Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders

Definitions of Alcoholism & Substance Abuse

The uncontrollable and obsessive consumption of alcoholic beverages or drugs leading to a dependency is known as alcoholism or substance abuse.  Alcoholism and substance abuse are chronic diseases with detrimental mental and physical consequences to the man or woman who may be suffering.

Alcoholism is characterized by a strong craving or compulsion to drink, an inability to interrupt drinking once beginning, a physical dependence on alcohol to prevent symptoms of withdrawal, and a need for greater amounts of alcohol due to increased tolerance.  Substance abuse is defined as the routine use of harmful substances for mood-altering purposes and can include illicit drugs, such as cocaine or heroin, prescription or over-the-counter drugs.

Because alcoholism and substance abuse are known as co-occurring disorders, it usually develops alongside other illnesses, such as an eating disorder or anxiety disorder.

Addiction & Alcoholism Signs and Symptoms

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcoholism or substance abuse, you may experience the following signs and symptoms, which can vary among individuals.

Signs and symptoms of alcoholism are:

  • Drinking alone or in secret
  • Having episodes of blacking out or not being able to remember periods of time
  • Storing alcohol in unconventional places
  • Necessitating increased volumes of alcohol in order to experience the effects
  • Unable to refrain from limiting amount of alcohol consumed
  • Losing interest in activities once found pleasurable
  • Experiencing urges to drink
  • Feelings of irritability if alcohol is not available for consuming
  • Withdrawal symptoms if not consuming alcohol, such as nausea, sweating or shaking

Signs and symptoms of substance abuse:

  • Drugs are used to avoid or relieve withdrawal symptoms
  • Loss of control over drug use
  • Unexplained change in personality or attitude
  • Sudden onset of mood swings or outbursts or anger
  • Deterioration of physical appearance or personal grooming habits
  • Changes in sleep patterns or appetite or fluctuations in weight
  • Tremors, slurred speech, or weakened coordination
  • Engaging in secretive or skeptical behaviors
  • Unexplained need for money or financial difficulties

Woman battling with Alcoholism

Causes of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse

Alcohol dependence and substance abuse are continuing processes that can occur over varying periods of time. There are also risk factors that can influence the development of alcoholism or substance abuse, which are as follows:

  • Genetics
  • Accessibility of alcohol or drugs
  • Levels of stress
  • Coinciding substance abuse
  • Age in which alcohol or drugs were introduced
  • Social factors, such as media and advertising or the influence of peer drinking or drug use
  • Depression or low self-esteem
  • Physiological factors, such as how the body metabolizes alcohol or drugs
  • Abuse, neglect, or other traumatic experiences in childhood
  • Family history of addiction

Alcoholism and substance abuse can have negative consequences on the sufferer’s health, social status, and relationships.  Additionally, it can be debilitating for a man or woman suffering from alcoholism or substance abuse, making it difficult to function effectively or hold long-term employment.

In severe conditions, alcoholism and substance abuse can be fatal.  It has also been demonstrated that individuals addicted to alcohol or drugs have a greater likelihood of developing other co-occurring disorders, such as an eating disorder like bulimia.

Connection & Relationship between Addiction and Eating Disorders

Eating disorders and addiction are frequently co-occurring.  Particular personality traits, such as impulsiveness, have been connected to both eating disorders and alcohol/drug abuse. Research has also demonstrated that there are several similarities between the physiological conditions and mechanisms of addictive conditions, such as eating disorders and alcoholism or substance abuse. 

A commonality between eating disorders and addiction is that the addiction is inadvertently created into an even stronger form regardless of the health consequences a man or woman may be struggling with.  Despite severe medical complications, it is difficult for individuals struggling with addictions to give up their addiction, as in the case of anorexia, alcoholism or substance abuse.

Treatment of Eating Disorders and Alcoholism / Substance Abuse

Since the addictive nature of eating disorders and alcoholism/addiction is similar, and the underlying issues pertaining to both conditions may overlap, it is crucial to treat eating disorders and addiction simultaneously in the recovery process.  This requires the involvement of a comprehensive treatment team that can adequately address the various needs, such as medical, nutritional, and psychotherapy.

Many treatment centers that address both of these concerns may utilize a 12-step program, which can be a highly valuable supplement in drug and alcohol rehabilitation.  Dual diagnosis treatment centers for eating disorders and substance rehabilitation can provide appropriate care for these complex diseases.  Addressing these disorders in this manner can improve the chances that you or your loved one can recover from both a substance addiction and an eating disorder.

Drama Therapy

Articles on Eating Disorders & Addiction

  • The presence of both an eating disorder and an addiction in a person creates a vicious cycle and a deadly combination. These two disorders feed upon each other and intensify the destructive qualities of one another. This in turn creates unique struggles for the person suffering because one disorder cannot be treated without treating the other.
  • Unfortunately, it is becoming more and more common for women who struggle with an eating disorder to also have a dependency on drugs and/or alcohol. This creates a co-occurring disorder that can complicate a full recovery. It is not difficult to understand why a woman would abuse drugs in addition to continuing an eating disorder.
  • Across the board women use substances less than men, except in the area of prescription medications. What’s more, the “whys” behind their drug involvement is different. Unlike men who are more driven by issues such as risk taking, women rely on substances for mood alteration and stress relief. Read more about women’s issues with drug and alcohol addiction.
  • With the increased number of pressures placed on women in society today, the likelihood that women are turning to illicit substances and/or alcohol to cope with anxiety is escalating as well.  Unfortunately, the repeated use of drugs/alcohol over time can lead to a dependency or addiction.  Many women may find it difficult to get help or treatment if struggling with an addiction due to factors such as finances or employment; however, with appropriate treatment, women can attain long-term recovery.  Read this article to learn more about different types of addiction in women and treatment options.

Page Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on April 1, 2017
Published on, Treatment Resources & Information on Eating Disorders