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This page abstract: There are large similarities between eating disorders and drug addiction. Both disorders are methods of suppressing anxiety by stimulation of the reward center in the brain. References to more papers on this.

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Causes of Addiction and Eating Disorders

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Written by: Gunborg Palme
First version: 22 Jul 2008. Latest revision: 26 Oct 2008.

Is there any connection between eating disorders, alcoholism, smoking and drug addiction? Are the causes of anorexia, bulimia and binge eating the same as the causes for alcoholism, smoking and other addictions?


Research on eating disorders has shown that there are similarities between many cases of eating disorders and addictive conditions such as alcoholism and drug addiction. The human brain has special reward centres and these are normally activated when a person feels well, takes care of the body, behaves sensibly, is praised, is in love, exercises, etc. More.

It is also possible to stimulate these reward centers by artificial means. Drugs of all kinds forbidden and permitted, produce chemical stimulation which is an important part of the cause of addiction. Stimulation also blocks unpleasant feelings and therefore those with eating disorders, as well as those with other addictive disorders, may use them to block unbearable feelings.

Normal people get their stimulation of the reward center by doing good things. They are stimulated by exercise because it is good for the body to get exercise. They are stimulated by eating, because it is good for the body to get nourishment. They are stimulated by being in love, because it is good for the survival of the human race that people mate. They are stimulated when they have achieved something or when they get appraisal because it is good that people do constructive things.

However, if the reward centre is stimulated by drugs, alcohol or abuse of food, they cease to function in the way they should. Abuse is a short cut to false happiness, a happiness which doesn't come from doing something good.

Incorrect usage of the reward centres is especially common with people who have a personality requiring a lot of reward effects in order for them to feel well, and also have worry and stress which can be reduced by drugs. There is accordingly a common factor with many types of addiction:

  • Alcoholism and drug disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Compulsive sex dependence
  • Compulsive gambling
  • Compulsive exercising
  • Self-injury and anorexia nervosa (even body injury can stimulate the reward centre in order to protect the body from pain).

This means that much of what is known about the treatment of alcoholism and drug addiction can be used for eating disorders. The patient's own ego must be strengthened and taught to refuse the kind of eating pattern which tempts with quick artificial solutions.

A similarity between eating disorders and drug addiction is that the addiction is compulsively developed into an even stronger form regardless of the effect on the patient's health. Despite serious medical complications, it is difficult for addicts to give up their addiction. More. Starvation in anorexia reduces the activity of the hormone Serotonin and this in turn reduces anxiety in a patient with an overactive nervous system. More. Patients with anorexia are, less often than others, drug addicts and alcoholics while those with other eating disorders more often are so. Those anorectics who alternate between eating attacks and starvation are more like bulimics. More.

Research shows, for example, that personality types that more often feel stress and anxiety, need more stimulation in order to feel well. More .

Research also shows that those with eating disorders often have excessively low values for dopamine and CSF-5-HIAA as well as Serotonin which causes them to feel more stressed than others (More) and that many drug addicts began with compulsive eating before going over to drugs and furthermore that certain hereditary characteristics increase the risk of eating disorders and drug addiction. More .

However, everybody with these hereditary characteristics does not become an addict as there are other ways of managing the problem, e.g., medicine which stabilises the concentration of Serotonin in the brain may help (in combination with other treatment) those who have eating disorders.

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