Poly-substance Abuse and Eating Disorders in the College Student

College student reading a book on Poly-substance Abuse

Contributor: Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC, Special Projects Coordinator at Eating Disorder Hope/Addiction Hope

There is no doubt that college is a time of self-discovery for countless of students, and the newfound freedom that is often discovered during this time allows a person to develop stronger autonomy and identity. Many students use their time in college as an opportunity to explore new ventures or try different things, and generally this is a time of greater exposure to different ways of living.

Unfortunately, drug and alcohol use is part of the picture for many college students, and this can become detrimental to their overall quality of life.

College Presents Opportunities for Drug and Alcohol Abuse

College campuses and dormitories can become a prime spot for parties, which are often gateways to drug and alcohol use. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, college students are more likely to smoke marijuana, binge drink, heavily use alcohol, smoke cigarettes, and abuse both prescription and illicit drugs compared to their non-college aged peers [1].

Some of the most commonly abused prescription medications by college students include Adderall and Ritalin, as amphetamine use has nearly doubled among college students between 2008 and 2013 [1].

At a time when students often feel vulnerable and will typically go beyond comfort measures to be socially accepted, college can be a time when multiple drugs or substances are used or tried, especially with community living.

It is not uncommon for college students to use multiple substances at once, such as combining alcohol with prescription drugs, trying synthetic drugs with energy drinks, using e-cigarettes with illicit drugs, and so on. Though it may be socially acceptable to combine various substances, especially in a setting where everyone else is doing it, the consequences of this choice can be potentially dangerous.

Connections Between Eating Disorders and Drug Abuse

It is not uncommon for a student who is dealing with substance abuse to have a co-occurring eating disorder and vice versa. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University revealed that up to 50 percent of individuals with eating disorders also abuse alcohol or illicit drugs, compared to nine percent of the general population [2]. In contrast, up to 35 percent of alcohol or illicit drug abusers have eating disorders compared to three percent of the general population, showing a clear connection between the two [2].


In discussing the link between eating disorders and substance abuse, Joseph Califano, former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, noted, “This lethal link between substance abuse and eating disorders sends a signal to parents, teachers and health professionals – where you see the smoke of eating disorders, look for the fire of substance abuse and vice versa.”

Understanding this potential connection is perhaps most critical in college aged students, where the opportunity to try new substances and use multiple forms of drugs is more readily available. Students who have had a prior eating disorder or who are more susceptible to developing an eating disorder may be triggered by the act of using drugs and various substances.

This can also happen vice versa, where college students who are using and abusing multiple drugs and substances may be more at risk for developing an eating disorder, such as bulimia, anorexia, or binge eating disorder.

Similarities Between Addiction and Eating Disorders


Similarities between the nature of eating disorders and addiction may help explain the connection between these illnesses, and it is important not to overlook potential signs and symptoms of these potentially co-occurring disorders. If you or a loved one has been using multiple substances while in college while simultaneously dealing with an eating disorder, seek out help as soon as possible.

Integrated and comprehensive treatment can help a college student address both the substance abuse addiction and eating disorder, making it possible to successfully recover from both.

If you are a college student, do not attempt to normalize or justify your behaviors if you find yourself struggling. The sooner you can get help, the better the outcome will be for yourself. Talk to someone you trust, like a mentor or counselor, and get connected to treatment as soon as you can.


Crystal Headshot 2Crystal is a Masters-level Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) with a specialty focus in eating disorders, maternal/child health and wellness, and intuitive eating. Combining clinical experience with a love of social media and writing, Crystal serves as the Special Projects Coordinator for Eating Disorder Hope/Addiction Hope, where her passion to help others find recovery and healing is integrated into each part of her work.

As a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, Crystal has dedicated her career to helping others establish a healthy relationship with food and body through her work with EDH/AH and nutrition private practice.


[1]: National Institute on Drug Abuse, “College-age and young adults”, http://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/college-age-young-adults
[2]: National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. (2003) Food for Thought: Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders. New York, National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.

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.

Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 24, 2016
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com

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.