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The Link Between Addiction and Eating Disorders

Eating disorders and substance addiction are both forms of mental illness. In fact, they are two of the most dangerous mental illnesses, leading to more deaths than any other type of mental illness. Over 10,000 deaths each year are directly related to eating disorders. 50,000 deaths, an even more astonishing and concerning number, are directly related to opioid addiction.

While many people know of the dangers of both eating disorders and substance addiction, not many are aware of the link between the two mental illnesses. Research has found that nearly 50% of people struggling with an eating disorder are also struggling with drug or alcohol abuse, which is five times higher than the rate of the general population.

What risk factors lead to addiction and eating disorders?

A combination of genetic, environmental, and mental factors can lead someone to develop an eating disorder, an addiction, or both. Here are a few risk factors and ways to manage them.


Research has found evidence that anorexia and bulimia have strong genetic components. Similarly, roughly half of a person’s susceptibility to substance addiction is related to their genes. Many genes involved in eating disorders are also found in people with substance abuse disorders. Because of this, if you have a close relative who has struggled with an eating disorder or an addiction, you may be at a higher risk for developing a similar disorder.

Luckily, if you’re aware of your genetic predisposition toward addiction or an eating disorder, you can engage in healthy behaviors to decrease risk. Avoid using highly addictive substances and always inform your doctor of your predisposition toward addiction when they’re prescribing medication. You can also work with a mental health professional to develop healthy mental attitudes toward eating. With just a little bit of awareness, you can keep yourself healthy.

Unstable Environments and Unresolved Trauma

An unstable or dangerous home environment or unresolved trauma can greatly increase an individual’s risk of developing an eating disorder or addiction. This is especially true when the trauma was experienced in childhood.

A study on Adverse Childhood Experiences found that every adversity experienced by a child doubles, triples, or quadruples a person’s likelihood of developing a substance abuse disorder. Additionally, 75% of individuals in substance abuse treatment report histories of abuse and trauma. Similarly, 75% of women enrolled in treatment for eating disorders report a history of trauma.

Because dangerous environments and unresolved trauma can lead to eating disorders and substance abuse, it’s essential to seek mental health treatment to manage the symptoms of trauma. This is especially important for children who have experienced trauma because children are extra susceptible to developing long-term mental health issues following a traumatic event.

Diagnosis of Other Mental Health Disorders

Roughly one-third of people with substance abuse disorders also suffer from depression. Anxiety is also a common mental health issue that occurs in people with substance abuse disorders.

Many people with mental health disorders turn to substances as a coping mechanism. The same is true with eating disorders. Disordered eating is often a way for individuals to feel in control, which is why they might turn to an eating disorder when feeling out of control with their mental health.

Because of this, a diagnosis of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or another mental illness increases your risk of developing an eating disorder or a substance addiction. If you treat your mental illness with a healthcare professional, though, you’ll be able to manage the symptoms of your mental illness without turning to disordered eating or substance abuse.

Recognizing Signs of Eating Disorders and Addictions

Allowing an eating disorder to go untreated can be dangerous. If you’re unsure whether your own behavior or the behavior of a loved one is related to an eating disorder, watch for the following signs:

  • Excessive exercising
  • Extreme restrictions on food
  • Vomiting or purging after eating
  • Dramatic weight loss
  • Avoidance of eating in public places or with others
  • Obsessively tracking calories
  • Loss of menstrual cycle

If you’ve noticed any of these signs of an eating disorder in yourself or in a loved one, you should talk to a mental health professional or an eating disorder specialist. Treating an eating disorder early can prevent serious health problems. Early treatment also decreases the risk of developing a substance addiction in addition to the eating disorder.

There are also many signs that can tell you whether or not you should be concerned about your own drug and alcohol use or the drug and alcohol use of a loved one. Watch for these signs to determine whether you are dealing with an addiction:

  • Changes in appetite and sleep patterns
  • Enlarged pupils or smaller than usual pupils
  • Decreased attendance and suffering performance at school or work
  • Sudden change in social circle or favorite hobbies
  • Mood swings and irritability
  • Secrecy and dishonesty
  • Unexplained changes in personality

If you’re unsure whether the signs you see indicate an eating disorder or an addiction, it’s always best to consult with a medical professional. A professional can tell you if you or your loved one should seek treatment or support.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

When being treated for either an eating disorder or an addiction, it’s vital that your healthcare provider is aware of other co-occurring issues. It will be significantly harder to work through recovery from a drug or alcohol addiction when your eating disorder has not been treated. Dual diagnosis programs help you heal from both issues, allowing you to move forward with recovery and achieve a healthy and happy life.

If you are experiencing a substance addiction and an eating disorder, it’s best to seek treatment from a healthcare provider that specializes in treating dual diagnoses. While it may seem overwhelming to be treated for both issues, you’ll notice as you move toward recovery in one area, recovery in the other area will become easier.

Reach out to a provider to discuss the best treatment plan for you. If you have a loved one who could benefit from treatment, you can refer them to Jackson House Rehab, where they will receive the best support possible while beginning their journey to recovery.

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