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Signs and Symptoms

The Link Between Eating Disorders and Alcohol Abuse

By Linda Lewaniak, LCSW, CAADC
Eating Recovery Center explains why eating disorders and alcohol abuse often go hand in hand — and why it is so hard to treat one health condition without treating the other.

The link between eating disorders and substance use, including alcohol abuse, is well-documented:

  • Nearly 50 percent of people with an eating disorder are also abusing drugs and/or alcohol
  • Research suggests that 25 percent of people entering treatment for eating disorders also meet criteria for substance abuse problems
  • Substance abuse by people with eating disorders occurs at a rate five times greater than what is found in the general population

Drugs, alcohol and eating disorder behaviors may help people find a way to numb their problems, pain and anxiety — but it comes at a huge cost.

Prolonged restriction of essential nutrients (from an eating disorder), along with an overindulgence in alcohol, may cause irreversible damage to vital organs… and, at times, even death.

The relationship between alcohol and eating disorders 

On the surface, eating disorders and alcohol abuse may appear to be two entirely different conditions. However, the two illnesses have similarities that help to explain why they tend to occur together.

First of all, the root of addiction and of eating disorders is that these behaviors function as an escape from underlying stress, anxiety, sadness, fear or trauma. Drug and alcohol use and eating disorder behaviors (restriction, bingeing, purging or over-exercise) are all coping mechanisms that help to provide immediate relief from pain and anxiety. These behaviors affect the brain in the same areas and have a mood-altering effect. 

In addition, although high in calories, alcohol can be used by some to trigger regurgitation and dehydration, challenging eating disorder recovery.

Treatment for alcohol use and eating disorders

Often, when a person is referred to an eating disorder treatment program and starts to address behaviors related to food, eating and exercise, alcohol addiction problems can increase.

As alcohol use increases and disrupts the eating disorder treatment, the patient may be referred for addiction treatment. Recovery is slowed even though the patient is committed to seeking treatment and getting well. This often leaves patients in a vicious cycle between wellness and illness.

In treatment, we must consider that both the eating disorder and substance abuse behaviors are used by the person to escape, numb or suppress painful thoughts, feelings and/or experiences. At Eating Recovery Center, we use an integrated treatment approach to address all underlying issues.

Integrated treatment at ERC

Linda Lewaniak, Program Director of Integrated Services at Eating Recovery Center, Insight comments on this model, “A promising predictor of positive outcome for the co-occurring diagnosis of an eating disorder and substance abuse is integrated treatment. Integrated treatment is more than just concurrent or simultaneous recovery efforts—it marks a truly holistic approach leveraging evidence-based approaches that effectively address both illnesses in the same treatment episode.” 

At ERC, we incorporate evidence-based approaches to treat eating disorders and substance use problems. Some of the specific therapies that we may use to help our patients achieve recovery include:

  • Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET, targets ambivalence and motivation for change)
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT, targets emotional regulation, distress tolerance)
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, targets exposure, psychological flexibility and committed action)
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT, targets relapse prevention)
  • Cognitive Remediation Therapy (CRT, targets initiation, set shifting and big picture/detail)

Seek help; Recovery is possible

We encourage all individuals currently struggling with eating disorder behaviors and substance use problems to seek help.

We are happy to help you find any resources that you need to help you achieve recovery and live the most meaningful life possible.

April is Alcohol Awareness Month and April 7, 2016 is National Alcohol Screening Day. These national events help to raise awareness and reduce the stigma associated with alcoholism, causes, treatment and recovery.

Nationally recognized addiction treatment expert Linda Lewaniak, LCSW, CAADC is Program Director of Integrated Services at Eating Recovery Center, Insight.

Britt Berg writes for Eating Recovery Center.


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Linda Lewaniak, LCSW, CAADC
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Linda Lewaniak, LCSW, CAADC

Nationally recognized addiction treatment expert Linda Lewaniak, LCSW, CAADC joined Pathlight in March 2016. A widely respected therapist and administrator, Lewaniak brings over 25 years of experience in the treatment of substance abuse and comorbid mental illness.

As Program Director of Integrated Services, Lewaniak is responsible for integration of Addiction Services across all programs and levels of care to most effectively treat the co-occurring diagnosis of substance abuse. Leveraging her extensive clinical and operational background, she oversees the delivery of evidence-based, cutting edge substance abuse treatment at Insight’s Chicagoland treatment centers and provides clinical supervision to the multidisciplinary treatment team.

Lewaniak also collaborates closely with Eating Recovery Center’s senior clinical leadership across all 25 facilities nationwide to ensure holistic integration of addiction treatment, and provides substance abuse education, training and development for mental health professionals, educators and community resources.

Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood and Anxiety Center are accredited through the Joint Commission. This organization seeks to enhance the lives of the persons served in healthcare settings through a consultative accreditation process emphasizing quality, value and optimal outcomes of services.

Organizations that earn the Gold Seal of Approval™ have met or exceeded The Joint Commission’s rigorous performance standards to obtain this distinctive and internationally recognized accreditation. Learn more about this accreditation here.

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