Tackling Substance Use Disorders and Eating Disorders Together

On the surface, it may not seem like individuals with substance use disorders and those with eating disorders would have much in common. But when you get down to it, there are actually many similarities. Both groups struggle to manage their relationship with certain substances, be it drugs, alcohol, or food. Both have underlying causes that involve genetics, environment, and social factors. And both are chronic conditions that individuals deal with throughout their lives, no matter how long they have been in recovery.

The National Eating Disorder Association reveals some eye-opening statistics regarding substance use and eating disorders:

“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.”

These conditions are often co-occurring, and Crossroads has seen this trend in the women it has treated over the years, making integrated treatment even more important. It is not enough to treat one or the other; they must be treated together due to the interrelated nature of these conditions and the impact they can have on one another.

Exploring the Relationship Between Substance Use and Eating Disorders

It is not unusual to see clients present with both an eating disorder and a substance use disorder. Drugs and alcohol can either increase or decrease a person’s appetite depending on the type of substance used. This can in turn affect body image and the desire for individuals to try to control their weight. At the same time, people may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way of coping with how eating disorders make them feel. It can quickly become a vicious cycle.

Plus, both conditions involve an aspect of impulsivity. It can be difficult to manage urges when it comes to indulging in food or keeping oneself from purging or restricting food intake. At the same time, it can be tough to resist the temptation to experiment with drugs or alcohol. These behaviors can lead to changes in brain chemistry that contribute to addiction and eating disorders.

Other similarities include:

  • Increasing frequency of the behavior
  • Significant focus on substance use or eating behaviors and withdrawal from other activities
  • Continued engagement in these behaviors despite negative consequences
  • Unable to stop using drugs/alcohol or engaging in eating disorder behaviors even when one wants to

Common Eating Disorders

Just as there are different types of substance use disorders, there are different types of eating disorders as well. They include:

  • Anorexia Nervosa: Extreme weight loss or difficulty maintaining an appropriate weight for one’s body type.
  • Bulimia Nervosa: Cycling between binge eating and purging to minimize changes in weight.
  • Binge Eating Disorder: Consuming large quantities of food at once with little control followed by feelings of guilt or shame.
  • Otherwise Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED): Individuals do not meet the criteria for anorexia or bulimia but have significant feeding or eating issues.
  • Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID): Limiting the amount or type of food eaten, but unrelated to issues with body image. Could be due to sensory issues, lack of interest in food, fear of choking of vomiting, or other causes.

Treating Eating Disorders and Substance Use Disorders Together

Many of the same strategies used to treat substance use disorders are also beneficial for treating eating disorders and vice versa. That is why Crossroads incorporates evidence-based practices such as dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), motivational interviewing, and mindfulness-based relapse prevention into treatment programs. Medical nutritional therapy and nutritional counseling are also used to address relationships with food and how substance misuse or eating disorders have impacted clients’ health and eating routines.

With a focus on treatment for women, Crossroads’ residential program ensures that women are immersed in a safe, structured, and non-judgmental environment during recovery. Women and men are impacted differently by these disorders, and women can connect with other women who share their struggles and challenges. It creates an environment of understanding, compassion, and support. In addition, A Women’s Way Through the 12 Steps is used which tailors addiction recovery to how it is experienced by women specifically.

Substance use and eating disorders affect virtually every aspect of a women’s life, so comprehensive treatment to address these issues is essential. Expressive and complementary therapies as well as equine therapy help women to share their thoughts and feelings and work through challenges in a variety of ways. They can find different outlets that they are able to connect with and that facilitate healing and recovery.

Ongoing Support for Eating Disorders

Recovery is a journey, not a destination. It is something that women must always be aware of and working on. Through Crossroads’ intensive outpatient program (IOP) for eating disorders, women can continue their recovery journey in a structured program that meets three days per week for three hours per day. This can help them continue to build their confidence in their recovery and further develop the skills and relapse prevention strategies they have been working on. Each woman prepares her own meal for lunch that is evaluated by a dietitian and clinician to ensure it meets her specified needs and meal plan. Then, women eat together as they discuss challenges, achievements, and strategies in eating disorder recovery. The same types of evidence-based approaches used in residential treatment are also used in IOP.

Meeting the Needs of the Whole Family

Both eating disorders and substance use disorders raise concern from family and friends about the person’s health and well-being. That is why it is important for the entire family to engage in therapy, counseling, or educational programs. They can share their thoughts and feelings in a safe space with the support of master level clinicians and learn to improve communication, relationship building, and other skills necessary throughout recovery. Plus, they can develop a deeper understanding of these disorders and the role they play in recovery, both for themselves and their loved one.

It is not too late to seek help for eating disorders or addiction. At Crossroads, women can find truly integrated care that addresses the unique challenges they face and helps them to remember who they wanted to be as they build healthier routines and overcome challenges.

[cta]Don’t let eating disorders and substance misuse control your life. Get on the road to recovery at Crossroads.[/cta]