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The Connection Between Addiction & Eating Disorders

Jessica McConnan By Jessica McConnan, M.A. on March 16, 2016

Although the two may not seem connected, there’s a strong correlation between addiction and eating disorders. It’s estimated that around 50 percent of those diagnosed with eating disorders also struggle with addiction to drugs or alcohol. That means these people are five times more likely to be addicted than the general population, making the connection between addiction and eating disorders more than just a coincidence.

Shared Brain Connection

While it’s impossible at this point to say that one of these disorders causes the other, it is important to note that both addiction and eating disorders are impacted by the same neurotransmitters in the same area. Binging and purging, as well as purging alone, work in the brain’s VTA, an area commonly referred to as the limbic or reward system. This complex system releases feel-good chemicals into the body and is where addiction occurs. Since both eating disorders and addiction result in an increase of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the VTA, it may indicate the two are related. Or perhaps if someone is more susceptible to addiction, he or she may be more susceptible to an eating disorder, or vice versa.

It’s also hypothesized that the correlation between the two is associated with problems related to impulse control. For those who binge and purge, or just purge, they’re driven by compulsions to do it, even though they understand the negative consequences. When they’re especially stressed or anxious, it’s almost as though they have to do it, lacking any control to stop it. The same occurs for many drug addicts, with poor impulse control, their use grows exponentially until they’re physically addicted.

Limited Coping Skills

Perhaps another reason for the connection between addiction and eating disorders is a lack of appropriate coping skills. For those with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating, drugs may have been used to help suppress the appetite or deal with the side effects of the eating disorder. Already prone to compulsive behaviors, drug use soon becomes habitual.

Like addicts, many people with eating disorders binge or purge to take some sort of control over their lives. Whether it is a way to forget past abuses, low self-esteem, or just to escape the present, the root causes of the two can be similar.

Integrated Approach

For a person with both an eating disorder and an addiction, an integrated treatment approach is necessary. When this doesn’t occur, the disorders tend to work against each other; when there’s no drug use, the eating disorder flares out of control. Once the eating disorder is stabilized, a drug binge occurs and the addiction spirals downward. To stop this process, the two must be addressed together. If considering inpatient drug and alcohol treatment, ensure the facility is able to monitor those with eating disorders, as best practice is to have specific protocols available and already in place.

Do You Need Integrated Treatment?

If you’re in need of a dual diagnosis facility that capable of handling addiction and an eating disorder, we can help. Call 800-654-0987 today to learn more about your treatment options and continue your journey towards recovery.

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