Alcohol and Eating Disorder Recovery Considerations

Woman contemplating her eating disorder self

A wealth of research and studies reveal alcohol use and eating disorders (ED) often co-occur (many times to an abusive degree), and both may share common risk factors/motivators [1]. Because of this connection, it is crucial to carefully consider whether alcohol consumption is wise during eating disorder recovery. If you are in eating disorder recovery, here are some things to consider before drinking alcohol.

Potential Health Complications

Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that often come with severe physical health complications like dehydration, malnutrition, liver problems, bone issues, low blood sugar, gastrointestinal complications, and anemia, just to name a few. Consuming alcohol during ED recovery, even in small quantities, can make these health conditions much worse [2].

For example, one common side effect of alcohol use and EDs is the accelerated onset of osteoporosis and bone density loss. Alcohol use during ED recovery can also lead to severe (sometimes fatal) liver complications since many individuals with an eating disorder already have a weak liver due to insufficient caloric intake. Alcohol consumption during ED recovery may also worsen gastrointestinal problems and irritate ulcers.

Consider talking to your healthcare provider and eating disorder recovery team to determine if consuming alcohol during recovery is safe for your health.

Risk of Relapse

Alcohol has also been known to make individuals with an eating disorder more susceptible to ED behaviors/relapse. When alcohol is metabolized, it changes the small intestine’s functioning, reducing its ability to absorb nutrients from food. When this happens, energy deficiencies can occur in the body. And as studies have shown, energy deficiencies in ED patients trigger a desire to restrict their eating patterns [3].

Further, though drinking is often used to alleviate anxiety and stress temporarily, alcohol consumption has been shown to increase anxiety in the long-term. One study conducted by the University of Carolina School of Medicine revealed that excessive drinking can rewire the brain and increase susceptibility to anxiety problems [4].

Many people with EDs already struggle with anxiety, oftentimes turning to eating disorder behaviors to cope with their underlying anxiety and stress. In fact, one in four people with an ED show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and around 50 percent of individuals with eating disorders are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder [5]. This means alcohol consumption during ED recovery can cause heightened anxiety, which in turn can lead to a relapse in eating disorder behaviors [6].

In short, alcohol consumption during ED recovery can lead to more restrictions and make some individuals more susceptible to relapse.

May Prevent Full Recovery

The third and final factor to consider before consuming alcohol during ED recovery is the motivation behind drinking. Oftentimes during eating disorder recovery, pain, anxiety, and trauma from the past surfaces.

African American Black Woman in Alcohol and Eating Disorder RecoveryTypically, this happens because ED behaviors were serving as a coping mechanism to suppress and alleviate internal pain and stress. But when eating disorder behaviors are taken away during recovery, these underlying issues re-surface and have to be dealt with.

Understandably, it may be easy for some in recovery to turn to alcohol to help relieve and escape from the stress and pain they’re dealing with. “I knew that I wasn’t drinking just for fun; I was drinking to medicate myself from the pain that was lurking inside — under the eating disorder. The pain would arise every time I ceased eating disorder behavior,” writes Robyn Cruze in an Eating Recovery Center article [7].

As Robyn’s story reveals, the problem with using alcohol to help deal with pain and stress during ED recovery is that it keeps you from fully addressing and healing from the underlying causes of the disorder. She shares that for seven years, she used alcohol as a way to deal with underlying pain during eating disorder recovery.

During those seven years, Robyn continued to relapse and struggle with ED behaviors. Only when she gave up drinking and addressed the pain inside was she able to finally (and fully) recover from her eating disorder.

“Removing alcohol and drugs was part of my eating disorder recovery. And, for the first time, I got recovery,” writes Robyn. “I could fully focus on getting to know myself, and what I really wanted in life, and I could begin to deal with all those feelings that I was hiding from — feelings that kept me in the cycle of mental illness” [8].

If you have used alcohol during ED recovery to help deal with underlying stress and pain, first know that you’re not alone. Many others (like Robyn Cruze) have had similar struggles and have gone on to find complete healing and recovery.

The same is possible for you. Start by seeking professional help from an eating disorder-trained therapist or counselor today. And if you’re in recovery, consider abstaining from alcohol (or consuming in moderation) to protect your health and better support your recovery process.


References:

[1] Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders. National Eating Disorders Association. (2020, February 6). https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/substance-abuse-and-eating-disorders.

[2] Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders. National Eating Disorders Association. (2020, February 6). https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/substance-abuse-and-eating-disorders.

[3] Olwyn, G. (2013, April 14). Alcohol, Weed and Recovery. The Eating Disorder Institute. https://edinstitute.org/blog/2013/4/13/alcohol-weed-and-recovery.

[4] Edited by Meredith Watkins, M. A. Anxiety and Alcohol: How They Are Linked. American Addiction Centers. https://americanaddictioncenters.org/alcoholism-treatment/anxiety.

[5] Statistics & Research on Eating Disorders. National Eating Disorders Association. (2020, May 8). https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/statistics-research-eating-disorders.

[6] Edited by Meredith Watkins, M. A. Anxiety and Alcohol: How They Are Linked. American Addiction Centers. https://americanaddictioncenters.org/alcoholism-treatment/anxiety.

[7] Is Alcohol Preventing Your Full Eating Disorder Recovery? – Robyn Cruze. Eating Recovery Center. https://www.eatingrecoverycenter.com/blog/2016/05/23/alcohol-may-preventing-full-eating-disorder-recovery-robyn-cruze.

[8] ibid.


About the Author:

Sarah Musick PhotoSarah Musick is a freelance writer who specializes in eating disorder awareness and education. After battling with a 4-years long eating disorder, she made it her mission to help others find hope and healing in recovery.

Her work has been featured on numerous eating disorder blogs and websites. When she’s not writing, Sarah is off traveling the world with her husband.


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published August 14, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on August 14, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.