No parent wants to see their children fight the battle of an eating disorder or substance addiction, but parents who spot one in their child may also see signs of the other because the two often co-occur. Recognizing ongoing struggles in your kids can hurt deeply, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you contemplate the best way to get them help. Thankfully, there is help available for both eating disorders and substance addiction, and the best way for parents to find help for their kids is to understand both conditions individually and in relation to each other.
Co-occurring Eating Disorders and Addiction
When individuals struggle with both a mental health disorder and a substance use disorder or addiction, these are referred to as co-occurring disorders. Co-occurring disorders are very common, but they often go undiagnosed. It is also common for one condition to be treated without the other, leading to a non-integrated recovery process. Dual diagnosis patients need specialized treatment in order to better understand the connection between the diagnoses and how they may exacerbate or influence each other.
Many people with an eating disorder like anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder also have a co-occurring mental health disorder such as depression, anxiety or addiction. “Up to 50% of individuals with eating disorders abused alcohol or illicit drugs, a rate five times higher than the general population. Up to 35% of individuals who abused or were dependent on alcohol or other drugs have also had eating disorders, a rate 11 times greater than the general population.” (NEDA)
The Scope of Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are considered biopsychosocial conditions because they stem from a complex combination of contributing factors. Consequently, eating disorders affect multiple facets of a person’s health, including physical, mental, social and emotional. A person’s health will likely deteriorate as the eating disorder persists, showing signs of weight fluctuation and stress as well as less obvious symptoms from long-term malnutrition like inconsistent menstruation in females, infertility, heart disease and kidney disease.
Individuals with an eating disorder may also fight negative thoughts about themselves and deal with self-hate. For many, symptoms of depression and anxiety will develop over time, and all these factors combine with the fear of eating in front of others, which will keep them away from social gatherings. All of these areas must be adequately addressed to help an individual find true healing and have the tools necessary to fully recover.
How Eating Disorders and Addictions Affect Each Other
Both eating disorders and substance use disorders have similar effects on the brain, particularly the pathways controlling feelings of reward and pleasure. When these neurotransmitters become disordered, they wreak havoc on the body. In addition, the body physically craves the substance. With an eating disorder, the body craves the feelings. In both cases, they pursue the behavior that led to those enhanced feelings, whether through food rituals or substances.
Eating disorders and substance addictions share several risk factors, including genetics, family history, temperament, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and low self-worth. People who have eating disorders often abuse substances include alcohol, amphetamines, heroin, cocaine, diuretics, laxatives, and emetics. (NEDA)
Substance abuse often enhances personality traits like impulsivity, lack of self-control and moodiness. All of these issues make healing from an eating disorder much more difficult. Also, substance abuse can cause a decline in health and a decreased concern for personal nutrition. Poor health will only exacerbate the problems of an eating disorder, which can lead to additional, more serious physical complications.
Help for Eating Disorders and Addiction
For both eating disorders and substance addiction, early treatment improves the likelihood of full recovery.
Treatment providers for eating disorders and substance addiction are often separated. Both fields have specialists, but it is important to work with experts who are familiar with treating both conditions. If you have recognized that your child has both an eating disorder and substance addiction, it can be very helpful to seek treatment from providers who are trained to treat co-occurring conditions.
Parents who have a child with both an eating disorder and substance addiction should educate themselves about both conditions. Work with specialists who have experience addressing both substance abuse and dependence. If you are considering sending your child to inpatient treatment for their eating disorder, consider whether you need to find a facility can accommodate a patient who requires medical detoxification from substance addiction – many cannot. If you are considering sending your child to inpatient treatment for their substance addiction, find a facility that is qualified to treat eating disorders – many are not.
By Becca Owens, Foundations Recovery Network
Foundations Recovery Network’s mission is to be the leader in evidence-based, integrated treatment for co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders through clinical services, education, and research. Our vision is to be the best at delivering effective, lasting treatment and providing superb experiences across our continuum of care in all places.