Smoking and Eating Disorders: An Unhealthy Means to an End
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.