Anorexia and Addiction “Joined at the Hip”

Anorexia and addiction are a common occurring dual diagnosis. Dual diagnosis occurs when someone has both a mental health disorder as well as an alcohol or drug problem. These illnesses are referred to as co-occurring and have a track record of influencing the symptoms of one another greatly.

Research suggests that up to 35 percent of individuals suffering from a substance abuse disorder also have a co-occurring eating disorder. Conversely, as many as 50 percent of individuals who suffer from an eating disorder also have problems with drugs or alcohol abuse. It is because of the strong link between anorexia and addiction that these illnesses must be viewed as interrelated and treated that way as well.

What is Anorexia Nervosa?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, anorexia is a “potentially life-threatening eating disorder defined by a refusal to maintain minimal body weight within 15 percent of an individual's normal weight. Other essential features of this disorder include an intense fear of gaining weight, a distorted body image, denial of the seriousness of the illness, and amenorrhea (absence of at least three consecutive menstrual cycles when they are otherwise expected to occur.)”

Anorexia most commonly affects young women, although the illness can and has affected men as well. Anorexia and addiction have one of the higher morbidity rates of dual diagnosis, as anorexia on its own is the most fatal of all eating disorders. It is thought that about 1 percent of all women in the United States have suffered from or will develop anorexia at some point in their lives.

Shared Risk Factors of Anorexia and Addiction

The first comprehensive report on the co-occurring disorders of substance abuse and eating disorders was published in 2003 by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

The startling rates encouraged the former US Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare to declare “ eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are joined at the hip with smoking, binge drinking and illicit drug use.” He then prompted parents, teachers and caretakers alike “where you see the smoke of eating disorders, look for the fire of substance abuse and vice versa.” The report revealed that some common shared risk factors of anorexia and addiction are as follows:

  • Occur in times of transition or stress
  • Common brain chemistry
  • Common family history
  • Low self-esteem, depression, anxiety or impulsivity
  • History of sexual or physical abuse
  • Unhealthy parental behaviors and low monitoring of children’s activities
  • Unhealthy peer norms and social pressures
  • Susceptibility to messages from advertising and entertainment media

Anorexia and addiction can have very similar beginnings. They can both often begin from a place of low self esteem and are both often used as coping mechanisms to try and deal with difficult emotions or troubling experiences. That said, it’s no surprise that they share so many common risk factors as well as characteristics.

Regardless of whether the eating disorder began first and led to the substance abuse or vice versa, the treatment strategy remains the same. Experts agree that the co-occurring disorders of anorexia and addiction must be treated at the same time in order to be effective.

Destination Hope: The Women’s Program is a leading drug, alcohol and dual diagnosis treatment center for women in South Florida. Their gender controlled facility and intimate size provides women with the nurturing, comforting environment they need in order to recover from their illnesses safely and healthily.

Destination Hope also has a nutritionist on staff in addition to their highly trained clinicians and counselors to teach women the importance of healthy eating throughout their treatment. If there’s a women in your life who may have fallen victim to the co-occurring illnesses of eating disorders and substance abuse, please put her in touch with the caring folks at Destination Hope today at 1-866-808-7111. Give her someone to talk to so she no longer has to suffer in silence.

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