I just read an interesting Huffington Post article about a recent study that has identified a link between childhood abuse in women and food addiction. Dr. Susan Mason, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School’s Conner Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology, published a study in the journal Obesity that studied over 57,000 women. Dr. Mason found that women who had been physically or sexually abused were much more likely to develop an addiction to food than women who had never been abused.
The evidence from this study is compelling, and the sample size and study design are impressive. Accordingly, the findings are intriguing – but not at all surprising. At least, not if you understand a basic concept about addiction – a concept I’ve been teaching the last few years and that I’ve mentioned in other blog posts. Addiction is not a drug-specific disease. In fact, it’s not a “substance-specific” disease. It’s not even a “behavior-specific” disease. We addiction specialists have plenty of experience with people who enter treatment for an addition to drugs, and while working hard to abstain from drugs, develop a severe gambling addiction, or an addiction to online pornography, or – yes – an addiction to food. If you don’t want to believe us doctors, ask someone who has suffered from an addiction illness. Those who have struggled with this disease – and the people who love them and care for them – know this reality all too well.
The most recent definition of addiction that has been adopted and published by the American Society of Addiction Medicine reflects this updated understanding. It reads, in part:
“Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors (emphasis added).”
Once you’ve waded through the medical jargon, the point here is simple. We’ve known for a long time, from many years of research, that childhood abuse increases the risk that a young person will develop an addiction to alcohol or drugs. Since addiction typically starts in young people, and we know it’s a “chronic disease,” then it follows that childhood abuse would be linked to adult alcoholism or drug addiction. We have lots of research that supports that, too.
What wasn’t so clear – until recently – was that the disease of addiction that will cause a woman to snort cocaine up her nose or inject heroin into her veins is the exact same illness that will lead that same woman to gamble herself into debt and bankruptcy or eat herself into obesity and diabetes. Now that we understand this concept, Dr. Mason’s findings seem to snap right into place in our knowledge base like an important piece of a complicated puzzle. I found myself reading about her fascinating results and thinking to myself, “Well, of course she found that childhood abuse is linked to food addiction! Because childhood abuse is linked to addiction.” It just makes sense.
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