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Eating Disorders and Addiction: Why We Continue to Engage in Self-Destructive Behaviors

Article contributed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC, President @ Eating Disorder Hope and Crystal Karges, BS, DTR, CLEC, Special Projects Coordinator @ Eating Disorder Hope

A growing body of evidence and research suggests that there are several similarities between eating disorders and addictive conditions, such as drug addiction and alcoholism.  In fact, the American Society of Addiction Medicine now holds a wider definition of addiction to include not only drugs and alcohol, but also “process” addictions, such as food.  This is mostly due to the effect that all of these substances and behaviors have on the brain [1].  Our brains have special reward centers that are generally stimulated with certain behaviors, such as being praised, taking care of our bodies, exercising, or with being in love.  The reward centers of our brain can also be activated by artificial means through the use of drugs, alcohol, and food abuse.

In a typical situation, stimulation of the reward center of the brain is created by neutral and pleasant activities.  However, this can also be produced through chemical stimulation from drugs of all kinds, alcohol, and eating disordered behaviors.  Since stimulation of the reward center of the brain acts in blocking undesirable feelings and emotions, an addictive cycle is created.  As the brain is saturated with “feel-good” neurotransmitters as a result from stimulation, and unpleasant feelings are blocked, the stimulus, such as drugs, alcohol, or food, becomes a desperately desired substance-thus, addiction and dependency is created.

When the reward center of the brain is stimulated inappropriately, specifically through drugs, alcohol, or abuse of food, it stops functioning the way it was intended to.  Abuse of any substance, whatever form it may be, may create a false sense of temporary happiness or relief, but not without damaging consequences.  Individuals who struggle with an addiction, whether it is in the form of alcoholism, drug abuse, or an eating disorder such as bulimia, may have a personality type that is prone to impulsivity, extremes, and high anxiety/stress [2,3] and may need more stimulation in order to feel well.  But relief created by stimulation from food, drugs, or alcohol is brief and only creates greater risk for dependency and addiction-forming habits.  Once an addiction is established, it is difficult to relinquish control, especially as an individual comes to need the relief that is found from artificial stimulation.  Even in the face of devastating health consequences that come hand-in-hand with drug/alcohol abuse or eating disorders, it takes renewed effort to break the circuit of an addict’s mind that has become reliant on a false solution emotional relief, comfort or stability.

In addition to stopping the addictive behaviors, it is helpful to address the root causes of addictive disorders to promote healing and establish the ability to cope with unsettling emotions.  While self exploration can sometimes be a painful process, it leads to a centered, peaceful and fulfilling life, completely independent from any type of substance, food, or drink.  Choosing to find relief from outside substances rather than within simply puts off the inevitable, like placing a Band-Aid on a deep gash that requires stiches.  It may help temporarily, but a lasting sense of peace and control can never be developed when held captive in the bonds of an addiction.

Because of the many similarities between an eating disorder and drug/alcohol addictions, and because of the co-morbidity of the two, many treatments and therapies are intended to address both, dealing with changing behavior patterns and addressing root causes.  If you or a loved one is struggling with an addictive disorder, know that there is hope for recovery and the prospect of having a true and lasting sense of peace, relief, and wellbeing.



  2. Terracciano, Antonia, et al.  Five-Factor Model personality profiles of drug users.  BMC Psychiatry 2008, 8:22.
  3. Conason AH, Brunstein Klomek A, Sher L.  Recognizing alcohol and drug abuse in patients with eating disorders.  QJM.  2006 May; 99(5): 335-9.  Epub 2006 Feb 23.

Published Date: October 2, 2012
Last reviewed: By Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on October 2, 2012
Page last updated: October 2, 2012

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