The Link Between Eating Disorders, Trauma, and Addiction

trauma, eating disorders, and addiction

The Link Between Eating Disorders, Trauma, and Addiction

Eating disorders are a type of mental health condition that affects the way a person eats and thinks about food. The common denominator in eating disorders is that people who suffer from them tend to become obsessive about how their body looks as well as monitoring their weight. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 20 million women and 10 million men will experience a major eating disorder at some point in their lives.[1]

Many people who suffer from eating disorders have a history of trauma or suffer from anxiety and depression. Living with these issues unmanaged can lead to the abuse of drugs and alcohol. This is why there is a connection between eating disorders and addiction.

Understanding the intricacies of the link between eating disorders and substance use disorders is key to unlocking recovery from both conditions.

Which Eating Disorders are Commonly Connected to Addiction?

About 37% of people with eating disorders also suffer from a substance use disorder. When compared to the 10% of the general population who suffer from drug addiction, this statistic is staggering.[2]

Part of the connection between eating disorders and addiction is that eating disorders often resemble substance use disorders. As people feel compelled to perform or avoid certain behaviors associated with eating, they do so in an addictive or obsessive manner. This is very similar to the way that addicts abuse the drugs they are addicted to.

Every type of eating disorder is unique, causing different symptoms and relating to addiction in varied ways. The most common eating disorders are:

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa causes people to see themselves very differently than what appears in the mirror. Oftentimes, people who are anorexic view themselves as extremely overweight, gross, or unattractive when they aren’t. They often become obsessed with the idea of losing weight, leading them to significantly decrease their food intake.

The way that anorexia is connected to drug addiction is because people with this condition may use substances to cause weight loss. While abusing laxatives is most common, some people may also abuse stimulant drugs like cocaine or methamphetamine to suppress their appetite. All of these substances lead to extreme weight loss in one way or another.

Anorexia is known to have devastating effects on the body, which include:

  • Osteoporosis
  • Constipation
  • Cardiovascular damage
  • Brain damage
  • Infertility


Bulimia is a condition that causes individuals to eat large amounts of food in one sitting before purging (vomiting) the food back up to avoid gaining weight. People may use laxatives to force themselves to expel the food in that manner or force themselves to vomit.

People with bulimia often feel wildly out of control, leading to feelings of depression and anxiety. This may cause individuals to abuse substances like alcohol to cope with their negative emotions. One study even found that bulimia and addiction have a genetic component in common.[3]

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge-eating disorder is similar to bulimia because both conditions are characterized by binging on large amounts of food at one time. However, with binge-eating disorder, people do not throw up their food, causing many people with the condition to be overweight.

About 3% of people in the United States suffer from a binge-eating disorder.[4]

While people may not use drugs to stop their food intake with this condition, they may abuse drugs to cope with feelings of guilt or shame connected to the binging they partake in. This could quickly lead to addiction and drug dependency.

How Trauma is Often the Cause of a Co-Occurring Eating Disorder and Addiction

There is a huge connection between trauma and substance use disorders. When someone experiences trauma as a child, the stress system in their brain becomes dysregulated. This can make someone more likely to abuse drugs, as they are unable to naturally cope with stress.

According to a study, “childhood trauma has been identified as a key environmental risk factor that can disrupt brain development and increase the risk for obesity.”[5] Because of this risk for obesity, it is also easy to see how childhood trauma could lead to an eating disorder.

Multiple types of trauma may lead to eating disorders, such as:

  • Neglect
  • Sexual harassment or assault
  • Physical assault or abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Bullying

While science has not uncovered the exact reason that childhood trauma leads to eating disorders, it is known that trauma disrupts normal activity in the central nervous system. This means that people will have a harder time managing their emotions, leading to self-medication either through substance abuse or disordered eating.

Finding Help for Trauma, Addiction, and an Eating Disorder

If you suffered from trauma as a child and find that you struggle with addiction and an eating disorder, recovery is possible. A professional dual diagnosis treatment program could provide you with the healing you need to recover from your trauma, which would allow you to gain sobriety from drugs and disordered eating.

For more information on our dual diagnosis rehab center in Delray Beach, contact Florida Recovery Group today.