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The Relationship Between Eating Disorders And Alcohol

People drink alcohol for many reasons: to relax, to subdue anxiety, or to be social. While the casual use of alcohol can lead to moderate health concerns over time, alcohol abuse can exacerbate mental health disorders like eating disorders or vice versa. The connection between alcohol use disorders (AUD) and eating disorders has been well-documented over the years.

The 2 disorders share common behavioral associations that often lead one into another. Research shows that bulimia nervosa, a type of eating disorder, and AUDs are the most common co-occurrence. Research makes this connection because alcohol abuse could be a primary trigger for binge eating in those with bulimia nervosa. Moreover, individuals with an eating disorder use alcohol as an appetite suppressor and a compensatory behavior to avoid food. 

While these disorders do not discriminate against who it affects, adolescents and women are the most affected among those with co-occurring eating disorders and an alcohol addiction. Only 10% of all cases involve men. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that approximately 50% of women with eating disorders have a substance use disorder (SUD). Conversely, among those with a SUD, rates of eating disorders are also high. 

What Are Eating Disorders?

An eating disorder is a behavioral condition categorized by a severe and persistent disturbance in eating habits. Additional symptoms include preoccupations with food, weight, or anxiety about eating. This condition affects physical, psychological, and social functions in individuals. The main types of eating disorders include:

  • Anorexia Nervosa
  • Bulimia Nervosa
  • Binge Eating Disorder
  • Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder
  • Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder
  • Pica
  • Rumination Disorder

The vast amount of people that these disorders affect is staggering. At any given time, eating disorders affect several million people, most often women between the ages of 12 and 35. 

Why Are Eating Disorders And Alcohol Abuse Linked?

Behaviors associated with eating disorders can become driven in ways that appear similar to an alcohol addiction. These behaviors include restrictive eating or avoidance of certain foods, binge eating, purging by vomiting or laxative misuse, or compulsive exercise. The binging and purging behavior in bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorders are associated with a high risk of developing an AUD. For example, a clinical study found that when individuals with bulimia nervosa tried to restrict alcohol intake, it often led to binge drinking

Additionally, like AUDs, genes and heritability play a role in determining who is at a higher risk for developing an eating disorder. However, individuals can still encounter these disorders without any prior family history of the condition.

Environment plays a crucial role in determining who is more at risk of developing these disorders. Pressure to diet, or weight loss due to a medical condition or life stressor, can be a gateway to developing an eating disorder. These environmental triggers often appear in adolescence or young adulthood. 

Signs Of An Eating Disorder

Due to the varying types of eating disorders, multiple warning signs can be exhibited by someone struggling. These signs may be difficult to point out, but recognizing them can help individuals reach the care they need. The following are the most commonly associated warning signs:

  • Excess talk about weight loss or gain.
  • A pattern of eating only a selection of low-calorie foods.
  • A pattern of intermittent binge eating calorie-dense foods.
  • Excessive exercise or movement (like pacing or fidgeting).
  • Laxative or diet pills abuse.
  • Refusing to eat with others.
  • Recurrent episodes of inappropriate purging behaviors to prevent weight gain.
  • Intense fear of gaining weight. 
  • Distorted body image.    

You cannot always tell that someone is experiencing an eating disorder just by looking at them. Not everyone who is experiencing this disorder will look overtly thin or underweight. This condition can reach anyone regardless of age, race, or gender. While there is no single way to tell if someone is experiencing an eating disorder, the signs listed above can help indicate that an individual is experiencing deeper challenges that need professional assistance.

Treatment For Eating Disorders And Alcohol Addiction

Treatment outcomes for individuals with co-occurring eating disorders and AUDs are often most effective with early identification. Because both of these disorders often develop in adolescence or early adulthood, it is imperative to intervene as quickly as possible. Treatment professionals must treat both conditions together, and while this is difficult, this multidisciplinary treatment method provides the best chance of long-term recovery.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy are considered some of the most promising approaches for treating these co-occurring disorders. Cognitive-behavioral therapy usually includes efforts to change thinking and behavioral patterns. This form of treatment teaches individuals suffering from psychological problems to learn better ways of coping with their problems, thereby relieving their symptoms and becoming more effective in their lives. Dialectical behavior therapy focuses on awareness of issues and choices, mood regulation techniques, coping skills, and impulse control practices.

Find Help Today

If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, an alcohol addiction, or both, there are a multitude of treatment centers devoted to long-lasting recovery. For more information on treatment options, contact a treatment provider today.

  • Author: Carmen McCrackin | Last Updated: March 17, 2022

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    Carmen McCrackin

    Carmen McCrackin earned a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Auburn and has over 3 years of professional writing experience. Her passion for writing and educating others led her to a career in journalism with a focus on mental health and social justice topics. Her main mission is to be a platform for all voices and stories, and to provide tangible resources to those seeking recovery for themselves or loved ones.

  • Medical Reviewer: David Hampton

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