A new report from Washington University School of Medicine has a finding that isn’t a surprise to many of us who have dealt with
addictions. Melissa Munn-Chernoff, a postdoctoral researcher published a study this week in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs noting that the same genetic risk factors that make people more vulnerable to alcoholism also make them more susceptible to certain eating disorder symptoms, such as binge eating and purging, starvation and laxative use.
I have personal experiences with both addictions so have strong feelings about this report, but let’s see what the researcher’s study found and why this is a new and powerful finding.
Munn-Chernoff’s unique study of 6,000 Australian twins – the first to look at the genetic link between the two addictions – found that women and men who reported on their eating and alcohol habits had a 38% to 53% greater chance of being vulnerable to both addictions if they exhibited the behaviors of one of them. Munn-Chernoff explains, “These two behaviors do occur together, not just in women but also in men…They could be linked for many different reasons. All forms of psychopathology share some kind of genetic component, and these two behaviors have not been looked at together as often as they should be.”
It’s not new to note that people with eating disorders suffer from alcohol abuse. In fact, the National Eating Disorders Association estimates, for example, that almost half of those with an eating disorder are also abusing drugs or alcohol – which is a rate five times higher than the rest of the population.
What is the practical implication of this report? One of the most obvious points that jumps out is that anyone who wants to be in recovery from an eating disorder, particularly bulimia, would benefit from abstaining from alcohol. Not only is alcohol abuse/alcoholism fraught with all of its own significant downsides, research shows that alcohol undermines willpower when it comes to pursuing ANY goals. In fact, the first factor I credit as playing a role in my long-term recovery in the epilogue to “Positively Caroline,” my most recent book, is that I stopped drinking within the first year, partly because altering my mood simply didn’t make sense if my addictive nature already predisposed me to being impulsive.
I did find that some of the behaviors at self-help group meetings for recovering alcoholics were not conducive to eating well. I often encountered piles of candy and donuts at the coffee table in meetings, and a stated belief that nothing mattered other than sobriety; responsible eating was a distant second place goal, if that. I often wondered if that was appropriate, though, because some people openly complained about exploding waistlines and obsessive eating while accepting chips for sobriety. For some people, this was a necessary choice, given the severity of their drinking problems, but for some, it seemed that it might have been more useful to deal with both issues at once. After all, how can your confidence in your inner strength improve if you are simply switching addictions, and the person you see in the mirror isn’t someone you want to look like?
I’m opening this up for discussion: what are your thoughts on the role alcohol plays in recovery from an eating disorder? Do you have any personal experiences to share that would further illuminate this issue for others?