There appears to be a strong link between eating disorders and substance abuse, with studies revealing people experiencing an eating disorder are at a higher risk of developing substance abuse problems, and vice versa.
While not all people experiencing an eating disorder will also take part in drug or alcohol abuse, it is important to be aware that the similar risk factors and personality traits mean people experiencing an eating disorder are much more susceptible to this problem than the general population. People with an eating disorder should be aware of their behaviour regarding alcohol and drugs to ensure destructive behaviours aren’t transferred from one outlet to another.
In 2003, a comprehensive report entitled Food for thought – substance abuse and eating disorders was released in the United States by the National Centre on Addiction and Substance Abuse. This 73-page report was the first comprehensive examination into the relationship between eating disorders and substance abuse. The results revealed anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are the eating disorders most commonly linked to substance abuse, and up to 50% people with eating disorders also abuse alcohol or illicit drugs.
It is important to note that while the report was compiled in the United States and contains American statistics, these are considered to be largely representative of Australian trends. In any situation whereby there is an absence of pertinent Australian research, statistics out of the US or the UK are acceptable.
An interesting finding was the shared risk factors and characteristics of eating disorders and substance abuse:
Shared risk factors
- Occurs in times of transition or stress
- Common brain chemistry
- Common family history
- Low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, impulsivity
- History of sexual or physical abuse
- Unhealthy parental behaviours and low monitoring of children’s activities
- Unhealthy peer norms and social pressures
- Susceptibility to messages from advertising and entertainment media
Obsessive preoccupation, craving, compulsive behaviour, secretiveness, rituals
- Experience mood altering effects, social isolation
- Linked to other psychiatric disorders, suicidal ideation
- Challenging to treat, can be life threatening
- Chronic diseases with high relapse rates
- Require intensive therapy