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Smoking and Eating Disorders: An Unhealthy Means to an End 2017-10-20T11:06:21+00:00

Smoking and Eating Disorders: An Unhealthy Means to an End

Utensils next to ashtray filled with cigarettes

While smoking and eating disorders by themselves are serious threats to both physical and mental health, when combined they present even more of a danger. Despite the myriad health problems that smoking causes, for some, smoking cigarettes is associated with certain benefits, albeit for all the wrong reasons.

One “benefit” that cigarettes have is that nicotine acts as an appetite suppressant. This feature of smoking is something scientists have observed in smokers for quite a while. Given this accidental upside to smoking, many young people have wrongly assumed that taking up smoking is a sure-fire way to also keep off unwanted weight.

Smoking and Eating Disorders: No Lesser Evil

Eating disorders manifest themselves in many ways, although there are three main types of eating disorder.

Anorexia nervosaBulimia nervosaBinge-eating
Individuals suffering from anorexia nervosa typically see themselves as severely overweight, although, physically they are not (in fact they are often underweight). Those suffering from anorexia nervosa will obsess over their weight, always measuring and controlling their weight and food intake. Anorexia nervosa is lethal and is responsible for more deaths than any other mental illness
Unlike anorexia nervosa, people with bulimia nervosa do not wildly fluctuate between weights. Some with bulimia nervosa can maintain a healthy weight, however the way they achieve this is extremely unhealthy. People with bulimia nervosa engage in binge-eating episodes, which are then followed by behaviors that over-compensate for such behaviors (vomiting, extreme exercising, fasting and laxative use)
People who engage in binge-eating behaviors do not typically seek to reverse the course of their eating and are almost always obese, sometimes morbidly so. Binge-eating is marked by an inability to control one’s eating.

Eating disorders are almost always (wrongly) associated with women more than they are with men. The truth is, eating disorders affect both genders. However, the numbers of women suffering from them are higher than that of men.

20 million women and 10 million men in the USA will have an eating disorder at some point in their livesWade, Keski-Rahkonen, & Hudson, 2011

Men, however, also exhibit negative attitudes about their bodies. These negative perceptions can cause disorders particular to men, like muscle dysmorphia (wanting to be or appear more muscular).

Again, rather than being merely the result of social pressures to be thin (although those play a part), eating disorders can develop for many reasons. Eating disorders can find their origins in a subtle interplay of genetic, biological, social and behavioral factors.

Genes can sometimes reveal a history of eating disorders in a particular family. Brain imaging scans have also highlighted the differences in brain activity between women who have eating disorders and those who do not.

Smoking and Eating Disorders: Connections

A study from 1989 found that smoking was much more prevalent among those young women who were also most obsessed with body image. The connection was made, for the young women participating in the study at least, that smoking helped control appetite.

Given the appetite control properties in nicotine, they were right to some extent. However, the most disturbing finding of the study was how young girls often turned to cigarettes as a weight control tool, regardless of the negative consequences of a regular smoking habit.

The study also found that more than 40% of smokers had also gone through episodes of bulimia nervosa in the past, compared to only 30% of non-smokers. Bulimia sufferers were also shown to have experimented with other narcotics, like amphetamines and cocaine.

10% of male and 5% of female smokers reported beginning to smoke for weight control.Cigarette smoking as a dieting strategy in a university population

Another study from 2006, drew the causal links between eating disorders and smoking, rather than vice-versa. The study from the University of North Carolina found a higher rate of tobacco dependence among women diagnosed as having an eating disorder, than women with no eating disorders.

The study also concluded that women in the sub-type category of eating disorders, (e.g.. bulimic women who either purge or binge) were found to have the highest incidences of nicotine dependencies among all those in the same sub-type.

The Nicotine Trap

Nicotine Trap

Scientists have known that smokers tend to be thinner than their nonsmoking counterparts. And weight gain is a common side effect of quitting smoking.

A 2011 study found that nicotine affects a particular nerve cell that puts eating vs. not-eating in evolutionary terms. The POMC cells (nerve cells) were not stimulated by nicotine, in fact, they reacted to nicotine by suppressing appetite as a survival mechanism.

Instead of partaking in a pleasurable activity (eating) nicotine made these cells think it would be best to stave off pleasure for another time. Although the study points the way toward developing successful diet drugs, it also recommended that nicotine consumption not be seen as a weight loss tool.

The Shared Dangers

Both smoking and eating disorders represent serious threats to health and well-being. What is most worrisome is that the symptoms and effects of both prey upon their respective consequences, meaning that smoking worsens the effects of eating disorders and vice-versa.

Bone densityLow blood pressureMultiorgan failuresDental health
Anorexia nervosa causes early osteoporosis, which can also be brought on by years of smoking
Smoking plays havoc with the respiratory and cardiac systems, which is also adversely affected by anorexia nervosa
A lack of proper nutrition can lead to problems with the brain, heart, and lungs, all organ systems negatively affected by smoking as well
Bulimia can cause damage to the salivary glands, tooth enamel and lead to tooth decay, which are also effects of a lifelong smoking habit

Breaking Free

Depressed woman is offered a helping hand

People with eating disorders who also have nicotine dependencies can be said to have a co-occurring disorder (a substance use disorder with a mental health disorder). Treating both ailments is possible.

Most people with co-occurring disorders receive a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy, medications for depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders as well as individual counseling. With eating disorders also involved, people can also learn healthy eating habits and be counseled on how best to eat nutritiously.

People looking to quit smoking can also receive cognitive behavioral therapy combined with nicotine replacement therapy to help with their nicotine withdrawal symptoms.

The connections between smoking and eating disorders are real. People with eating disorders have been found to be more susceptible to forming other addictions, namely to nicotine, but they get addicted to other substances as well.

When it comes to eating disorders, at least, people should first seek treatment for their particular disorder before worsening their health by smoking. And those who continue smoking to prevent weight gain should look into nicotine replacement therapies to stave off gaining weight.

Whatever the case may be, smoking and eating disorders should not be allowed to feed off of each other (no pun intended). Both disorders endanger health, physical and mental, unnecessarily and should be treated with medicine and therapy rather than acting as each other’s potential cure.