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When you think of eating disorders and drug addiction, you may think they are unrelated. However, if you take a more in-depth look at the two types of addictions, you will find that they are linked. It is said that approximately 30-50 percent of those who have bulimia eating disorders have also endured addictions to drugs or alcohol. According to some sources, drug and alcohol abuse is not as common amongst those suffering from anorexia, because most people with that eating disorder worry about the calorie intake from drugs and alcohol. But it is still a possibility.

The Basics of Eating Disorders

Your body depends on food to function and for you to survive. Changing your diet can cause your body to change the way it functions; certain organs could stop functioning if they are starved of food. There are many different types of eating disorders, though some are more common than others.


Anorexia causes extreme weight loss and has negative effects on the organs. Individuals with anorexia avoid eating a sufficient number of calories to maintain their weight. As an alternative, they avoid meals all together or only choose food that has a lower calorie intake (celery, rice cakes, popcorn).


With this disorder, people will make themselves purge to obtain weight loss. They may try laxatives, self-induced vomiting, or a mixture of both to make sure their body does not absorb the food that was consumed.

Binge-eating disorder (BED)

BED is the most common eating disorder. Individuals suffering from BED eat large amounts of food, often as quickly as they can. They often feel like they need to be punished or feel uncomfortable and in pain before they stop eating. Most feel regret and shame after they are done eating.

Compulsive overeating

Compulsive overeating is when individuals cannot control their eating habits. Some use food to cope with underlying issues such as depression, trauma, and anxiety. This eating disorder can cause people to hide food, eat in the middle of the night, continue eating after feeling full, and sometimes eat out of the garbage. Obesity is often a common medical condition with compulsive overeating.

Eating disorders can trigger mental agony and physical pain. Living with an eating disorder is a daily struggle, and how these disorders develop is not yet fully understood. Some experts believe psychological influences could be the cause. People with eating disorders may think like perfectionists, with an obsessive need for control. These thoughts can affect a person’s everyday life, relationships, school, and work. If a person is continuously having perfectionist thoughts, this could make him/her feel like a failure as he/she is not living up to his/her image of perfect standards.

Transfer Addictions to Cope with Recovery

Some drug addicts and alcoholics develop eating disorders after recovery, and some individuals who have suffered from eating disorders will develop an addiction. This is often referred to as transfer addiction, because one addiction will substitute for the other.

Bulimics, compulsive eaters, and anorexics may develop substance abuse for the same reason they developed unhealthy eating habits or addictive behaviors. Drugs and alcohol can help a person prevent or suppress unwanted feelings, just as food (or the lack of) did. Drugs, food, and alcohol can be used to self-medicate. Those who are seeking treatment for eating or drug addiction disorders should be conscious of the risk of transfer addiction. To avoid transfer addiction, one must get to the root of the underlying issue that caused the disease. Refraining from drugs or alcohol or even food may not completely solve the problem.

Co-Occurring Treatments are Needed for Co-Occurring Disorders

Treating either eating disorders or substance addiction is already difficult. Treating both an eating disorder and an addiction together can be even harder. Both diseases may have frequent relapses. Unfortunately, addiction and eating disorders can and do occur at the same time. A study from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse states that:

  • At least 35% of individuals with substance abuse disorders have an eating disorder. This is compared to the 3% general population.
  • Half of the individuals who have an eating disorder do in fact abuse drugs or alcohol. This is compared to the 9% general population.

Co-morbidity is common; people with eating disorders and addictions typically have similar brain chemistries. Those struggling with these disorders may have been sexually or physically abused at some point or may even have low self-confidence. Also, those with co-morbidity may suffer from a third co-morbidity such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety or depression.

Addressing Eating Disorders and Addiction

Despite the regularity of co-morbidities, when an individual is being treated for one disorder, other disorders typically go unnoticed. This is because those suffering from addiction or eating disorders are sent to a specific hospital specializing in their diagnosed disorder. Facilities that treat addiction may not have the experience or fundamental resources to treat eating disorders and vice versa. However, there are ways you can focus on these disorders. First, the individual must admit co-morbidity is present. Then a psychiatric and physical exam must be conducted, including examination for signs of drug or alcohol abuse, by psychiatrists, doctors, psychologists, nutritionists, and social workers. Below are some steps to help get ahead of the addiction or disorder.

Step One – Create a Treatment Plan

In most cases, a care team will review the patient’s information and estimate a proper treatment plan based on the patient’s specific needs. All symptoms will be documented, and any co-morbidity will be given to the correct professional (nurse, doctor or someone specializing in co-morbid disorders). This plan is essential in becoming successful. The plan will be customized and controlled. Continuing treatment such as alcoholics anonymous (AA), narcotics anonymous (NA) and support groups for eating disorders will be completed for both disorders. Eating disorder treatment and addiction treatments can include:

  • Group therapy dedicated to constructing change, identifying the causes, finding coping tactics, and preventing any obstructions.
  • Medication
  • Nutritional diets
  • Specific disorder psycho-education and directed psychotherapy
  • Study of social circles (friends, family, co-workers, and classmates) and building a support group for intervention, if needed.

Step Two – Stabilization

Individuals with more complex eating disorders are generally close to starvation or severely dehydrated. In this case, their lives are at risk. However, reinstating a healthy diet must be done carefully, to avoid “re-feeding syndrome” and its risk of heart failure. Those patients suffering from anxiety, OCD, and depression may need to be medically stabilized. It could take a few weeks of around-the-clock care before regular eating habits are formed, and before the patient can begin other forms of treatment.

Step Three – Therapy Begins

Once the patient is physically and mentally stable, psychotherapy can start. Inpatient therapy may be necessary before the patient becomes motivated enough to continue recovery on their own. Enforced treatment is typically required for these disorders. Addicts are treated for cravings, and eating disorder patients are treated to sustain healthy eating patterns.

Step Four – Continuation of the “Continuum” Treatment Plan

“Continuum” is where treatment begins to change, depending on the patient’s specific needs. This is done to help the patient shift from demanding inpatient care to independent care. Continuum helps the patient grow through the recovery process. All patients begin in different stages of their disorders, and if relapse occurs, they will need to be moved back to a more structured treatment plan.

Treating Eating Disorders and Addiction

Serenity Acres helps individuals, and their families who are dealing with addiction. We have customized treatment options for your specific addiction or disorder and help find the underlying issues. The professionals at Serenity Acres are here to help you regain control of your life. We provide medical, wellness, and clinical programs. If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction or an eating disorder, contact us today.