What is Self Medicating?
“The theory of self medication to explain addictive behavior is based on the idea that people use substances, such as alcohol and drugs, or the effects of other addictive behaviors, such as eating or gambling, to compensate for underlying problems that have not been adequately treated. The self medication theory usually refers to substance-based addictions, but it can also be applied to non-substance addictions.” Source
It is common to seek out “comfort food” in times of stress and distress; but for many people it can take on the proportions of self medicating with food. The foods often sought have high levels of sugars and fats which the body metabolizes and uses to relieve the symptoms of stress. While this doesn’t sound like it could be harmful beyond the risk of increased weight gain or food-related illnesses (IBS, diabetes, high blood pressure), new studies are showing that a long term pattern of self medicating with food can have serious health implications.
How do you know that you are self medicating?
There is a definite line between indulging in some comfort food and self medicating with food. When you are driven to eat when faced with certain stresses or emotions, or if you show any of the signs below – it may be time to find out a way to get on a plan of mindful eating and stress reduction. That will be a different path for different people. For some they will need the help of a doctor, a nutritionist, a therapist, a personal trainer, or just a good friend. For example, if you are binging or overeating to the point of vomiting I encourage you to seek our professional help and groups like Overeaters Anonymous.
What harm can come from self medicating with food?
New studies have discovered a link between a history of self medicating stress and distress with food and a reduction in the body’s ability to produce cortisol. Cortisol is the hormone that is used to reduce the impact of stress on the body. With a decreased ability to produce cortisol many different chronic conditions can take hold including hypertension and heart problems. The choice of sugars and fats as a means of medication can also significantly increase your risk for obesity and related health issues including Type 2 diabetes.
5 Signs that you need to look out for:
Here are the 5 signs that may indicate that you may be in a pattern of self medicating with food. It is important to note that while almost all foods associated with self medicating habits are high in sugars, simple carbs and fats, not all of them will be classified as “junk food.” It is possible to be following a “healthy” diet and still be self medicating.
- Binges – binges are defined as periods where you are eating when not hungry and eating in excess of 2,000 calories in one sitting.
- Hiding food – if you are hiding food, or hoarding food, this is a sign that the eating pattern you are in is not healthy.
- Compulsion to eat when emotional (stress, anger, etc.) – While seeking out a dish of ice cream when feeling blue is common, the drive to eat as a reaction to any kind of stress is unhealthy. If your immediate choice when stressed is to eat, then you are self medicating.
- Can’t lose weight – if you are having problems losing weight, even though you are exercising, chances are your eating pattern is not conducive to good nutrition and correct calorie intake for your goals. This can be an indicator that you are engaged in self medicating behaviors.
- Anxiety about not eating certain foods – If you find that you get anxious about running out of certain food items, or have to have certain items on hand to feel comfortable, this is a sign that you are reliant on them for self medication purposes. If the idea of doing without a certain item, or eliminating an item from your diet is cause for anxiety, feeling of loss or depression– this is also an indicator that you may be using this food to self medicate.
What should you do?
There is growing evidence that actively choosing to follow mindful eating practices and participating in stress reduction programs can help to break the pattern of self medicating with food. Going on a diet may not be as much of a solution as going to group counseling or learning to eat when hungry vs. out of compulsion. Of particular importance is developing a lifestyle with healthy daily eating habits in which your intake of sugars and fats is controlled. It is also advised that participating in behavioral modification counseling, or joining a peer support group can help to create better habits for handling stress. It is also essential that you consult with your doctor and have a full physical exam to identify and address any health concerns that may be associated with the long term habit of self medicating with food. You can do some serious damage to your body with self-medicating.
Tomiyamaa,A. Janet. Dallmanb, Mary F, Epelc. Elissa S. Comfort food is comforting to those most stressed: Evidence of the chronic stress response network in high stress women. Psychoneuroendocrinology. Volume 36, Issue 10, November 2011, Pages 1513–1519
Norris, Jeffrey. Stress Reduction and Mindful Eating Curb Weight Gain Among Overweight Women. University of California; San Francisco. December 7, 2011. https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2011/12/11091/stress-reduction-and-mindful-eating-curb-weight-gain-among-overweight-women. Accessed 05-01-14