Co-occurring Addiction and Eating Disorders

Girl looking off into the distance

When a person experiences both a substance use disorder and a mental health disorder, this is referred to as co-occurring disorders. Co-occurring addiction and eating disorders are not uncommon. Research has revealed valuable information about the relationship between addiction and eating disorders.

The Prevalence of Co-occurring Addiction and Eating Disorders

According to The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, drug and alcohol abuse occurs among half of individuals with eating disorders. This is considerably higher than the 9 percent rate seen among the general population.

Co-occurring Addiction and Eating Disorders Among Specific Populations

Co-occurring addiction and eating disorders are widespread, but there are differences in drug use between specific populations. A study published in Addictive Behaviors found connections between varying forms of disordered eating and what substances were abused:

  • Study participants who engaged in bingeing were more likely to abuse alcohol
  • Those who engaged in dieting with purging were more likely to engage in stimulant abuse
  • Those who combined dieting with bingeing were likely to abuse prescription drugs

Additionally, a study in a 2010 edition of the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that women who were diagnosed with bulimia were more likely to have an alcohol use disorder or an illicit drug use disorder, compared to those without bulimia. Women diagnosed with anorexia were also more likely to abuse alcohol.

This study also found that women with bulimia tended to develop addiction after the eating disorder, whereas women with anorexia were more likely to develop an addiction prior to the eating disorder. Study authors inferred that individuals with anorexia might first use substances to attempt to lose weight, whereas those with bulimia might begin using drugs to control the urge to binge.

Treatment for Co-occurring Addiction and Eating Disorders

Fortunately, individuals who are diagnosed with co-occurring addiction and eating disorders can respond effectively to treatment. Researchers for a 2011 edition of the Journal of Addictions Nursing found that individuals with eating disorders showed significant improvements six months after treatment, regardless of whether they also had a co-occurring substance use disorder. The study concluded that eating disorders and substance use disorders could be treated simultaneously, providing hope for those who suffer from co-occurring addiction and eating disorders.