Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse

An eating disorder is an illness that disturbs normal eating habits such as excessive eating or restricting eating. Eating disorders are characterized by an abnormal attitude towards food that becomes an obsession. Those suffering the disorder will become excessively focused on their weight, shape and food choices which ultimately damage their health. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia, compulsive overeating and binge eating.

Anorexia nervosa is the condition where a person will starve themselves and exercise excessively with the ultimate goal of having their body weight as low as possible. Bulimia is characterized by binge eating and using purging or laxatives to control weight. Compulsive overeating, also known as food addiction, is the frenzied or uncontrolled consumption of food. Binge eating is the excessive consumption of food to the point of being sick or ill and is typically followed by purging or use of laxatives. Eating disorders damage a persons physical, mental and social health. They typically occur during teenage or young adulthood and can affect both men and women, although they have been found to be more common in women.

There are a number of different causes that may contribute to the development of an eating disorder. Some studies have shown that those who have a family history or genetic vulnerability to the condition may have an increased risk. Physical and sexual abuse may also be a factor, along peer pressure and poor parental eating habits. Eating disorders often occur in the presence of other disorders such as depression , anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder and personality disorders.

Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders

The National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse at Colombia University conducted a comprehensive study into the links between eating disorders and substance abuse. The 2003 study, Food For Thought – Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders found that individuals with an eating disorder are up to five times more likely to abuse alcohol or illicit drugs than those who do not suffer from an eating disorder. In addition, researchers found that those who abuse alcohol or drugs are up to 11 times more likely to also have an eating disorder.

Substance abuse and eating disorders have shared risk factors and shared characteristics. The risk factors include:

* Low self esteem
* Depression or anxiety
* Experience of stress
* History of physical or sexual abuse
* Family history of the condition/behavior
* Unhealthy parental eating habits or substance abuse
* Impulsive behavior
* Vulnerability and approval seeking personality

Common characteristics of the diseases include:

* Chronic diseases with high rates of relapse
* Intensive treatment required to treat the diseases
* Mood altering affects
* Social isolation
* Preoccupation with the behavior (drinking/drug use/eating/not eating)
* Compulsive behavior
* May be life-threatening

Young Women and Co-Occuring Disorders

The Colombia University study found that the most at risk age group for having co-occurring disorders are the young, in particular young women. Teenage girls with eating disorders are more common than other age groups and this group was found to smoke cigarettes, consume alcohol and take drugs at an increasing rate even without an eating disorder. Young girls who diet, some of whom are as young as 10, are taking drugs and drinking more frequently and in higher doses than those girls who don’t diet.

Drugs such as caffeine, alcohol, amphetamines, cocaine, heroin and over-the-counter medications such as diuretics or laxatives are taken to suppress appetite, increase metabolism and purge themselves.

Young women strive to fit the idea of the perfect woman who is slim. Media outlets like TV, advertising and internet sites are dedicated to the image of slim and sexy women that highly impressionable and insecure girls become obsessed with becoming. These images usually feature a model that is way under a normal body weight and has an unrealistic body type that creates an impractical and dangerous standard that young women want to become.

Eating Disorder as a Mental Disorder

An eating disorder is a recognized mental illness that is often characterized by the presence of a co-occurring disorder such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. Mental disorders can be worsened by the development of a substance abuse problem which occurs when an individual begins to self medicate their other problems with drugs and alcohol.

Self medication occurs when a person uses alcohol or drugs to treat the symptoms of an undiagnosed mental health problem. Drugs provide relief from the symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, isolation, anger and fear. The theory behind self medication suggests that when a person realizes that they get some relief from a drug or alcohol they begin to use it more and more which can lead to the development of a psychological and physiological addiction.

For someone with an eating disorder the abuse of stimulant or appetite suppressing drugs gives them an additional boost to weight loss and energy that the are striving to achieve. Abusing diet pills can be over the counter medications or supplements or prescription only medications that alter appetite, metabolism or absorption of fat or calories. They are usually abused as a form of quick-fix to weight loss and are designed to be used by people who are overweight. Diet pills can cause serious and dangerous side effects which is why they should only ever be used when under medical supervision.

Common side effects range from mood swings, chest pain, tremors, irregular heart beat, teeth grinding, exhaustion, nausea, anxiety, insomnia and stomach pain. In some cases individuals may experience hallucinations, seizures, severe headaches, blurred vision and vomiting. Some medications have been found to have dangerous interactions with other medications and can contribute to kidney or liver damage.

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