How Bulimia is Like Drug Addiction

The idea of an eating disorder being classified like an addiction to drugs shocks some people. Today we explain specifically why bulimia is called an addiction.

The craving to purge is the same way you may feel when you badly need to urinate. If you can imagine a time when the discomfort of having to relieve yourself was so consuming you couldn’t think of anything else, this is similar if not worse. Resisting the urge to purge when you have an eating disorder is like resisting an urge to use drugs for a drug addict. It can feel intensely painful despite knowing that such resistance would ultimately be better down the road. New research analyzes the similarities between bulimia and drug addiction.

The research done by Tufts Medical School and published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmocology, highlights many similarities in the behavioral experience of bulimia and drug addiction. For example, both food and drug  are experienced as cravings that often become associated with certain places or situations (and the brain may become wired to associate cravings with certain emotions). People experience positive shift in moods when eating and using drugs which provides this behavior to continue. They also describe feeling a loss of control in the moments before or during binging/purging and using.

The authors explain how tolerance usually associated with drug addiction can also be seen in bulimia. As compared to when they first developed bulimia, people describe needing to eat larger quantities of food later on to get the same emotional/physical effect. The researchers speculate that there may also be a similar neurological pattern of withdrawal in bulimia and drug addiction. In fact, many people with bulimia report signs of drug withdrawal when they try to abstain from binge eating including increased anxiety, disturbed sleep, and strong cravings.

Given all these behavioral similarities, it seems likely that there are biological similarities between bulimia and drug addiction. Indeed, a new study held at Columbia University that will be published next month suggests that people with bulimia have similar dopamine abnormalities in their brain as people suffering from cocaine and alcohol addiction. A few other studies have looked at how the brain reacts to cravings – similar parts of the brain were activated in people with bulimia and drug addiction as they craved food and drugs, respectively.

It’s no surprise that many people with bulimia have also suffered from drug addiction. Considering bulimia as a form of “food addiction” may help others better understand how paralyzing the illness can feel.

Read more about Bulimia.