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  • Alcohol Use Disorder & Eating Disorders | Dual Diagnosis Risks & Treatment

    Alcohol Use Disorder & Eating Disorders | Dual Diagnosis Risks & Treatment

    Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that cause disordered eating and distressing thoughts and emotions. Alcohol use disorder commonly occurs among people who suffer from eating disorders.

    Both disorders share similarities including a loss of control and impulsive behavior despite negative consequences. When these conditions co-occur, it can worsen the symptoms of each disorder. 

    Dual diagnosis treatment is crucial because eating disorders carry an increased risk of suicide and health problems.

    Understanding Eating Disorders

    Eating disorders are associated with a focus on body weight, shape, and food. This can lead to dangerous eating behaviors and numerous health complications. Eating disorders, especially when combined with alcohol abuse, can cause serious and potentially fatal health problems. 

    The three most common eating disorders are bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, and binge eating. 

    Bulimia Nervosa 

    Bulimia nervosa is associated with frequent binge and purge patterns. Binge eating episodes may result in feeling a lack of control, which can lead to purging behavior. Purging may include vomiting, laxatives, diuretics, or excessive exercise. 

    Induced vomiting during purges can cause imbalances in the body that increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. Other health issues include gastrointestinal problems, dehydration, and tooth decay. 

    Anorexia Nervosa

    Anorexia nervosa is characterized by a fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image. People with anorexia commonly restrict food but may also exercise excessively, induce vomiting, or use laxatives. 

    This can cause dangerous and potentially life-threatening health complications. Anorexia has the highest rate of fatalities of any eating disorder, often resulting from suicide or starvation. 

    Binge-Eating Disorder

    Binge eating disorder involves overeating without the purging associated with bulimia. People may eat in secret to avoid feeling guilt over their eating behaviors. 

    Binge eating can involve eating until uncomfortably full. This may result in weight gain and becoming overweight or obese. 

    Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder

    Repeated use of alcohol can result in alcohol dependence and an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Alcohol use disorder is characterized by an inability to stop or control drinking, despite a negative impact on health, relationships, work, or school.

    People with alcohol use disorder may also experience:

    • increased tolerance 
    • withdrawal symptoms upon reducing or stopping alcohol use
    • intense cravings
    • engaging in high-risk behaviors

    Alcohol is a depressant, which means it slows essential functions in your brain. Binge drinking, especially on an empty stomach, increases the risk of alcohol poisoning and experiencing a coma or death. 

    Co-Occurrence Of Alcohol Use Disorder & Eating Disorders 

    Bulimia nervosa co-occurs with alcohol use disorder at higher rates than any other eating disorder. 

    Bulimia Nervosa & Alcohol Use Disorder

    One study of females under the age of 30 with alcohol use disorder found that 72% also had a co-occurring eating disorder. The majority of the women in the study suffered from a binge/purge type of eating disorder. 

    Many people with bulimia nervosa have a tendency to be impulsive, experience mood swings, or have unhealthy coping skills. These traits are also commonly seen in people with substance use disorders.

    Binge Eating & Drinking

    In addition, having one disorder may increase the risk of developing the other disorder. 

    Both food and alcohol consumption can trigger the release of dopamine in the reward center of the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) that can cause feelings of pleasure. 

    This large release of dopamine can make your brain crave alcohol or food and reinforces binge eating and drinking. 

    Dual Diagnosis Risk Factors

    It isn’t known exactly what causes alcohol use disorder or eating disorders. Both disorders can affect anyone but a combination of environmental, social, genetic, and psychological factors may play a role. 

    Risk factors may include:

    • family history of substance abuse or eating disorders
    • past trauma
    • social environment that prioritizes weight loss 
    • other psychiatric disorders, such as depression or anxiety disorders
    • impulsive behavior

    Dual Diagnosis Treatment

    Eating disorders can be fatal and have a co-occurring alcohol use disorder can worsen symptoms. Successful recovery is possible and dual diagnosis treatment programs are equipped to help with both addiction and mental illness. 

    A team of professionals will work with you to develop a personalized treatment plan. The treatment center may recommend outpatient or inpatient treatment, depending on your needs. 

    Dual diagnosis treatment may include:

    • medical detox, which helps you through alcohol withdrawal with around-the-clock care and supervision  
    • cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps you identify unhealthy behaviors and teaches you healthy coping skills
    • support groups, where you can connect with peers with similar experiences and  like-minded goals
    • family therapy, to help your family learn more about your eating disorder and addiction 
    • medication, such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, or mood stabilizers

    To learn more about dual diagnosis treatment options, please contact Ark Behavioral Health today to speak with a specialist.

    Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
    ©2023 Ark National Holdings, LLC. | All Rights Reserved.
    This page does not provide medical advice.

    Mayo Clinic - Alcohol Use Disorder
    National Institute Of Mental Health (NIMH) - Eating Disorders
    National Institute On Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism (NIAAA) - Eating Disorders and Alcohol Use Disorders
    National Library Of Medicine - Are Eating Disorders Addictions?
    National Library Of Medicine - The Link Between Alcoholism and Eating Disorders

    Medically Reviewed by
    Manish Mishra, MBBS
    on August 12, 2022
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