Cross-Addiction’s Long Reach

Julia Sweeney

When interviewed by Marc Maron, Saturday Night Live cast member Julia Sweeney revealed how alcoholism  affected some members of her family, but not her:

Sometimes I think I’m so lucky that my drug was food, actually, because you can survive that. Unless you really go crazy, that’s a much more survivable stress-reducing mechanism than alcohol. When I feel stressed out, I want to eat … My blood pressure goes down, I get focused. It absolutely does the job, and I know that’s the feeling my brother and dad had, for example, and what did that was alcohol.

Physicians are aware of “cross-addiction” and of how easy it is to upset the equilibrium of a patient in recovery by accidentally prescribing a drug that will undermine sobriety and cause a relapse. The trouble is that a lot of substances increase the release of dopamine, which the brain’s pleasure center likes too much for the patient’s own good. A recovering alcoholic can be sabotaged by a prescription that was meant to assuage anxiety, pain, sleeplessness, or even attention deficit disorder.

But the situation may be even more serious, and the danger even more pervasive. In addiction studies, one school of thought holds that all addictions are one. According to this theory, attachment to a certain addictor, whether it is a substance or a behavior, can be severed – but another addictogenic behavior or substance will certainly step in to fill the void. Childhood Obesity News explored this idea recently, citing Dr. Vera Tarman’s essay, “Finally Sober, Suddenly Fat: Food Addiction is Another Drug Addiction.”

Not Even a Substance

A reader who found that article interesting and helpful sent an email to express appreciation, and also described the website she had connected with to make weight loss more fun by adding monetary rewards and penalties. Having read the definitions and rules, she signed on for a 6-month DietBet game. Becoming more familiar with the intricacies of the program, she said…

…made me take note of all the players who were actively enrolled in more than one “game” and made me wonder how many of them are shifting from an addiction to food, to addiction to tracking/gambling.

The same reader sent along the link to a fascinating article titled “The Dark Side of Activity Trackers.” Electronic devices and their applications do an excellent job of providing immediate feedback and increasing self-awareness, and can definitely save lives when used properly. But just like anything else, this tracking technology can be abused by humans. Journalist Anna Medaria Miller spoke with psychology professor Mary Pritchard about her area of expertise, where the combination of eating and exercise can morph into pathology. Dr. Pritchard says:

[For] anyone who has any existing eating disorder or excessive exercise tendencies, using a fitness tracker is a very bad idea because it just makes them even more obsessive and compulsive about the fact that they’re not meeting their unrealistic goals.

These questions are worth wondering about. If all addictions spring from a common root, the recovering opiod addict, for instance, must avoid not only other drugs of the same family, but every potentially addictive substance and behavior on the planet, from overexercise to chocolate-covered bacon. This way of looking at things shows, more obviously than ever, the importance of healing a person’s most basic psychological problems.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Episode 553 – Julia Sweeney,”, 11/24/14
Source: “The Dark Side of Activity Trackers,”, 01/06/15
Image by Franco Folini


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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
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Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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