Anorexia Nervosa And Addiction

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D on April 19, 2021

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder in which a person is constantly struggling to lose weight, even though they are already underweight. Like addiction, it can be life-threatening and, when co-occurring with addiction, can be treated with dual diagnosis treatment.

Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D on April 19, 2021
Dual Diagnosis Anorexia Nervosa And Addiction

Anorexia nervosa, more commonly referred to as simply anorexia, is a very serious and common eating disorder that will affect 1 in 200 women at some point during their lifetime.

Sadly, anorexia also has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder.

Addiction and anorexia often co-occur. Someone with an eating disorder may turn to drugs or alcohol as a means of numbing their depression and negative feelings about themselves.

Unfortunately, both addiction and anorexia are life-threatening and only tend to make each other worse when encountered together.

What Is Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia is a disorder that can be both life-threatening and life-consuming.

It severely affects a person’s relationship with food to the point that it disrupts their way of life. Their work, school, and personal relationships will suffer. Depression is almost inevitable.

When someone has anorexia, they see themselves as overweight even though they are underweight and even as they continue to lose weight.

This body dysmorphia then results in several dangerous behaviors such as restrictive eating and excessive exercise.

Anorexia typically develops in the teenage years or early adulthood and is far more common in women than men — only 10% of people diagnosed with an eating disorder are male.

Unfortunately, anorexia has a high mortality rate of around 10% and half of those who die with it will die from suicide.

Symptoms Of Anorexia Nervosa

There are many potential symptoms of anorexia, though all of them generally center around a desire to lose weight.

An individual with anorexia can in fact lose so much weight that they die from starvation complications.

Signs and symptoms of anorexia nervosa include:

  • restrictive eating
  • emaciated appearance
  • excessive exercise
  • fear of gaining weight
  • denial of being underweight
  • calorie counting
  • frequent weighing of oneself
  • distorted body image

Someone with anorexia will generally also have low self-esteem and will associate these feelings with their appearance and the delusion that they are overweight.

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It only makes things worse if a person who is already dangerously overweight perceives losing weight as the only thing that will make them feel better.

The Relationship Between Addiction And Anorexia Nervosa

Because someone with anorexia will behave so compulsively and relentlessly in their pursuit to lose weight, this disorder has actually been compared to an addiction in itself.

Anorexia could perhaps be seen as an addiction to a behavior, although it is not an actual addiction in the true sense of the word.

The co-occurrence of anorexia and a substance use disorder is high — 27% of people with anorexia have also been diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder.

Shared risk factors for addiction and anorexia nervosa include:

  • family history of mental illness or substance abuse
  • negative feelings about oneself
  • environmental factors
  • history of sexual abuse or other trauma
  • recent trauma
  • presence of other mental disorders
  • personality type

When you consider that many illicit drugs are appetite suppressants as a side effect, it makes sense that someone with a mental disorder centered around losing weight would find them both useful and comforting.

How Are Addiction And Anorexia Nervosa Diagnosed?

A doctor will most likely start with a physical exam, focusing particularly on the individual’s height and weight.

The doctor, or a psychiatrist, will also then interview the person to see how they feel about their weight to determine if any body dysmorphia is present.

If a patient is found to present these symptoms, more extensive testing will be ordered to determine how much damage has been done.

This will probably start with urine and blood tests and progress to EKGs if any heart damage is suspected.

Long-term effects of anorexia nervosa include:

  • osteoporosis
  • infertility
  • anemia
  • brain damage
  • heart failure
  • multi-organ failure

How Are Addiction And Anorexia Nervosa Treated?

Because addiction and anorexia are both such serious disorders, it is important to treat them in a way where relapse is unlikely.

Dual diagnosis treatment is a type of treatment that targets both conditions at the same time in order to ensure long-term management of both disorders.

Dual diagnosis treatment for addiction and anorexia nervosa includes:

  • medically monitored detox
  • ongoing medical care and monitoring
  • individual, family, and group psychotherapy
  • medications
  • nutritional counseling

Both addiction and anorexia are treatable disorders. Sadly, only 1 in 10 people who are diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder will ever seek treatment.

It is difficult to make a full recovery from anorexia, however, three out of four patients are able to make at least a partial recovery.

Addiction recovery is not easy, but becomes more possible when the underlying causes are treated as well.

Finding Dual Diagnosis Treatment For Addiction And Anorexia Nervosa

Both addiction and anorexia nervosa are serious and possibly life-threatening conditions.

If you or someone you love is currently suffering from these conditions, it is important that you seek help right away.

Services we can help you find include:

  • medical detox
  • intensive outpatient programs
  • individual and family counseling
  • recreation and outdoor therapy

Recovery is possible. When you are ready, please give our helpline a call to find a dual diagnosis treatment center near you.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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