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Are You Self-Medicating With Food, Drugs, or Alcohol? Signs of Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse

Updated: Oct 3, 2022

There is a closer association between eating disorders and substance abuse than most people realize. Studies have shown that anywhere from 17-46% of individuals who deal with substance abuse also struggle with some type of eating disorder. Why is that, though? What’s the connection between the two?

Unfortunately, the association isn’t fully understood yet. What we don’t know is if one issue triggers another, what drives both disorders at once, or whether it might be a coincidence that they both occur. There are, however, some things we do know about the connection, and how it might affect you. We'll take a closer look at that link as well as some of the signs of eating disorders and substance abuse, so you or someone you love can get the help they need right away.

Weight Changes and Drug Use

One theory as to why these two issues are connected has to do with weight loss.

It’s not uncommon for individuals to take “diet pills,” but some people go to extremes by trying things like methamphetamines to lose weight. That creates a two-fold problem when it comes to addiction. First, methamphetamines can indeed contribute to weight loss. As someone starts to see results, they might be tempted to take more or start abusing the drugs at an alarming rate.

Second, there’s no question that methamphetamines are highly addictive. Even if initially taken with some type of weight loss goal in mind, that can quickly be forgotten as a “need” for the drugs develops.

Understanding the Connection

Some people believe that eating disorders should be classified as a type of addiction. In looking at things that way, it becomes easier to see the connection when it comes to substance abuse. People with both substance abuse issues and eating disorders tend to share come psychological characteristics, including things like similar brain chemistry.

It’s not uncommon for people with substance abuse issues and eating disorders to have low self-esteem or deal with anxiety or depression. Many come from a family with a lot of negative history, or even from a family where abuse was prevalent.

While the link between these two issues isn’t 100% clear yet, research has shown that the co-morbidity rate is alarming. Both substance abuse issues and eating disorders are dangerous. Together, they can increase your risk of death.

What Should You Do?

It’s important to understand that these are two separate disorders, no matter how they might be linked. Recognizing how one impacts the other in your own life will make it easier to determine where you should get started in your treatment journey. The treatments for the conditions are quite different; substance abuse treatment, for example, focuses on abstinence from substances. Most treatments for eating disorders work to eliminate dieting and the need for over-control.

It’s possible to treat both issues together, though it’s rare. Instead, most people go through treatments in a sequential matter, dealing with the most severe and/or dangerous first. If your physical health is in jeopardy because of your eating disorder, you may want to focus on that first.

No matter what your treatment looks like, getting to the bottom of both disorders is crucial for success. People who abuse drugs or go to extremes with their eating habits are often looking for some kind of control or ways to cope. There’s usually more going on beneath the surface. Digging out those “root causes” can force you to start to deal with them, rather than using harmful habits to self-medicate.

It’s never too late to seek out help. If you’re struggling with any of the characteristics talked about here, don’t hesitate to contact me today.

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