Cross Addiction: Eating Disorders and Prescription Drug Addiction on College Campuses

Contributor: Staff at Timberline Knolls Treatment Center

Woman reading about Cross AddictionIt is commonly understood that anorexia involves the extreme restriction of food. Bulimia is typically defined by bingeing and purging, while binge eating disorder is the extensive consumption of food without subsequent compensatory behavior such as purging.

However, what is less understood by the world at large is that an eating disorder has similarities to an addiction. Even though the causes behind an eating disorder may vary, the behavior will ultimately turn into an addiction like experience – similar in many ways to substance abuse.

This is because the behaviors involved and the purpose they serve are partially an attempt to deal with the underlying emotional or psychiatric disorders.

Eating disorders can develop at a very young age and are often full-blown when entering college. The need to look good and/or be in control only further fuel the disorder for those struggling with anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder.

Cross Addiction

The term cross-addiction means that one addiction can lead to an addiction in another area. Cross addiction occurs because all addictions stimulate the reward center of the brain. Therefore, if a person is vulnerable to one addiction, he/she is likely vulnerable to another cross addiction.

The addictions can be operating concurrently, exacerbating one another or lead to relapse of another addiction.

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Prescription Drug Abuse

In the United States today, abuse of controlled prescription drugs now exceeds abuse of all illegal drugs combined, except marijuana. The nation is presently amid the throes of an opioid epidemic.

The dependence on prescription medication can start young, with adolescents raiding their parent’s medicine cabinets and/or attending parties where pills are widely available and carelessly consumed. Therefore, by the time a young adolescent reaches college age, it is not unusual for her/him, to have had exposure to a variety of prescription drugs.

The Study Drugs

After alcohol and marijuana, prescription drugs are the most widely abused substances on college campuses. College students can easily become addicted to medications that help them sleep, reduce anxiety, and alleviate stress.

In recent times, the behavioral health community has witnessed a high level of abuse and addiction to stimulants. So-called “study drugs” include prescription medication to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, among which Adderall and Ritalin are most widely abused. Caffeine pills, Modafinil, Artvigil, Waklert, Modalert, and Modvigil are other common study drugs.

Adderall and Ritalin are amphetamines that are used to treat narcolepsy and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In other words, these are legitimate drugs that serve an important purpose.

Prescription drug abuse has now reached epidemic proportions on college campuses.

Among current students, more than 4 in 10 (44 percent) reported abusing prescription stimulants in order to study and improve their academic performance, while 31 percent said they misuse Adderall in order to stay awake.

The Journal of Addictive Diseases reports that almost two-thirds of college students with a valid prescription for ADHD medication share their supplies with students without prescriptions.

Cross Addiction with Eating Disorders and Adderall

The connection between an eating disorder and abuse of Adderall can manifest itself in two ways. A young woman, pressured by the need to be perfect, which almost always includes being thin, may abuse the drug for its profound ability to suppress appetite and increase energy.

Secondly, many students turn to Adderall to help them maintain their focus while studying in order to meet the high demands of college life. This can again result in weight loss, which is rarely viewed as a bad thing.

Long-term effects of Adderall abuse include physical damage to the brain and other organs and internal systems.

Misuse and Abuse is Now Normal and Expected

College students have begun to view Adderall as a “wonder drug.” However, misuse and abuse of prescription stimulants have quickly become established as normal behavior and accepted among college students.

Unfortunately, this is primarily due to the false perception that prescription drugs are safer than street drugs. Since these meds are approved by the FDA, initially prescribed by a doctor, dispensed by a pharmacy, and come in plastic bottles, the thought remains that they are safe.

A student who would never consider taking a street drug or meeting with a dealer for cocaine will easily take a prescription drug from a friend.

81 percent of respondents in a CNN survey stated there wasn’t “any danger” in using these drugs as a “study aid.” A third of all college students are believed to have tried Adderall at least once.

However, the pills are only safe when they are taken by the person to whom the prescription was written and for the intended use and dosage. However, they are not safe when taken in excess or combined with alcohol or other drugs, which is often the case with college students.

By and large, students have come to believe that taking Adderall is as innocent as taking medications such as Tylenol for a headache.

More Deaths Are Occurring

Girl sad about Anorexia Recovery

Prescription drugs are now the leading cause of death by overdose. 52 percent of overdose deaths are related to prescription drugs.

In April 2012, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed a shocking number of teens being lost to prescription drug abuse.

Between the years 2000 and 2009, the number of children losing their lives to poisoning went up 90 percent. The CDC named the growing abuse of prescription drugs by teens as the main culprit.

A study done by the CDC in 2010 showed more deaths from prescription drug overdoses than car accidents.

Those at Risk of Cross Addiction

Ultimately, prescription drugs are as dangerous as illegal drugs, and eating disorders are as deadly as drug abuse.

If you currently engage in eating disorder behaviors and/or take any medication to sustain low weight, provide heightened energy, relax, socialize, sleep, or numb painful feelings, you are at high risk for addiction.

There are far too many young individuals in treatment today whose lives have been devastated as the result of an eating disorder and/ or the abuse of prescription medication. Please get the help you need.


Alcohol and Drug Abuse in College – Substance Addiction Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Narconon International. (n.d.). Retrieved from

About Our Sponsor:

Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center provides quality, holistic care to women and adolescent girls ages 12 and older. We treat individuals struggling to overcome eating disorders, substance abuse, mood and anxiety disorders, trauma and post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD), and co-occurring disorders. Our campus is located on 43 wooded acres just outside Chicago. This peaceful setting offers an ideal environment for women and girls to focus on recovery.

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 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.

Reviewed & Updated on August 23, 2019, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC
Originally Published January 13, 2015, on
Current version updated with statistics, recent research & additional information.