Research has suggested that almost 50% of people with a diagnosed eating disorder are suffering from some sort of substance abuse as well. In comparison, the rest of the population that includes those without eating disorders shows only 9% of people abusing drugs. The scariest statistic is the rate of death; people who have both are not only more likely to die from a health related complication, they’re also more likely to commit suicide.
Disordered eating is beginning earlier and earlier, especially in young girls. In a three year study it was found that 40% of girls in 1st to 5th grade were trying to lose weight, while 65% of girls in junior high were dieting. Junior high girls who dieted at least once a week were more likely to become smokers than non-dieters while girls with disordered eating were more likely to use inhalants or try cocaine than girls with a healthy pattern of eating.
Sadly, alcohol abuse is the most common substance abused in people with ED. Although alcohol is high in calories (and people with ED tend to avoid calories as much as possible), it’s been reportedly used to aid in regurgitation and dehydration, two common ways that those with an ED attempt to lose weight and maintain their weight loss. In the aforementioned study, bulimic women who were dependent upon alcohol were reported to have a much higher rate of suicide attempts as well as higher rates of anxiety, personality disorders, and other substance dependence than bulimic women who weren’t abusing alcohol.
Additionally, people with an ED were found to be abusing prescription drugs, particularly thyroid medication and psychostimulants like Ritalin. The most common substance abused were over the counter drugs, especially laxatives, diuretics, and newer weight loss drugs like Alli and Orlistat.
There’s no particular onset of a drug abuse pattern in those with an ED. It can occur before, after, or even during treatment for an ED. It’s important to note that the appetite suppression and rapid/significant weight loss caused by substance abuse can trigger an ED; it isn’t always one causing the other. If the ED is present first, then substance abuse may be used to either quell the resulting psychological distress that an ED can cause or it’s used to continue or sustain weight loss. It’s been found that people whose ED came first are more likely to be diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorders, social phobia, anxiety, and depression.
Recovery approaches from ED and substance abuse are often remarkably different, thus the need to do appropriate research when seeking professional assistance. For example, some substance abuse support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous suggest members identify themselves with their “disease” while those with an ED are encouraged to shy away from identifying themselves with or even considering they have a disease at all. After years of self-punishment talk, their identity becomes negative labels such as “I’m fat” or “I’m ugly” so when they do seek treatment, it’s important they step away from that pattern of behavior. When treating an ED that co-occurs with substance abuse, it is then often very important that the approaches are working toward the same goal and not working against each other. Cognitive Behavior Therapy based programs combined with support groups such as S.M.A.R.T. recovery that focus on the actual behaviors and how to change them, along with ones self-image can be, and often are very successful.
When people do seek treatment, it’s important to find a care provider that is not just an eating disorder specialist but also adept in assessing their patients’ substance abuse. After a total assessment, a treatment plan can be determined, deciding if inpatient, residential, or outpatient are better fits for their patient. Obviously, the more intensive the approach, the more likely recovery can be achieved. Depending on the type of substance abuse, the facility should be carefully analyzed for their ability to handle patients who may go through a more rigorous detoxification process and/or require methadone maintenance.
At St Gregory Retreat Center, we provide a residential program for men and women, separating the two into two different centers for maximum patient comfort and specialized care. Our providers understand that addiction can help to alter our patients’ brain function, while striving to fix those chemical imbalances with cognitive behavioral therapy, behavior modification, neurocognitive and neurochemical therapies. We also focus on health and wellness, assisting people in learning how to live a healthy lifestyle, both physically and mentally. Finally, once patients are ready, we assist with thorough life planning, patient after care and continuous recovery coaching. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction or a co-occurring eating disorder, please contact us today.