Eating Disorders, Addiction and the Brain 

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) eating disorders are serious but treatable mental and physical illnesses that can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights. National surveys estimate that 20 million women and 10 million men in America will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives.

In addition, substance abuse problems may begin before or during an eating disorder. “Up to 50% of individuals with eating disorders abuse 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” (NEDA). Why are these two disorders so interrelated? Some answers can be found in the human brain.

The Reward Center of the Brain and Addiction

Our brains have special reward centers that are stimulated with certain behaviors, such as being in love or exercising. This reward center can also be activated by artificial means through the use of alcohol, drugs, and abuse of food. This stimulation of the reward center of the brain also acts by blocking unpleasant emotions. As the brain is saturated with “feel-good” neurotransmitters (dopamine) as a result from stimulation, unpleasant feelings are blocked and the stimulus (e.g., alcohol, drugs, or food) becomes overwhelmingly desirable. This ultimately results in dependency and addiction. =

When it comes to certain eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, there is research on negative responses and changes seen in brain. Research has shown that people with bulimia nervosa (individuals who experience episodes of eating, followed by intentionally vomiting the food) have a “weaker-than-normal response in brain regions that are part of the dopamine-related reward circuitry” (Kirsten Weir, American Psychological Association, 2016). The decreased feeling of food being a positive effect to nourish the body may cause anxiety over the food they eat and could explain why someone with bulimia will purge. However, research is still being conducted (and sometimes conflicts) on the patterns of brain abnormalities in those with eating disorders. 

Co-Occurring Disorder Treatment Programs

What can be agreed upon is that eating disorders and substance abuse addiction often go hand in hand. Those dealing with co-occurring disorders should speak with a trained professional who can properly diagnose and treat both disorders. At Daylight Recovery Services, both conditions are treated simultaneously as a dual diagnosis for the best results in recovery. If you or a loved one is struggling with a substance use disorder and an eating disorder, get help now. While there is no cure for addiction, it is treatable and know that there is hope for recovery and the prospect of having a true and lasting sense of well-being. Call us today at 1-833-2DAYLIGHT to speak with one of our recovery experts.