Using Alcohol to Perpetuate Eating Disorder Behaviors

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Eating disorders commonly occur alongside co-existing mental health conditions. Yet, even with this knowledge, it is shocking to learn that only 9% of the general population abuse alcohol and drugs while 50% of individuals with eating disorders do so [1].

The connection between negative body-image, eating disorders, and alcohol abuse, particularly among adolescents, is clear and alarming.

Studies show that girls that are concerned with their white are twice as likely to drink in excess.

Conversely, those girls that drink in excess are approximately three times the risk of beginning to purge in order to control their weight [1].

Girls that drink more alcohol are also significantly more likely to view themselves as overweight and to engage in unhealthy behaviors to lose weight [1].

The Connection

Why is the connection between these two disorders so strong? Researchers and clinicians asked the same question long ago, and some clear similarities have appeared. Both alcohol abuse and eating disorders involve behaviors that are addictive due to the way they alter an individual’s brain chemistry, physical body, and emotions.

Research also shows that both involve the implementation of unhealthy behaviors as coping mechanisms for mental and emotional trauma or problems. Alcohol abuse is particularly dangerous when it occurs alongside an eating disorder, as it can be used to perpetuate, or even worsen disordered eating behaviors.

Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol impacts the mind and body in many ways, one being its tendency to impair the frontal cortex of an individual’s brain, “making (them) more impulsive and less concerned with the consequences of their actions [2].”

For individuals with a previous or current history of disordered eating, this can be dangerous. Any control one might generally have when not impaired is lowered under the influence of alcohol, opening the door for disordered eating behaviors to creep back in.

Excessive alcohol use has physical consequences as well. As most people are aware, engaging in heavy drinking can often cause one to throw up.

While most people find this to be an unpleasant side-effect that is best avoided, those with a history of disordered eating, particularly bingeing and purging behaviors, may find that this consequence of heavy alcohol consumption is triggering.

Woman drinking alcohol

Individuals that have struggled with bulimia or BED often find that purging becomes an unhealthy self-soothing behavior. As such, purging during treatment or recovery might actually be comforting to the individual, triggering them to re-engage in the dangerous behavior.

Emotionally, alcohol is often used as an escape. Similar to eating disorders, individuals may engage in excessive drinking in order to avoid facing what is truly troubling them. If an individual working to recover from an eating disorder is engaging in alcohol abuse, it is likely they are simply replacing one unhealthy and ineffective coping mechanism with another.

 

In both alcohol abuse and eating disorder recovery, it is encouraged to replace the problematic behavior with a healthier one, but the emphasis is on the replacement behavior being healthy. Coloring, meditating, and journaling are all examples of positive replacement coping mechanisms.

Co-occurring Disorders

Co-occurring alcohol abuse and eating disorder behaviors can be incredibly problematic. Studies show that “bulimic women who were alcohol dependent report a higher rate of suicide attempts, anxiety, personality and conduct disorders, and other drug dependence [1].” As such, clinicians and need to screen for the presence of both when treating individuals.

If you are currently working to overcome an eating disorder and are concerned about your relationship with alcohol, bring this to the attention of your treatment team. Research shows that individuals have more success with recovery if both issues are treated simultaneously.

It can be frightening to learn that you have not one, but two, demons to battle. However, remember that you are not alone in your experiences and that there is nothing that cannot be overcome when you channel your inner strength and resiliency.


Image of Margot Rittenhouse.About the Author: Margot Rittenhouse is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.

As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering.

Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.


References:

[1] CASA Board of Directors (2003). Food for thought: Substance abuse and eating disorders. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
[2] Unknown Contributor (2015). How alcohol can effect binge eating disorder. Retrieved on 18 August 2017 from https://www.drpaulbythesea.com/how-alcohol-can-affect-binge-eating-disorder/.


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer 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 on October 13, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on October 13, 2017.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com