The Relationship Between Substance Use Disorder and Eating Disorders

You’ve probably heard of eating disorders and substance use disorders, but are they really two sides of the same coin? Why do they often occur together? Here we’ll explore what these conditions are, how they overlap, and resources if you or a loved one is struggling.

Substance use disorder (SUD) is a chronic brain disease – it affects all aspects of life, including social relationships and work performance, as well as physical health. SUD is complicated by the fact that it can co-occur with other mental health conditions. These co-occurring disorders are sometimes referred to as dual diagnosis or comorbidities. For example, someone with an eating disorder (ED) may also use drugs or alcohol to cope with their symptoms and vice versa.

There is evidence that eating disorders and substance use disorder co-occur in close to 35% of individuals with eating disorders – this is 11-times higher than the general population (www.nationaleatingdisorders.org). There is no one clear reason why people with EDs are at higher risk for developing SUDs and vice versa, but there are some theories:

  • Stress may contribute to both conditions because they can make us feel overwhelmed and out of control. When we’re in this state, we may turn to food or alcohol (or drugs) to cope so we don’t feel so bad anymore – but none of these coping strategies work for long-term happiness!
  • Some evidence suggests that genetics play a role in both conditions: if you come from a family where members struggle with either substance misuse or disordered eating habits, you’re more likely than others who don’t share those genes to develop a disorder.

Millions of Americans Have a Substance Use Disorder or an Eating Disorder

It’s estimated that 1 in 10 adults will have a substance use disorder at some point in their lives (www.nih.gov), and over 40 million people in the United States have dealt with a SUD in the past year (www.whitehouse.gov). Eating disorders affect more women than men. However, eating disorders can occur at any age, with any gender, and can be diagnosed at any time during life. It is estimated that close to 30 million Americans will have an eating disorder at some point in their life (www.anad.org). Only 10% of people with an eating disorder or substance use disorder will seek and receive treatment.

Eating Disorders and Substance Use Disorder: Changes in Brain Chemistry

Brain chemistry is the chemical reactions that take place in the brain, which include neurotransmitters, proteins, and hormones. These reactions impact mood, sleep patterns, appetite, and other behaviors. EDs and SUD are associated with changes in serotonin levels and dopamine levels. All of these effects can impact each other: if one is affected by SUD then it’s likely that they will also be affected by another condition such as depression or anxiety or stress-related eating habits (which could lead back to EDs).

Brian Cuban Shares His Struggles and Triumphs in Order to Reduce Stigma and Help Others

We had the pleasure of having Brian Cuban, the younger brother of Dallas Mavericks owner and entrepreneur Mark Cuban, on the You Learn You Turn podcast! He is a Dallas-based attorney, author, and addiction recovery advocate. Brian has been in long-term recovery from alcohol, cocaine, and bulimia since April of 2007.

His first book, Shattered Image: My Triumph Over Body Dysmorphic Disorder, chronicles his first-hand experiences living with, and recovering from, twenty-seven years of eating disorders and Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD).

Brian’s most recent, best-selling book, The Addicted Lawyer, Tales of The Bar, Booze, Blow, & Redemption, is an unflinching look back at how addiction and other mental health issues destroyed his career as a once successful lawyer and how he and others in the profession redefined their lives in recovery and found redemption.

Resources for the Co-occurring Disorders

If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance use disorder, eating disorder, or both – it’s important to know that help is available to you. Here are some resources that can provide support and guidance through your journey in recovery:

Youturn Health: A virtual support program designed to help individuals by utilizing evidence-based strategies. The core components of the program include on-demand access to an online learning library, NAADAC-credentialed peer coaching, and care management where participants can quickly get support from trained healthcare professionals. View our resources on substance misuse here.

It’s important to remember that we all have the capacity for change – you can motivate yourself without being mean to yourself. If you feel like a failure because your life isn’t perfect, just remind yourself that every step toward progress is a victory. You might not be able to control where your path leads tomorrow, but today is within your grasp. And, you are not alone!