Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse

Eating disorders and substance abuse are both destructive conditions that can lead to a host of mental and physical consequences. Today, more evidence is linking eating and substance abuse disorders, suggesting the two may be more similar than previously thought. Moreover, these disorder often co-occur. Read on to find out how the similarly the body reacts to cravings, tolerance and withdrawal, and the inability to quit from both eating and substance disorders.
The Brain’s Reward System
Both eating and substance abuse disorders have similar effects on the brain. Food and drugs inundate the brain with dopamine, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter that leads to feelings of pleasure. The more frequently these substances are used to trigger dopamine, the less dopamine the brain produces under normal circumstances. This change leads to the need for more and more of a substance or behavior to maintain adequate levels of dopamine in the brain, which then can lead to abuse and dependency.
Battling Cravings
Changes in the brain described above can also lead to intense cravings for the substance or foods that produce the same “high.” Scientists at Yale University found they could stimulate the same pleasure centers in the brain when they showed a picture of a milkshake to people with eating disorders as when they showed cocaine to people with a substance abuse disorder.
Dr. Nora Valkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, suggested food could actually be more addictive than crack and heroin. Her theory was based on the fact that while only 20 percent of drug users become dependent, more than two-thirds of adults in the U.S. are overweight or obese. Dr. Valkow has also acknowledged that her theory is controversial and not fully proven at this time.
Tolerance and Withdrawal
People that abuse substances will find over time they need larger amounts of the substance to achieve the same “high,” a phenomenon known as tolerance. People with eating disorders may also find that eating large amounts of a high-calorie food like chips or cookies only leads to them wanting more.
Both disorders can result in unpleasant side effects if the food or substance is stopped abruptly. Side effects might range from tremors and anxiety to headaches and other physical symptoms. Studies on rats confirmed the presence of withdrawal symptoms when fatty or sugary foods were taken away.
Inability to Quit
People with substance dependency and eating disorders may find that they are unable to stop using or eating, even if they experience negative consequences from their behavior. People dependent on drugs may continue to use even if they run into personal or legal trouble from their behavior. Compulsive eaters may also continue to eat even when the additional weight leads to severe health problems like cardiovascular disease or diabetes.
Treating Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse
Because eating and substance use disorders have a number of common links, treatment for either disorder will only be effective if both conditions are addressed simultaneously. This means finding a treatment facility experienced in working with patients with both conditions, addressing many of the common issues that led to the co-occurring disorders.
At Simple Recovery, we help patients suffering from co-occurring disorders to increase their odds of a successful treatment program and recovery. To learn more, contact Simple Recovery today at 888-743-0490.