overeating and substance us disorder

Overeating and Substance Abuse

Dr. Norris Von Curl, II, MD

Dr. Norris Von Curl, II, MD

Substance abuse of any kind has many side effects that further damage your body, your view of the world, and the way that you see yourself. Many people who are addicted to a substance, and live in that addiction every day, find that they display these behaviors in other aspects of their lives.

Overeating, for example, is a common behavior that accompanies the abuse of certain drugs and can cause even further damage to the body and the mind. Common knowledge states that overeating is an addiction in itself but what isn’t always clear is that overeating is a symptom of drug abuse, a co-morbidity caused by the initial substance addiction.

Overeating And Dopamine

Compulsive eating causes an increased release of dopamine in your brain, just as drugs and alcohol do. A person overeats to make up for something they feel that they lack emotionally and psychologically.

Addiction can cause overeating and binge-eating in several ways, but they all come down to one fact, brain chemistry. The more that we overeat, the more dopamine our body releases, mirroring the brain’s response during drug addiction.

For example, a person may overeat after the initial high from opiates starts to wane and the release of dopamine begins to decrease. Our brain tells us that we need to find something to make us feel great again. Eating is the easiest and quickest way to do that because your body naturally craves food.

We love food, all kinds of food, and some people even enjoy making food. The difficulties that we have with self-control as humans increase even further with our addictions and we may choose feeling good over every other option, independent of cost. Basically, we are already damaging our bodies, why change?

Comfort Eating

A person suffering from addiction may overeat for several reasons, and again, they are all based on dopamine levels and brain chemistry.

Emotional Eating

We may choose to eat due to the fluctuating emotions caused by our addictions. We can feel shame about our abuse of substances and angry at ourselves for the choices that we have made and are making.

We eat to overcome and distract ourselves from those emotions. We keep eating to cope with our reality and to comfort ourselves.

Stress Eating

Many of us overeat when we are out of drugs and feel stressed and anxious. We may also eat when the drug we choose causes stress and anxiety as we use it, for example, if the drug causes feelings of paranoia and guilt.

Many people with an addiction suffer from increased levels of anxiety and may choose food to, again, cope with our reality and comfort ourselves. We may binge-eat due to the anxiety if we have gone several days without eating, for example, as the feeling is our brain trying to tell us that our bodily situation has become serious.

Then we overeat. We have forgotten how to say no.

Bored Eating

Eating while bored is a huge cause of obesity, especially in those addicted to drugs and/or alcohol. Certain drugs put us in a distracted or mindless state where we simply forget to stop eating once we start, much like many people do after smoking marijuana.

To make things worse, the drugs that cause us to space out in this way are also the drugs that make us lazy and, with some of us, make having a job and a relationship very difficult.

We no longer have the drive to say no.

Co-Morbid Addiction

The overeating, and eventual obesity, caused by drug addiction is part of a vicious circle of negative behaviors and reactions that further exacerbate the addiction. When a person is considered obese, overeating can be considered a co-morbid disease and must be treated as well as the addiction.

To put it simply, illicit drug use causes negative emotions and behaviors that turn into feelings of shame. A common way to comfort yourself when you feel shame is to eat. When we eat on drugs, we forget to stop. When we are out of drugs, we eat to ease anxiety. When we feel shame, we eat to comfort ourselves.

Low-self esteem, fear, and loneliness exacerbate unpredictable and destructive behaviors. The eventual state of obesity may then cause us further shame and anxiety that easily tempt us to continue our use of drugs.

We can learn to say no again.

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