Drunkorexia isn't an official disorder, but it is a growing problem.
Photo: Ben Goldstein
Drunkorexic: A woman (or man) who skips meals so that she can consume her calories as alcohol. It's not an official disorder, but it seems to be a widespread problem, experts say. "We see young girls in high school all the way up to successful women in their 40s who abuse alcohol and then restrict food to prevent weight gain," says psychologist and addiction specialist Carrie Wilkens, PhD. "They tend to drink really fast, partly because the brain is starved and telling them to consume calories via the alcohol."

Psychiatrist and eating disorders specialist David Herzog, MD, believes alcohol may help alleviate the anxiety about food that plagues women with eating disorders. Comments from chat rooms devoted to drunkorexia seem to confirm Herzog's observation. "I don't eat a lot because when I get my glass of wine, it will go straight to my head and then I can relax," writes one commenter. "I find when I have a few glasses, I feel less guilty about eating—and that's the excuse I give myself to finally eat."

Not surprisingly, drunkorexia can have serious consequences. Substituting alcohol for food leads quickly to malnutrition, and from there to organ damage and weak bones. There is also the more immediate concern of blackouts and the potential for physical injury along with leaving oneself vulnerable to sexual assault. In a long-term study of 136 anorexics co-directed by Herzog and colleagues, alcohol abuse was the strongest predictor of an early death.

Treating an eating disorder alone is tricky enough; trying to control alcohol abuse simultaneously means that therapists must use addiction techniques to help sufferers. "We try to get them to identify what the alcohol is giving them that's so important—is it to manage social or food anxiety?" says Wilkens. "Then we help them learn alternative ways to cope—stress reduction techniques such as yoga and exercise."
As a reminder, always consult your doctor for medical advice and treatment before starting any program.

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