Interested in starting your healing journey? Speak with an admissions counselor now
We're Hiring!
Apply for Jobs Now

The Relationship Between Anorexia Nervosa and Addiction

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 7.7 million adults have co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders.[1] When people think of co-occurring conditions, they often imagine anxiety and OCD, or PTSD and depression. However, a common comorbidity in the United States is anorexia nervosa and addiction.

Similar to addiction, eating disorders like anorexia often begin as seemingly harmless habits that spiral out of control over time. These two conditions share many similarities, and the symptoms of each condition worsen the symptoms of the other. As a result, it is crucial to treat these conditions simultaneously.

What is Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that is characterized by a distorted body image that causes an individual to fear being overweight. Individuals who are diagnosed with anorexia tend to become fearful of eating food, typically causing them to experience significant weight loss due to starvation. Despite losing a significant amount of weight, the distorted body image will cause the individual to continue to fear that they are overweight.

The symptoms of anorexia nervosa include:

  • Altered body image
  • Low body weight
  • Extreme and irrational fear of being overweight
  • Denial of hunger and avoidance of food
  • Obsession with food preparation (counting calories, phobia of specific foods)
  • Unusual eating patterns
  • Lacking nutrients
  • Dehydration
  • Fatigue
  • Constipation, stomach pain, or bloating
  • Thinning hair and fine body hair (lanugo)
  • Dry and yellowish skin
  • Brittle nails
  • Addictive behaviors
  • Withdrawal from social situations
  • Depression
  • Irritability and mood changes
  • Loss of interest in sex

The symptoms of anorexia become dangerous quickly, as stopping food consumption causes many additional health risks. Additionally, individuals with anorexia may begin separate addictive behaviors in hopes of losing more weight. For example, excessive exercise, abusing substances that limit appetite, and more.

The Connection Between Anorexia and Addictive Behavior

Anorexia is a form of addictive behavior in and of itself. Individuals with anorexia have a preoccupation with food and eating, similar to an addict’s preoccupation with substances. Even further, people suffering from anorexia will continue their behaviors despite facing adverse consequences, total loss of control, and frequent relapses in symptoms. Because of these similarities, it’s easy to see how an individual with anorexia would fall victim to additional addictions.

The most common addictions for individuals with anorexia to experience are addiction to drugs, alcohol, and exercise.

Anorexia and Drug Addiction

Individuals struggling with anorexia are more prone to developing an addiction to substances. Oftentimes, anorexia and drug addiction co-occur because the person wants to numb their feelings of guilt and anxiety.

Additionally, people diagnosed with anorexia may abuse substances to stimulate rapid weight loss and suppress their appetite. Because of this, people with anorexia typically abuse drugs such as amphetamines, cocaine, laxatives, diuretics, and heroin.

The depression and anxiety that led to an individual’s anorexia may be suppressed by the abuse of these substances. However, this leads the individual to begin a vicious cycle of anorexia and drug abuse.

Anorexia and Alcoholism

Anorexia and alcoholism co-occur so often that people have begun to refer to this phenomenon as “drunkorexia”. Individuals who suffer from this condition will begin to drink more alcohol while eating less food. Alcohol is one of the most commonly abused substances among men and women with anorexia.[2]

Oftentimes, people think that it is okay to do this, as there are calories in alcohol. However, the calories found in alcohol are empty calories, meaning they do not provide the person with any nutrients. Therefore, individuals suffering from both anorexia and alcoholism are at high risk for dehydration, vitamin depletion, malnutrition, and an array of other physical and mental health conditions.

Anorexia and Exercise Addiction

Individuals with anorexia typically suffer from body dysmorphia and weight loss concerns. Because of this, these individuals are more prone to developing an addiction to exercise. Anorexia and exercise addiction go hand in hand, as exercise is the main method of weight loss for everyone. Unfortunately, people with anorexia tend to develop compulsive behaviors related to exercising.

Exercise addiction is dangerous on its own, but when you add counting calories and restricting food intake, it becomes increasingly worrisome. When a person is not consuming enough nutrients for their body and then burns an abundance of calories when exercising, they risk electrolyte imbalances, heart problems, muscle wasting, injuries, and sudden death.[3]

Treatment for Co-Occurring Anorexia and Addiction

Anorexia is known to co-occur with many different types of addictive behaviors. When anorexia and addiction co-occur, an individual’s symptoms will become exacerbated. While this can make treatment complicated, recovery is possible with dedication and professional help.

Individuals with these co-occurring conditions must attend a dual diagnosis treatment center that specializes in substance abuse, mental health, and nutrition. Both conditions must be treated simultaneously, otherwise, the active condition will cause a relapse in the other. Fortunately, dual diagnosis treatment centers like Mandala Healing Center are equipped with the right knowledge and expertise to provide a full spectrum of recovery for all patients. Contact us today to learn more