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

Contributor: Roseann Rook, CADC, Clinical Addictions Specialist for Timberline Knolls

Article - Cross Addiction - roseannrook photoWhat is Cross Addiction? Today, people are fairly savvy regarding eating disorders.

Most understand that anorexia is restricting food intake, bulimia is typically defined by bingeing and purging, and binge eating disorder is intense 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 is an addiction. Although the causes behind an eating disorder in a young woman may vary, it will ultimately turn into an addiction, not unlike substance abuse.

This is because the behaviors involved and the purpose they serve is an attempt to deal with 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 fuel the disorder.

Cross Addiction

The term cross addiction means that one addiction can lead to 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, she is vulnerable to all.

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

Prescription Drug Abuse

In the United States today, abuse of control prescription drugs now exceeds abuse of all illegal drugs combined, except marijuana.

This love affair with prescription medication starts young, with adolescents raiding their parent’s medicine cabinets and attending parties where pills are thrown into a bowl and randomly taken by the participants. Therefore, by the time a female reaches college age, it is not unusual for her to have had exposure to a variety of prescription drugs.

Adderall Addiction

books-401896_640College women can easily become addicted to medications that help them sleep, calm anxiety and alleviate stress.

However, what the behavioral health community is seeing to an even greater degree is a high level of abuse and addiction to stimulants, specifically Adderall.

Adderall is an amphetamine that is used to treat narcolepsy and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In other words, it is a legitimate drug with serves an important purpose. Yet, in the previous ten years, the abuse of Adderall among women between the ages of 20 and 44 has risen 264 percent.

It is doubtful that all of these women suffer from a disorder that warrants the need for this drug.

Prescription drug abuse is now epidemic on college campuses. Among current students more than 4 in 10 (44 percent) say they abuse prescription stimulants in order to study and improve academic performance, while 31 percent say they abuse in order to stay awake.*

Cross Addiction with Eating Disorders and Adderall

The connection between an eating disorder and Adderall can start one of two ways. A young woman, pressured by the need to be perfect, which always includes being thin, may abuse this drug because it profoundly suppresses appetite and increases energy.

Another might stumble into addiction quite innocently. Like so many students she turns to this drug to help her study and meet the high demands of college life. She then realizes the decreased in appetite has resulted in weight loss, which is rarely viewed as bad.

Misuse and Abuse Because Normal and Expected

autumn-201411_640Not only do far too many college women view Adderall as a “wonder drug,” but misuse and abuse of prescription stimulants is becoming a normal and excepted behavior among college students.

Unfortunately, this is primarily due to perception; a student who would never consider taking a street drug or meeting with a dealer for cocaine, easily takes a prescription drug from a friend.

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.

And they are when taken by the person to whom the prescription was written. 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

In Pennsylvania, the mortality rate from prescription drug overdoses came in at eight deaths per 100,000 cases in 1999. In 2010, that number rose 89 percent to 15 deaths per 100,000 cases, according to a report by Trust for America’s Health.

That same year, a study done by the CDC showed more deaths from prescription drug overdoses than car accidents.

Prescription drugs are as dangerous as illegal drugs and eating disorders are as deadly as drug abuse. A college student will start suffering the very unpleasant physical, emotional and mental consequences of addiction. Over time, she will need more and more of the drug or behavior to achieve the same results.

Those at Risk of Cross Addiction

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.

We see far too many young women in treatment today whose lives have been devastated as the result of an eating disorder and/or the abuse of prescription medication. Please get help.



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.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on April 1, 2017
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