Of all the people that are treated for addiction in the United States, 20-30% are dealing with an eating disorder simultaneously. These co-occurring disorders often go hand-in-hand and cause the expression of mental health concerns, which can include:
There are several reasons why there is an overlap between eating disorders and drug abuse. The most obvious, but usually overlooked, reason is that they are both mental illnesses. The National Institutes of Health identifies both addiction and eating disorders as chronic brain diseases. Additionally, both of these disorders commonly arise from shared comorbidities like depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc, with many of these stemming from a low sense of self-esteem. As largely arising from a need to cope with unresolved mental health or emotional issues, both conditions are likely to arise in individuals who allow certain issues to go unacknowledged and untreated.
It is mostly in young adults that this overlap is frequent, and this is due to the fact that they tend to be exposed to more societal expectations and pressures than older adults. Additionally, media such as TV and film tend to glamorize drug and alcohol use and frequently present people with unrealistic expectations of beauty and the human body. Just look at any TV show or movie to see the subtle messages received by today’s youth.
Drugs and alcohol take a toll on the body and its vital organs. Addiction is also known to change brain chemistry and certain brain functions. Interestingly enough, eating disorders can have the same effects on the body and brain. Over time, addiction saturates the brain with “feel-good” neurotransmitters as a result of stimulation from drugs, alcohol or an eating disorder. Our brains have special reward centers which are generally stimulated by certain behaviors, such as:
These substances and behaviors have the ability to hijack this system, which causes the brain to block unpleasant feelings in response to the stimulus – such as drugs, alcohol, or food – making it a desperately desired substance, eventually creating addiction and dependency.
Fortunately, both eating disorders and addiction are treatable. It is recommended that both be treated together, as co-occurring issues. This is known as Dual Diagnosis Treatment. However, most treatment programs are not equipped to treat individuals who have dual diagnosis. It is key that individuals who have been diagnosed with both receive treatment for both, or the problem will remain unsolved.
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