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Direct Links Between Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders

written by: kodenthal • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 10/25/2010

There is definitely a direct link between substance abuse and eating disorders. As many as 50% of girls with eating disorders have a co-morbid addiction, and suffer from chemical dependency as well. The risk factors and the characteristics of the two diseases are almost identical.

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    Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders Facts and Figures

    As many as 50% of those with eating disorders suffer from chemical dependency according to studies performed by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Conversely, 35% of those with drug problems also have an eating disorder of some sort. The direct link between substance abuse and eating disorders is the use of external means to deal with internal problems; the person uses drugs and alcohol to escape life the same way those with eating disorders use food to cope with situations that baffle them.

    Although binge eating can also be found in those with substance abuse issues, the most common eating disorders associated with chemical dependency are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. A similar study of middle schoolers found that girls who develop eating disorders are four times as likely to become addicted to cocaine as girls without an eating disorder.

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    Common Abused Substances of those with Co-Morbid Addictions

    There are several reasons eating disorders and drug addictions go hand in hand. Many people with anorexia find that cocaine and heroin are great supplements to their restrictive behaviors. Cocaine is a natural appetite suppressant, and the drug user can go hours, if not days without food and without the desire to eat at all. Cocaine strips the body of the desire for food.

    Heroin works in a very similar way, masking the body of its natural hunger signals. Heroin is more often found abused by those with bulimia nervosa because of the side effects the drug has on the intestinal system. Heroin often makes people nauseous, which is an easy way for bulimics to rid themselves of unwanted calories. Amphetamines like Ritalin and Adderall are also abused for their appetite suppressant side effects. Meth and ecstasy, though not as commonly abused, have similar affects on the appetite, making them ideal candidates for abuse by anorexics.

    Even cigarettes can be abused by those seeking to suppress their appetite and curb hunger. More often than not, bulimics who have a co-morbid addiction to substances have a problem with alcohol. This is rarely found in anorexics because of the calories in liquor, but bulimics tend to favor the affects produced by alcohol.

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    Shared Characteristics and Risk Factors

    There is also a direct link between substance abuse and eating disorders when considering risk factors and characteristics of the two diseases. Both occur in times of stress, have common brain chemistry irregularities, have genetic pre-dispositions, are tied to low self-esteem and identity issues, have a direct link to trauma and PTSD and they both are affected by messages from peers and the media.

    The risk factors for both substance abuse and eating disorders are almost identical; meaning that if someone develops one disorder, the odds of them developing the other is very high. The common characteristics include compulsive and impulsive behaviors, mood and mind altering experiences, thoughts of suicide, isolation, high relapse rate, and both diseases are chronic and fatal.