Drunkorexia: Starving for a Drink

Photo by Harmony Huskinson Although common among college-aged people, drinking can lead to severe diseases such as drunkorexia.
Photo by Harmony Huskinson

Kate, who wishes to remain anonymous, was nine when she first purged and 15 when she had her first drink. She was a 'purging anorexic,' meaning she wouldn't always binge but she would purge everything.

Every time she planned to party, Kate would force herself to vomit the days meal, thus not consuming calories and freeing room for alcohol and its calories.

“It’s hard to describe how bad it was; in fact, it wasn’t until I recovered that I realized all of the ambient stress it caused. Ninety percent of my thoughts were consumed with food, weight, calories, etc. It’s hard to really understand what impact that had on my life until I was free of it,” Kate says.

Kate suffered from "drunkorexia," a non-medical term used by dieticians to describe the combination of disordered eating along with heavy alcohol consumption.

A study conducted by the University of Missouri found that out of 1,000 students surveyed, one in five students participate in the growing trend, where students are restricting food intake in order to offset calories consumed from alcohol.

Kimberly McClintic, a family nurse practitioner at ASU's Downtown Phoenix Health Center, says drunkorexia can harm the body in many ways.

The disorder can cause blackouts, lead to alcohol poisoning, contribute to difficulty concentrating and making decisions, and develop into irreversible damage to the brain, heart, liver and stomach. It also poses a high risk for more serious eating disorders and addiction problems, as well as chronic diseases later in life, McClintic says.

And that's not all.

“The condition is doubly dangerous because bulimics are introducing their stomach acid into their esophagus on a frequent level and the esophagus is not ready to take that. Alcohol is another insult to the esophagus,” McClintic says.

Repeated vomiting and acid that backs up from the stomach can result in ulcers, ruptures, or strictures of the esophagus, she adds.

Kate experienced this horrific bodily reaction, among others. She visited the ER twice because a hole formed in her esophagus and made her throw up blood.  Eventually, she says her grades slipped, despite her dedication to school and perfectionism.

She struggled with her relationships because she put all her energy in her addiction, she says.

“I was destroying my body and willfully disrespecting the life I had been given. I didn’t care if I lived or died,” Kate adds.

The disorder usually involves self-imposed starvation or bingeing and purging in combination with alcohol abuse. Binge eating is a pattern of disordered eating which consists of episodes of uncontrollable eating. Purging is characterized by self-induced vomiting and misuse of laxatives to control weight.

Among those who are described as drunkorexics are college-age binge drinkers, typically women, who restrict calories to compensate for the calories in alcohol they consume. Other college students will try to conserve money by eating little and binge drinking, but not purging afterward, which is equally dangerous to their health, McClintic says.

According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a reported 30 percent of 18-24 year-olds skip food in order to drink more. The CDC defines a binge drinker as men and women who consume four or more drinks within two hours.

“I've drank on an empty stomach plenty of times, but I had no idea it could lead to an actual disorder,” psychology senior Ricci Oppenheimer says.

Kate describes herself as a problem drinker from the beginning. However, she says she didn't become physically dependent on substances until she was 19 and attending ASU.

Debra Landau-West, a Scottsdale Nutritionist specializing in eating disorders, says the disorder is more likely to affect individuals who are bulimic, as the excessive amounts of alcohol can help with the purging process. Women with anorexia tend to avoid alcohol due to the high calorie content.

Drunkorexia is most common on campus colleges, where eating disorders and heavy drinking prevail, Landau-West says.

Leaving home for college can be a stressful time in life when students are figuring out who they are. This can push them over the edge into unhealthy territory, Kate says.

While drinking is a normal experience of college life, others struggle to limit their alcohol consumption. So while some people can drink once a week and be fine the rest of the time, those prone to alcoholism may find it harder to control themselves, McClintic says.

“For me, purging and my problem drinking and drugging had provided an unhealthy way for me to meet underlying healthy needs prior to college. Even though my coping mechanisms were unhealthy, they were all I knew in terms of how to self-soothe any angst I had. I hadn’t learned how to deal with stress and face life as a stable adult, emotionally speaking,” Kate says.

In order to prevent drunkorexia, seeking support is crucial. The body needs carbohydrates to function and when an individual skips meals to make room for more alcohol it prevents them from getting all the important nutrients, Landau-West says.

Awareness is key to preventing this disorder, McClintic says.

Treatment for drunkorexia involves combatting both disorders because they are intertwined, so if one side of the problem is left untreated, it may resurface later and cause even more problems down the road, Landau-West says.

The ASU Health Services Center on campus has many resources to help individuals suffering from the disorder. They have a board certified psychologist who does counseling and therapy, a psychiatric practitioner and a nutritionist to start the treatment process.

ASU offers several help and support groups available to students as well.

Students for Substance Abuse Outreach is an ASU student organization that makes recovery resources more accessible to students who suffer from addiction.  SSAO can help someone suffering from the heavy alcohol component of drunkorexia by giving them resources to treat their addiction.

Chris Gisriel, a member of SSAO and a biochemistry senior, says the students involved in the organization have gone through or are going through recovery from addiction. SSAO welcomes all students to attend meetings every Wednesday at 8:00 p.m. at Gold Bar Espresso in Tempe.

Speaking about her recovery, Kate says, “I realized that I was wasting this gift of life that I’d been given. I decided that come hell or high water, I was going to do anything in my power to never drink, do drugs, or purge again. It wasn’t one of those fake promises I’d made a million times before. Tthis came from my heart, and it felt different than those other times.”

Recovery from this disorder is possible as long as there is absolute willingness to do whatever it takes to solve the issue head on, says Kate.

“It is possible to recover from problem drinking and a severe eating disorder, and my experience is living proof of that. I don’t miss having an eating disorder, nor do I miss the substances that I abused. I love being sober and not having an eating disorder. I’m truly happy,” Kate says.


Reach the writer at kmkleber@asu.edu

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