Content Reviewed by Jennifer Wheeler, Clinical & Community Outreach for New Life

Co-occurring disorders occur when a mental health disorder and substance use disorder coincides. There are three main reasons why these conditions often co-occur, including:

  1. There are shared risk factors between mental health and substance use
  2. Mental health disorders often contribute to the development of substance use through self-medication
  3. Substance use can contribute to the development of mental health conditions

When considering the prevalence of co-occurring conditions, many people may consider common mental health disorders, such as depression, occurring alongside substance use disorders, such as addiction. It is essential to recognize that co-occurring conditions stretch beyond common conditions like depression and anxiety. One type of co-occurring condition often left in the shadow of discussion is the combination of eating disorders and addiction.

The Basis of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are physical and mental health conditions that cause severe problems with how an individual thinks, feels and behaves regarding their eating habits. There are several different types of eating disorders, with the most common including:

  • Bulimia nervosa (BN): This eating disorder is characterized by recurrent and frequent episodes of binge eating followed by compensatory behavior, such as purging, fasting, excessive exercise or excessive use of laxatives.
  • Anorexia nervosa (AN): This eating disorder causes an individual to avoid eating, restrict their food intake or only eat small quantities of specific foods. There are two subtypes, including:
    • 1. Restrictive: limiting the amount of food and type of food being consumed
    • 2. Binge-purge: restricting the amount of food consumed along with episodes of binge-eating and purging
  • Binge eating disorder (BED): This disorder causes an individual to lose control over the amount of food they consume. However, unlike BN, binge-eating is not followed by compensatory behavior.

In the United States, the lifetime prevalence of these conditions is as follows:

  • BN = 0.9% for women and 0.3% for men
  • AN = 1.5% for women and 0.5% for men
  • BED = 3.5% for women and 2.0% for men

Why Do Eating Disorders and Addiction Co-Occur?

As mentioned previously, there are three main reasons why mental health and substance use disorders co-occur. When it comes to eating disorders and addiction, it is crucial to understand the behavioral component of each condition. No matter what situation started first, substance use can exacerbate symptoms of undiagnosed or untreated eating disorders and vice versa. One must address an individual’s unique risk factors to understand why these conditions occur together.

If you or your loved one struggles with eating disorders and addiction, treatment will help them discover the underlying causes that led them to develop either/both conditions. There is no question that childhood trauma often plays a vital role in developing eating disorders and substance use. Still, eating disorders typically originate from a complex interaction of factors, including:

  • Genetic factors
  • Biological factors
  • Behavioral factors
  • Psychological factors
  • Social factors

Eating Disorders, Substance Use and Behavioral Addictions

Behavioral addictions occur when an individual is addicted to a specific behavior as well as the outcome that the particular behavior produces. Behavioral addictions are similar to drug addictions, although the individual is not addicted to a substance.

Although addiction occurs through various addictive behaviors, such as compulsive drug-seeking and drug-using behaviors, it is not considered a behavioral addiction as substance use is involved. However, behavioral addictions can be just as concerning as substance use addictions and can result in similar detrimental physical and mental health consequences.

So, the question arises: Are eating disorders addictions? Well, eating disorders indeed consist of addictive behavior. The addictive behavior manifests in individuals with eating disorders as a permanent preoccupation with food and eating, as well as the presence of withdrawal symptoms, the continuation of the behavior despite consequences, loss of control and a high potential for relapse. In this case, the addictive behavior caused by the eating disorder can make the development of a substance use disorder more likely, especially for self-medication. Therefore, it may be helpful to recognize eating disorders as a behavioral addiction requiring treatment for adequate healing.

Treatment Options for Eating Disorders and Addiction

When looking for a treatment program for you or your loved one, it is essential to research the facility you are considering receiving treatment from. Many publicly-funded addiction treatment programs do not address co-occurring conditions to the extent necessary to provide long-term healing, especially when considering eating disorders. Look for treatment centers that offer specialized treatment for those that struggle with co-occurring conditions. These treatment centers will provide you with personal mental health services or be able to refer you to a treatment center that will offer you appropriate mental health care.

Remember, effective treatment for co-occurring conditions must treat both conditions simultaneously. Consider this when looking for a treatment program that best fits your individualized needs. Although it will be challenging, healing from your eating disorder and addiction is possible.

New Life Addiction Counseling & Mental Health Services understand the difficulties with seeking treatment for co-occurring disorders, especially when you struggle with a willingness to change. We offer specialized individual psychotherapy for patients that help uncover the underlying causes of mental health disorders and substance use problems. We use traditional therapeutic methods and promote conscious recovery for our patients. Call us today at (877) 929-2571.