ARFID and Substance Abuse Is There a Link? A close up image of a woman in a therapy session, seeking help for both ARFID and substance abuse

The potential link between ARFID and substance abuse is an area of emerging interest among researchers and medical professionals. But, is there really a link between substance use disorder and this type of eating disorder?

In this article, we’re going to explore two important health issues – ARFID, substance abuse and if there’s a link between the two. We’ll break down what these terms mean, how they might be connected, and what this means for people dealing with these challenges.


What is ARFID?

ARFID stands for Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. This eating disorder type is also commonly known as selective eating disorder, and it describes a situation where someone avoids certain foods or doesn’t eat enough to meet their nutritional needs.

People with restrictive food intake disorder might avoid food because of its texture, colour, or smell, or they may have had a bad experience with the taste, choking or vomiting in the past.

Unlike other eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa or binge eating disorders, restrictive food intake disorder is not typically about body image or wanting to lose weight. It’s more about a serious struggle with eating certain foods, which can lead to health problems, such as malnutrition, severe weight loss, or growth issues if it is found in children.


Common ARFID Symptoms

Here are five commonly discussed types or presentations of ARFID:

  • Sensory Sensitivity: This type involves avoidance of food with certain textures, smells, colours, or tastes. Individuals with sensory sensitivity may find certain foods simply intolerable for them, leading to a very limited diet in terms of what they can eat. This pattern is often seen in individuals who also have sensory processing disorders.
  • Lack of Interest in Eating or Food: Some individuals with ARFID may simply have little to no interest in eating. So, they might not feel hungry often, or they might feel full after eating only a small amount. This can result in significant weight loss or nutritional deficiencies.
  • Fear or Anxiety of Aversive Consequences: This category includes individuals who avoid food due to a fear of negative consequences, such as choking, vomiting, or abdominal pain. This fear can be linked to a past negative experience or may even have no rational reason.
  • Conditioned Negative Response: In some cases, a person may develop ARFID after a negative experience with food, such as through food poisoning or another traumatic event related to eating. This can lead to a strong association between eating and adverse outcomes, causing the person to avoid eating to prevent recurrence.
  • Co-occurring Psychiatric Disorders And Mental Health Conditions: Though not a distinct symptom of ARFID on its own, research has found that ARFID can present alongside other mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders, autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and others.


What is Substance Abuse?

Substance abuse involves using drugs (legal or illegal) or alcohol in ways that harm your health or life, which can result in addiction.

So, what this can look like is drinking too much alcohol on a frequent basis, taking more medicine than your doctor prescribed, or using drugs to feel good or escape problems. If substance use does evolve into an active addiction, it can lead to both a psychological and physical dependence, and a host of social, physical, medical problems and psychological problems.


ARFID and Substance Abuse: Risk Factors

Although ARFID and substance abuse might seem unrelated, they can be connected in a few ways:

  • Coping Mechanism: For some people, dealing with the stress and anxiety of ARFID might lead them to use substances like alcohol or drugs as a way to feel better or more relaxed.
  • Nutritional Deficiencies: ARFID can lead to not getting enough vitamins and minerals because of a limited diet. This can affect the brain and body in ways that might make someone more likely to use substances.
  • Social Isolation: People with ARFID might avoid social situations where food is involved, which can lead to feeling lonely or left out. This isolation can sometimes push individuals toward drug or alcohol use as a way to feel connected or numb the pain of loneliness.
  • Seeking Sensation: In some cases, if ARFID is related to avoiding certain textures or sensations of food, a person might seek out different sensations through substance use. It’s a way of experiencing control or new sensations, but it is, of course, extremely risky and harmful.


The Link Between Eating Disorders and Substance Use Disorders

People with eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, often use substances like alcohol, tobacco, and others, including some prescription medications. These behaviours can make their condition worse and make recovery harder.

Similar risk factors, such as genetic predispositions, emotional struggles (e.g. low self-esteem and depression), and social pressures, influence both eating disorders and substance use. They share behaviours like being unable to stop certain actions without help and feeling isolated.

It’s quite common for people with eating disorders also to have problems with substance use. Studies show that up to half of the people with eating disorders also misuse alcohol or drugs, which is much higher than in the general population. This link suggests that these problems often occur together and need to be treated together for better recovery.


Finding Help and Support for ARFID And Substance Use Disorders

If you or someone you know might be struggling with ARFID, substance abuse, or both, it’s important to seek help.

A dual-diagnosis treatment plan is the most comprehensive form of programme for those who are living with a substance use disorder and ARFID. These programmes involve receiving care for both conditions simultaneously in order to increase the chances of long-term recovery.

Medical and mental health professionals understand these challenges. They can also offer support and treatment plans that might include therapy to understand eating behaviours and address anxiety around food, nutritional counselling to ensure a balanced diet and support groups for both eating disorder support and substance abuse.


Reach Out Today

We hope you’ve found this article useful. Recognising the potential link between these issues is the first step in getting the right help and support.

Remember, it’s okay to ask for help, and reaching out is a sign of strength. With the right care and support, individuals can overcome these challenges. If you feel you or a loved one might be living with an eating disorder and addiction, please reach out to us today.