Alcohol abuse and eating disorders often coexist. Research has found that 35% of alcohol and drug users have eating disorders, compared to only 3% of the general population.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine has adopted a wider definition of addiction to also include “process” addictions, such as food. Both alcohol addiction and eating disorders are compulsive behaviours that stimulate the brain’s reward centres in similar ways:
- Both alcohol abuse and compulsive eating chemically activate the reward systems and block unpleasant emotions;
- This creates an addictive cycle as the stimulus – alcohol and food – give feel-good reactions;
- The sufferer seeks more of this temporary sense of happiness and relief and consumes more alcohol or food;
- This leads the brain’s reward centres to stop functioning in a healthy way;
- Continued abuse of alcohol and food cause increased tolerance, leading to dependency.
What are Eating Disorders?
An ‘eating disorder’ is a psychological illness revolving around a compulsive eating behaviour. The American Psychiatric Association’s mental health manual (DSM–IV) recognises the following types of eating disorders:
- Anorexia Nervosa – a refusal to maintain normal body weight and an intense fear of becoming fat, despite being severely underweight;
- Bulimia Nervosa: regular episodes of binge eating followed by extreme weight control methods (e.g., vomiting; abuse of laxatives, diet pills, enemas or diuretics; severe dieting or fasting; vigorous exercise);
- Binge Eating Disorder – recurrent episodes of binge eating without purging, which can lead to obesity;
- Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) – an eating disorder which does not specifically meet the criteria above, or it could be a combination of various symptoms of the above eating disorders.
The eating disorders that occur most commonly with alcohol and drug abuse are bulimia nervosa and EDNOS.
What are common signs and symptoms of eating disorders?
- Constant dieting;
- Abusing food and/or exercise;
- Feeling distressed if unable to exercise;
- Obsessive weighing and paying careful attention to diet and weight;
- Throwing-up or taking laxatives after meals;
- Decreased social interaction: withdrawing from family and friends.
Characteristics of both alcohol addiction and eating disorders:
- They are chronic diseases;
- They involve obsessive preoccupation with a substance (food, alcohol, drugs);
- They have mind-altering effects, leading to physical and psychological dependency;
- They are characterised by similar mental mechanisms: denial, secrecy;
- Sufferers may move from one disorder to another.
An eating disorder is seen as a ‘co-occurring’ condition, as it can be caused by an alcohol addiction or can lead into alcohol addiction. For example, alcohol consumption may cause appetite suppression. In time, this leads to significant weight loss, which can then trigger the onset of an eating disorder. The opposite situation is also possible, whereby a pre-existent, untreated eating disorder may re-emerge once alcohol or drugs are no longer used.
Can you Treat Alcoholism and Eating Disorders Simultaneously?
Eating disorders and alcohol abuse are both long-term illnesses which require intensive treatment. When an eating disorder is diagnosed alongside a drug or alcohol addiction, Castle Craig advises a comprehensive residential rehab treatment programme to maximise the chances of a successful recovery, so that therapy can address the eating disorder and the alcohol or drug addiction simultaneously. We also recommend a joined-up approach to care, where both disorders are treated on one site and by a team of medical and mental health specialists who are communicating with and updating each other as to the patient’s progress.
Alcoholism and Eating Disorders Treatment at Castle Craig
At Castle Craig, patients suffering from alcoholism and an associated eating disorder are assessed accordingly through specialised diagnostic tests. Our structured rehab treatment programme is personalised to the patient’s individual needs. Both the addiction and the co-existing eating disorder (anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder) are addressed.
Individual therapy and eating disorders therapy, supervision and nutritional counselling, based within a CBT framework, explore the root causes of addictive behaviours patterns and help the patient learn healthy coping skills to manage unsettling emotions without abusing alcohol, drugs or food.
Medical supervision involves prescription of food supplements, electrolyte monitoring, weight monitoring and electrocardiogram testing where necessary.
Patients work through the 12 steps of Obsessive Eaters Anonymous (OEA) and gradually develop healthy habits and behavioural changes.
Regular, nutritious meals are provided. Patients learn the principles of healthy eating and have three meals and three nutritious snacks daily.
Get Help for Alcohol and Eating Disorders
Castle Craig Rehab has over 30 years of experience in the treatment of addiction and co-occurring disorders like eating disorders. We also treat prescription drugs abuse, such as addiction to over-the-counter diet pills, laxatives, emetics and diuretics, and provide medically monitored detoxification.
If you or a loved one is struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction and also shows signs of an eating disorder, contact us and one of our admission staff will answer any questions you might have.
Page last reviewed and clinically fact-checked | September 13, 2020