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Fight Eating Disorders with Chinese Medicine

By Michelle Fletcher

Nearly 1 million men and women in the United States suffer from eating disorders, according to The National Institute of Mental Health. With such startling statistics, it is surprising to learn that many of these cases go untreated year after year.

The two most common types of eating disorders are anorexia and bulimia. Anorexia is characterized by drastic weight loss to the point of extreme underweight. Women may entirely stop menstruating, and many suffer severe bouts of depression and anxiety. Victims will harbor a great fear of gaining weight, and an extreme inability to accept one’s own appearance. Those suffering from bulimia are characterized by binge-eating behavior, accompanied by recurrent compensatory behavior to prevent weight gain. Self-evaluation is unduly influenced by body shape and weight.

Fortunately, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Acupuncture offer holistic treatments for these disorders. Prevalent in most eating disorder cases, depression and anxiety may be treated by acupuncture. In a study performed by Guo Ke Ren, 30 cases of anorexia were treated with acupuncture to specific meridians for 30 minutes; after treatments, 25 cases were resolved and 5 responded with improvement, with an effectiveness rate of 100%. According to a UK study, “Significant improvements before and after treatment were found in their levels of depression. Many factors, as well as the acupuncture, may have contributed to these improvements.” A Chinese study has also found positive results in integrating TCM into treatments for depression. Subjects have reported “significant improvements in their physical health, mental health, sense of control and social support,” after several acupuncture and body-mind treatments.  TCM and acupuncture may offer healthy and effective alternatives to treatment for those suffering from anorexia, bulimia, and accompanying feelings of depression and anxiety.

Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncture have been used for thousands of years in China and beyond. The ancient Chinese believed that there is a universal life energy called qi or chi, which is present in every living being and flows along body pathways called meridians.  If the flow of this energy is blocked in any way, illness occurs. Acupuncture works to restore normal functions by stimulating certain points on the meridians in order to free up the qi energy.

Eating disorders have many causes, and thus must be treated with a culmination of strategies. Similarly, Traditional Chinese Medicine approaches the root of eating disorders from different causes and stimulants:

  1. Deficiency of Heart and Spleen:

Anorexia may cause a deficiency to these two areas, resulting in an increased heartbeat, memory problems, lethargy, and an ashen complexion.
Herbologists may prescribe a formula to help reinforce the heart and spleen, nourishing the blood and calming the mind. Using points mainly from the palm and spleen meridians of the hands and feet, acupuncture may also help reinforce the heart and spleen.

  1. Flaring up of Liver Fire:

Feelings of restlessness, dizziness, shortness of temper, insomnia, and rapid pulse often accompany anorexia or bulimia.
Herbal tinctures help eliminate liver fire, moisten yin, and sedate hyperactive yang. Acupuncture treats the same problems by focusing on points from gallbladder and liver meridians of the hands and feet.

  1. Liver Qi Stagnation:

When lifeforce energy (qi) is stagnant in the liver, irritability, insomnia, and excessive mental activity plague the body and mind. Anorexia and bulimia are often accompanied by these symptoms. Herbal medicine may help sooth the stagnant liver qi through prescribed tinctures, in addition to applying acupuncture techniques to liver and heart meridians in the feet and hands.

  1. Qi Stagnation and Heat in the Stomach:

Anorexia and bulimia are often accompanied by irregular heart beat, restlessness, and feelings of fear. Herbs will be prescribed to calm the heart and mind of the patient, in addition to applying acupuncture to pericardium and heart meridians.

Those suffering from eating disorders typically have much lower levels of total energy, vitamins, and essential nutrients required for healthy living. In an American study, “dietary intake of calcium, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and ascorbic acid of anoretics were significantly lower than in normal subjects. ” Supplementation of some of these vitamins and minerals may help reduce the symptoms of eating disorders and help promote a healthy lifestyle in victims of anorexia and bulimia.

  • Rhodiola has been used in folk medicine for centuries to increase the body’s natural resistance to stressors. It enhances the transport of serotonin (a feel-good chemical that promotes wellbeing in the body) to the brain, reducing depression and anxiety.
  • St. John’s Wort is a popular herbal remedy for depression, a well-published side-effect of eating disorders.
  • Kava has been used in the South Pacific and Europe as an effective for mild anxiety, muscular tension, and insomnia.
  • Eluthero ginseng is used to increase stamina and endurance, protecting the body’s systems from stress-induced illness.

Through herbal remedies, acupuncture, and supplementation, those suffering from eating disorders may recover from both physical and mental effects of the illness. Traditional Chinese Medicine gives victims of anorexia and bulimia alternative therapies to popular Western prescriptions that not only aid in recovery, but help strengthen overall vitality and health in the body and mind.

Guo Ke Ren, et al. Treating 30 cases of anorexia with acupuncture at Zu San Li. Journal of Acupuncture. 1999;19(7):427.

MacPherson H, Thorpe L, Thomas K, Geddes D. Acupuncture for depression: first steps toward a clinical evaluation. Journal of Alternative Complementary Medicine. 2004 Dec;10(6):1083-91.

Chan, C. Ho PS, Chow E. A body-mind-spirit model in health: an Eastern approach. Soc Work Health Care. 2001;34(3-4):261-82.

Thibault L, roberge AG. The nutritional status of subjects with anorexia nervosa. Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 1987;57(4):447-52.

Volz HP, et al. Kava-kava Extract WS 1490 Versus Placebo in Anxiety Disorders- A Randomized Placebo-controlled 25 week Outpatient Trial. Pharma copsychiatry. Jan1997;30(1):1-5.