appetite can relieve some of the stress surrounding the restriction of food intake.

Statistics on Eating Disorders and Addiction

Eating disorder and addiction statistics can help demonstrate the significant relationship between these types of disorders. For example:

Can Eating Disorders Lead to Drug Addiction?

When someone has a pre-existing eating disorder, substances may be used to assist in weight loss or to cope with the psychological stressors associated with an eating disorder. In these cases, a substance use disorder may form as occasional use edges toward dependency.

Dual Diagnosis Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse Treatment

When seeking eating disorder and substance abuse treatment, it is vital to treat both disorders concurrently. Someone only receiving treatment for one of these disorders is at a higher risk for experiencing a setback or symptom substitution. As both conditions are severe and life-threatening, professionals recommend inpatient treatment. For a person who only occasionally uses substances but has a diagnosable eating disorder may wish to seek treatment at dual-diagnosis eating disorder treatment centers. When both disorders are fully present, co-occurring eating disorder and substance abuse treatment centers are available. The Recovery Village has treatment centers across the country that are equipped to treat substance use disorders with co-occurring eating disorders.

If you or a loved one struggle with an eating disorder and co-occurring substance use, help doesn’t have to wait. Contact a representative at The Recovery Village today to take the first step in your recovery journey.

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Editor – Thomas Christiansen
With over a decade of content experience, Tom produces and edits research articles, news and blog posts produced for Advanced Recovery Systems. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Denise-Marie Griswold, LCAS
Denise-Marie Griswold is a Licensed Clinical Addictions Specialist. She earned her Master's Degree in Substance Abuse and Clinical Counseling from East Carolina University in 2014. Read more
Sources “Food for Thought: Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders.” December 2003. Accessed February 10, 2019. “Individuals with Eating Disorders Up to […]ol and Illicit Drugs.” December 18, 2003. Accessed February 10, 2019.

Ressler, Adrienne. “Insatiable Hungers: Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse.” Social Work Today, July 2008. Accessed February 10, 2019.

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.