Looking Out For Combined Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse in Adolescents

Adolescents are at particular risk for many mental health conditions. This, of course, includes both eating disorders and substance abuse disorder (SAD).

Though roughly 3% of children ages 13-18 will be diagnosed with an eating disorder, this figure is likely underreported. Substance abuse is even more common, and just as variable – each individual faces unique challenges.

Many of the same pressures that lead adolescents to engage in disordered eating behaviors can lead them to turn to substance abuse to self-medicate.  While eating disorders are often an attempt to regain control over some aspect of their lives— like stress or trauma — substance abuse is used to numb or otherwise alleviate those feelings. Both disorders can prompt the release of serotonin and dopamine, feel-good chemicals that can cause an addiction to the behavior that triggers the release.

Identifying risk factors, signs of eating disorders, and substance abuse and getting your adolescent child into counseling are significant steps you can take to help them recover. Let’s go over the risk factors of substance abuse and eating disorders in teenagers, signs to look out for with both, and how you can bring the topic up with them.

 

Symptoms of Eating Disorders in Adolescents

Emotional and psychological signs of an eating disorder may appear similar to those of depression or anxiety, which also frequently co-occur with eating disorders:

  • Withdrawal and disinterest in behaviors and activities they used to enjoy.
  • Changes in the way they eat and act about meals — eating alone, anxiety at mealtimes or when eating around family or friends. Many eating disorders will lead them to avoid meals with others.
  • Sleeping noticeably more or less than is “average” for the client.
  • Moodiness, anger, or frustration.

Depending on the severity and duration of the eating disorder, there may be physical symptoms or not; fluctuation in weight is common across all demographics but physical signs of eating disorders are very specific to the type of eating disorder.

In anorexia nervosa some physical signs are:

  • Constant coldness or complaints of being cold, along with blue-ish skin
  • Hair loss
  • Fatigue
  • Weakened immune response (longer to get over cold or for wounds to heal)
  • Confused cognition

In bulimia nervosa, some signs are:

  • Yellowing and eroding of the teeth
  • Weakness, fatigue, weakened immune system
  • Calloused or discolored fingertips
  • Swelling of the glands in the throat

Sometimes, a person with an eating disorder will not show any external physical symptoms, but when combined with the emotional signs of disordered eating, they can indicate that you need to seek outside help. There are also conditions like binge eating disorder which may share some symptoms with bulimia nervosa but have different causal factors and treatments.

 

Signs Of Substance Abuse In Teens

Substance abuse in teens is more frequent in people who have another kind of mental health disorder, such as depression as well as eating disorders. The reasons for drug and alcohol use are different from person to person, but primarily the goal is to self-medicate or escape from emotional pain.

There are some differences in the type and frequency of substance abuse among different kinds of eating disorders. People with purging disorders like bulimia nervosa were significantly more likely to use substances, usually as a way to relax or escape their stressors, whereas restrictive eaters were less likely to use drugs or alcohol, although the percentage is still significantly higher than in the non-eating disorder population.

Physical symptoms of substance abuse and dependence include:

  • Weight fluctuations
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Impaired cognition
  • Sweats and tremors

It’s important to get professional help if you suspect your child is abusing alcohol or drugs, and in particular, if you also fear they might have an eating disorder. Both substance abuse and disordered eating take a heavy toll on the body and when presenting at the same time can be life-threatening.

 

Find Help Sooner Rather than Later

Both eating disorders and substance abuse can have dire health consequences if left untreated; in combination, they are even more dangerous. Early intervention, i.e. getting professional help sooner than later, is essential in securing a successful, long-term recovery. If you think your teen has an eating disorder and is abusing drugs or alcohol, reach out to a professional eating disorder treatment facility that can handle both disorders.

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