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Eating disorders share many of the brain changes associated with drug addiction, and the psychological effects of eating disorders and drug addiction are similar, too. Here are three psychological effects of eating disorders you need to know.

It is not unfair to say that people who live with eating disorders have food on the brain. And there is mounting scientific evidence that food-related addictions (both addictions to eating food and addictions to purging food) share intricate molecular pathways in the brain. In this article, we'll consider addiction as a physical disability, not a personal choice, as we take a look at two psychological effects of eating disorders that are very similar to the psychological effects of addiction — and one is that is very different.

People who live with eating disorders and people who live with addiction 'just can't get enough'

There's a lot of overlap between people who have eating disorders and people who have substance addictions. Of course, this can be explained by the observation that many people who have eating disorders may turn to drugs to relieve their psychological distress. But when they do, they are more likely than most to develop a drug addiction in addition to their eating disorder. Why is this?

Some researchers believe that eating disorders and drug addictions are both tied to genes that cause a "reward deficiency syndrome". In this condition, the brain doesn't respond properly to the "reward chemical" dopamine. People who have the genes for this reward deficiency syndrome are motivated to do more and more of the things that cause their brains to release dopamine, or to consume more and more of the things that cause their brains to release dopamine.

They constantly feel a little bit better but not really good as they go farther and farther off track with their eating habits. The experience of someone who has an eating disorder is a lot like the experience of a drug addict who constantly needs more of their drug of choice.

When people who have eating disorders do eat, it's usually something that's not good for them

Do you know someone who is addicted to meth or heroin? If they are still socially functioning, they might be the person in line ahead of you at Dunkin' Donuts who orders a dozen sweet treats and eats them all on the spot. Eating disorders are a little more complicated in that some people suffer orthorexia, a compulsion to eat healthy foods and only healthy foods. But many people who live with eating disorders, like many people who suffer from drug addiction, prefer sugar when they eat.

Sugar helps the brain temporarily become more "plastic". It helps people who consume it temporarily to establish new behaviors that relieve their suffering. It's practically medicine for some people who suffer reward deficiency syndrome. Fructose (if you live in North America, from foods sweetened with high-fructose corny syrup) helps the brain form new circuits, and glucose (from all kinds of carbohydrate foods, not just sugar) triggers a calcium channel in certain neurons that "flips a switch" to release the reward chemical dopamine.

The harder some people with eating disorders try to overcome their issues, the more addicted they become to sweets. They may still try to purge the sweets after they eat them, but food preferences will change.

Eating disorders bring out certain psychological characteristics, but not the same characteristics in everyone who has the same eating disorder

This is a way in which the effects of eating disorders are different from the effects of drug addiction. Rightly or wrongly, we tend to think of drug addiction as something that completely takes over someone's life, wiping away individual differences. But individual differences in psychological makeup are carried through the development of an eating disorder.

  • Some people who live with eating disorders have a serious problem with impulse control. Ironically, they are the same people who will manage to get their eating disorders under control through sheer willpower more than most, but never for very long. About a month of remission, however, is not unusual.
  • Some people who live with eating disorders are notably cooperative with their caregivers. Again, ironically, they tend to have the most severe problems with their eating disorders. They don't seek ways to get out of their rut with destructive eating habits, but they will go through the motions of cooperating with care.
  • Some people who live with eating disorders are extremely immature. They are more susceptible to peer pressure and to bullying. They suffer more damage to personal relationships. They are impulsive, especially with regard to doing negative things. 
  • Some people who live with eating disorders are, well, complicated. They exhibit complex psychological functioning. These people are more prone to developing other addictions, such as gambling, Internet, TV, porn, sex, or drugs. They are more likely to experience anxiety, ADHD, or depression. These are the people struggling with eating disorders who are most likely to harm themselves by cutting or suicide.
  • And some people who live with eating disorders are psychologically resilient. They don't allow their eating disorder to define who they are. They tend to look for solutions in their lives. They are prone to relapses, but they don't let one slip keep them down. Even when their symptoms are more severe, they achieve a greater quality of life for themselves and for others in their lives.

  • Beitscher-Campbell H, Blum K, Febo M, Madigan MA, Giordano J, Badgaiyan RD, et al. Pilot clinical observations between food and drug seeking derived from fifty cases attending an eating disorder clinic. Journal of Behavioral Addictions. 2016. 5(3):533–41. 10.1556/2006.5.2016.055 .
  • Goodman A. Neurobiology of addiction. An integrative review. Biochem Pharmacol. 2008. 75(1):266–322. 10.1016/j.bcp.2007.07.030 ..
  • Speranza M, Revah-Levy A, Giquel L, Loas G, Vénisse JL, Jeammet P, et al. An investigation of Goodman's addictive disorder criteria in eating disorders. Eur Eat Disorders Rev. 2012.20(3):182–9. 10.1002/erv.1140
  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth

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