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The Link Between Eating Disorders & Stimulant Addiction

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Eating disorders frequently co-occur with addiction, and stimulants are among the many substances people turn to when they are struggling with these devastating conditions.

Understanding Co-Occurring Stimulant Addiction

Stimulants include illicit drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines and prescription medications such as Adderall and Ritalin.

Every person has unique experiences that influence why they start to use stimulants. They may take a prescription stimulant to manage attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but then struggle to stop misusing their medication. Or they may turn to an illicit stimulant such as cocaine to self-medicate painful emotions because they do not have healthier coping techniques.

While each stimulant has different risks and effects, the common link among these substances is that they can contribute to weight loss. Stimulants can cause temporary bursts of energy, alertness, and trouble sleeping, making it possible for a person to be more active than they normally would. These substances can also cause nausea, vomiting, and decreased appetite, which can result in poor nutrition or sudden weight loss [1, 2].

Some people take stimulants to help them control their weight, while others begin misusing them after discovering this side effect. Regardless of the reason, abusing stimulants while struggling with an eating disorder is a dangerous combination.

The Prevalence of Stimulant Abuse

More than half of people who have an eating disorder also struggle with substance abuse, which is five times higher than among the general population. And up to 35% of people who abuse drugs also have an eating disorder, which is 11 times higher than among the general population [3]. And a wealth of research has linked stimulant abuse and addiction to eating disorders.

In a study of nearly 450 college-age women who met the criteria for an eating disorder, researchers found that 17% used stimulants to control their weight or body shape. Participants who had an eating disorder were much more likely to abuse stimulants (20%) than those who were at a high risk for developing an eating disorder (7%) [4].

When exploring motivation for stimulant abuse, researchers discovered that 36% of women who were in treatment for methamphetamine use disorder started using the drug to lose weight [5]. Other research suggests that people who have an eating disorder are more likely to crave stimulants. In a group of 259 people who were abusing cocaine, 32% reported co-occurring anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or both anorexia and bulimia [4].

The Impact of Coexisting Conditions

Living with one illness can be overwhelming, but the overlapping symptoms of coexisting conditions can be devastating. There may be times when a person is not sure where the eating disorder ends and the stimulant addiction begins.

Because both conditions can cause long-term physical and emotional harm, it is crucial to receive comprehensive treatment that addresses each condition. Appropriate treatment should start with a detailed assessment that identifies any underlying conditions a person is facing.

With appropriate treatment, recovery from an eating disorder that co-occurs with a stimulant addiction is possible.

References

[1] National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, August 20). Cocaine. https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/commonly-used-drugs-charts#cocaine.

[2] National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, August 20). Commonly used drug charts. https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/commonly-used-drugs-charts.

[3] Berardis, D., Matarazzo, I., Orsolini, L., Valchera, A., Tomasetti, C., Montemitro, C., Mazza, M., Fornaro, M., Carano, A., Perna, G., Vellante, F., Di Sante, D., La Rovere, R., Martinotti, G., Trotta, S., & Di Giannantonio, M. (2019). The problem of eating disorders and comorbid psychostimulants abuse: A mini review. Journal of Neuropsychiatry, 9(3), 2,359-2,368. https://www.jneuropsychiatry.org/peer-review/the-problem-of-eating-disorders-and-comorbid-psychostimulants-abuse-a-mini-review-13013.html.

[4] Gibbs, E. L., Kass, A. E., Eichen, D. M., Fitzsimmons-Craft, E. E., Trockel, M., & Wilfley, D. E. (2016). Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder-specific stimulant misuse, mood, anxiety, and stress in college-age women at high risk for or with eating disorders. Journal of American College Health, 64(4), 300–308. https://doi.org/10.1080/07448481.2016.1138477.

[5] Killeen, T., Brewerton, T. D., Campbell, A., Cohen, L. R., & Hien, D. A. (2015). Exploring the relationship between eating disorder symptoms and substance use severity in women with comorbid PTSD and substance use disorders. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 41(6), 547–552. https://doi.org/10.3109/00952990.2015.1080263