The Surprising Link Between Food Addiction and Substance Abuse
As more and more people struggle to adopt healthy eating patterns, it raises the question of why it is so difficult to maintain a healthy weight. The reason may be the similarity between compulsive eating and substance use disorders. Both of these conditions have similar causes, produce similar behaviors and have similar psychological and neurological processes. Although the nature of substance use and compulsive eating may seem very different, the system of craving, reward and tolerance is the same, as are the co-occurrent psychological conditions and feelings of denial or shame.
The Brain’s Reaction in the Reward System
The nucleus accumbens, more commonly known as the pleasure center, reacts with neurotransmitters to create a sense of pleasure or reward. Necessary activities for survival such as eating or sex, as well as excise, releases the main neurotransmitter, dopamine. The same principle applies to addictive substances, but on a much larger scale. Sugary, salty or high-calorie foods can inundate the pleasure center with dopamine, as can substances such as drugs and alcohol. The result is an intense pleasure experience, or “high.”
The pleasure center evolved to present rewards for doing what is needed to survive. Therefore, your body is trained to crave pleasurable experiences. Since substance abuse and food can produce such powerful dopamine responses, your body continues to seek out these experiences, leading to intense cravings for substances or certain foods. Eventually, continued substance use changes your brain’s structure to reduce the number of dopamine receptors, making substances seem even more necessary and increasing cravings. This phenomenon explains why you may experience intense longing for substances or a craving for a certain food can keep you up at night.
Understanding Addiction Through Tolerance and Withdrawal
Drinking socially is common, and everyone needs and enjoys food. How, then, can you tell when you are addicted?
- Tolerance. As you engage in an addictive behavior more frequently, the dopamine release has a diminished effect, so you need more of the food or substance to produce the same result.
- If you need larger and larger quantities to feel pleasure, you may be addicted.
- Withdrawal. As your body becomes accustomed to the substance or food, the addictive substances begin to feel necessary. Even if you no longer feel pleasure during eating or substance use, your body craves the substance.
- Lack of access to substances can result in psychological or physical symptoms such as tremors and anxiety stemming from a powerful sense of need.
What Does Denial Say About My Addiction?
Overeating or abusing substances can become a large part of your life, so admitting that it is a problem can feel difficult or even scary. For this reason, people who are severely addicted tend to deny their addictions, claiming that they drink or use substances casually and can quit whenever they want to, or that they simply enjoy food.
Unsuccessful Attempts at Quitting
Quitting isn’t a matter of wanting to or not. Substance abuse disorders and compulsive eating stem from psychological, neurological and biological processes, making it seem like a disease. When the body craves a substance or feels a strong need for it, willpower isn’t enough to fight against biology. To quit successfully, you need a complete shift in coping skills and lifestyle to prevent the body from craving the psychological pleasure of substance use or compulsive eating.
What Is Stigma?
Addicts and overeaters tend to feel shame due to their behavior. This feeling can lead you to become withdrawn and stop engaging in activities that you enjoy.
- If you struggle with one of these conditions, you may feel that you lack self-control or you are doing something wrong, so you might binge eat or use substances secretly.
- Some people blame addicts for their struggles and compulsive eaters for their habits, which can increase feelings of shame.
- Body shaming and other forms of weight discrimination can also contribute to a sense of shame in overeaters.
Going Back to the Same Behavior Despite Negative Consequences
Substance abuse disorders can ruin your life. In addition to serious physical health problems, they can lead to destroyed relationships, lost savings and professional difficulties. However, even an addict who has lost everything to their substance use disorder may keep coming back. Similarly, compulsive eating can impact relationships by making you more withdrawn. It can also lead to health problems such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. These consequences, however, still may not be enough to deter a food addict. Because of the body’s reaction to addictive substances, consequences seem immaterial in the face of giving up what has become a seeming necessity.
Prevailing Co-occurrent Disorders
Both food addicts and people struggling with substance abuse disorders tend to have some comorbid psychological disorders. These disorders can include anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD, ADHD and bipolar disorder. Eating disorders and substance use disorders can also be co-occurrent. Even if you do not struggle with a co-occurring condition, you have likely suffered from intense stress, abuse or trauma.
Food and substances become coping mechanisms to manage these conditions, so a psychological approach is far more effective than willpower in overcoming addictions. Medications, therapy and coping skills models such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy are effective in the treatment of compulsive and substance abuse disorders because they help address the underlying causes of the conditions.
Compulsive eating and substance use disorders follow remarkably similar paths. Both are reactions to a comorbid disorder or another significant stressor, and they both stem from an inundation of dopamine. This chemical reaction leads to all of the symptoms associated with addictions, and it can explain why some people struggle to maintain a healthy relationship with food. Luckily, treatment is available for these conditions. Reach out to a treatment center today to work towards a healthy lifestyle.