“Purging” is a behavior that includes self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse, or compulsive exercise, which often follows an episode of excessive eating, also referred to as “binging.” However, some individuals will purge after relatively small or normal-sized meals. When a person does this regularly, this known as purging disorder.
Bulimia nervosa is a condition characterized by both binging and purging. However, purging behaviors can exist without binging and are sometimes found among persons with anorexia nervosa. Anorexia is a disorder also hallmarked by a refusal to eat due to fear of gaining weight.
Although many eating disorders that include purging behaviors fall into one of these two diagnoses, they don’t always. An example would be an individual who does not typically binge and hasn’t experienced the extreme weight loss seen among those with anorexia nervosa. Moreover, repeated purging behaviors may be diagnosed as a purging disorder in the absence of other symptoms that meet the diagnostic qualifications for bulimia or anorexia.
Many people with an eating disorder also abuse substances. They may do so in an attempt to cope with negative thoughts and feelings associated with the condition or other underlying emotional issues, which, in reality, are significant contributors to both problems.
Effects of Purging Disorder
Many compulsive behaviors, like purging, are done in secret, and for several reasons. One is to keep up the appearance of normality and that nothing is wrong to avoid receiving outside interference. Another is related to the guilt and shame associated with eating disorders and the unsavory habits that are needed to sustain it.
People who suffer from purging disorder tend to isolate themselves around mealtime and avoid eating in front of others. They may also steer clear of certain social events, such as parties or gatherings, in which food is plentiful and easily accessible, or they may not have a secretive place to purge.
If you notice a loved one making frequent trips to the restroom right after meals, this may be a sign they are purging. Similarly, if an individual appears to have chronic diarrhea for no medical reason, this could be a symptom of laxative abuse.
The Relationship Between Eating Disorders, Substance Abuse, and Addiction
Substance abuse often begins prior to or during an active eating disorder, but it can also start in recovery. The same psycho-emotional conditions that contribute to eating disorders can also compel a person to abuse substances. Also, some people are genetically susceptible to developing addictions, and, as noted below, purging is thought to be addictive.
For example, a recent study found that as many one-half of those who have an eating disorder also abused alcohol or drugs. In comparison, this is five times the rate of the general population. What’s more, over one-third of persons who abuse substances have eating disorders, 11 times the rate of the general population.
The most common substances abused by those with eating disorders include amphetamines, alcohol, cocaine, heroin, laxatives, and diuretics. It is not by chance that many of these substances may be used to lose or control weight, which is the main reason why people engage in purging in the first place.
Substance use and eating disorders have many risk factors in common, including biology, family history, anxiety, depression, and low self-worth. Other shared factors include an inclination toward compulsive or addictive behavior, social isolation, suicidal ideations, and self-harm.
Purging as an Addiction
As noted, compulsive behaviors can become addictive. Indeed, self-induced vomiting can alter a person’s brain chemistry, unlike substances, interfering with neurotransmitters such as serotonin. This effect can result in feelings of pleasure and reward, which then serve to perpetuate the motivation to purge. A person who purges by way of excessive exercise will encounter similar feelings.
Moreover, holding back the temptation to purge when you suffer from an eating disorder can be as challenging as resisting the urge to use substances is for an addict or alcoholic. It can feel profoundly unpleasant and even emotionally painful, despite knowing that restraining from this activity would be in the person’s best interests.
For example, research has noted many similarities between the behavioral experience of bulimia and drug addiction. For one, both food and drugs can lead to cravings that become associated with certain people, places, or situations (potential triggers). People experience reward and pleasure when eating and using drugs, which motivates them to repeat these behaviors.
But there are also neurological similarities between substance addiction and bulimia. Other research has suggested that bulimics have dopamine abnormalities comparable to people who have an addiction to cocaine or alcohol.
Getting Help for Addiction and an Eating Disorder
Persons struggling with addiction and eating disorders should seek help from trained medical professionals and counselors who understand how to address both conditions simultaneously. Failure to properly treat either issue will increase the risk of relapse for the other.
Just Believe Recovery offers comprehensive addiction treatment programs that provide patients with the tools they need to recover fully from addiction, eating disorders, and other mental health conditions.
If you are ready to begin your journey to recovery, contact us today! We are dedicated to helping those who need it most to reclaim their lives by releasing themselves from the prison of addiction for life!