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Heather Hanks
Written by Heather Hanks

Reviewed by Veena Angle, MBBS, MD and Physician Vong U Chan on July 5, 2022

How To Help Manage Eating Disorders With Herbal Remedies

Among those suffering from eating disorders in the United States, approximately 95% are between the ages of 12 and 25. Learn how to overcome the disease using natural remedies here.

Eating disorder min scaled

Eating disorders affect an estimated 30 million people in the United States. Many sufferers are young people who may struggle with the condition for the rest of their lives without proper treatment.

In fact, approximately 95% of people with an eating disorder are between the ages of 12 and 25. The condition has the highest risk of death of all mental illnesses.

If you or someone you know is dealing with an eating disorder, then Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) can help. Here’s how.

What Are Eating Disorders?

A lady frowning while staring at a plate of vegetables
Eating disorders may involve selecting only healthy foods and rejecting other, less healthy foods.

Eating disorders involve physically and mentally damaging relationships with food, exercise, and body image. The risk factors for each person with an eating disorder are different.

Though you are likely to develop the problem if you have low self-esteem, face social pressure to be thin, or experience abuse, bullying, or trauma.

TCM believes that eating disorders stem from conditions that aggravate emotional and mental disharmony. These include anger, depression, frustration, and resentment toward one’s body.

All these are the consequence of Liver Qi (vital energy) Stagnation. Conversely, anxiety, fear, and excessive thinking are the cause of Qi Stagnation.

Three Different Types Of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders can be divided into three types: selective eating, partial or total abstinence from food, and binging impulsively without control. Selective eating, specifically, is defined as eating certain foods that you perceive to be “healthy” and rejecting other food varieties.

Anorexia nervosa

People with anorexia nervosa obsess about weight loss. Hence, they will deny themselves food to the point of self-starvation. They will use binge eating or exercises that induce purging to burn calories. People who fear being fat may remove whole food categories from their diet.

As a result, the disorder will give rise to emotional problems like irritability, social withdrawal, a lack of mood or emotion, or the inability to understand the gravity of a situation. It can also make you become extremely very thin. Your body will also force itself to conserve energy, causing insomnia, constipation, dehydration, abdominal pain, an irregular heartbeat, or low blood pressure.

Bulimia nervosa

Not having control is a common fear of people with bulimia nervosa. Usually, binge eating large amounts of food in a short time will set off the emotion. The person will then try to eliminate the extra calories by forcing vomit, misusing laxatives, and exercising excessively.

People with bulimia nervosa surprisingly have a healthy weight or are slightly overweight. However, they will be prone to negative physical and mental health implications. Psychologically, their perception of an ideal physique will damage their self-esteem and make them feel guilty for eating.

Binge eating and excessive purging will damage the digestive system and decrease the body’s electrolytes. A loss of electrolytes can dehydrate one’s body and increase the risk of cardiac arrhythmias, heart failure, or even death. Acid reflux is also common.

Pica

This eating disorder involves ingesting items that are not considered to be food. It can last over a month or more and will offer zero nutritional value. A few of the substances that are typically ingested are cloth, hair, soap, paint chips, and talcum powder.

Malnutrition, pregnancy, and iron deficiency anemia are the most common causes of pica.

It can also occur in people who are diagnosed with schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or an intellectual disability.

How To Treat Eating Disorders

A multi-discipline approach is suitable for the treatment of eating disorders. Recommendations by a clinical physician usually depend on the type of disorder you’re facing.

TCM treatment, meanwhile, will center on the movement of Qi throughout the entire body. You may be prescribed a Qi and Blood nourishing tea or an appetite-enhancing soup. TCM also prioritizes the nourishment and support of all organs by inducing a smooth blood flow.

Behavioral therapy

A lady in sweater undergoing threapy
Working with a therapist can help you get to the root cause of an eating disorder.

Several treatment modalities can aid recovery from eating disorders. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) focuses on understanding the underlying causes of a person’s irrational emotions and thought patterns. The key concept of this approach is based on the belief that thoughts and feelings are directly related to behavior.

Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) simultaneously helps you accept that you have a problem and encourages you to make a change. It focuses on learning new skills in four key areas. This includes mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness.

Mindfulness promotes better decision-making by relying on your rationale and emotions. Distress tolerance is useful for coping with crises through distraction and self-soothing. Emotional regulation allows you to tune in to your feelings, while interpersonal effectiveness teaches you to be more assertive and how to ask for help.

Prescription medications

Many who live with an eating disorder may experience psychological comorbidities like anxiety or depression. There are no medications available for treating an eating disorder directly, but antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs can help by addressing these underlying issues.

You can also use herbal medicine to help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Research shows that the medicinal mushroom Lingzhi helps ease stress, anxiety, and depression. Ginkgo Biloba has also been shown to help ward off depressive symptoms.

Herbal formulas

Conjunctive use of acupuncture and herbal medications can support the treatment of eating disorders. “These modalities can help move Liver qi and resolve Stagnation in the body, restore harmony in the Liver and digestive system. It also strengthens the Spleen and stomach after long-term Liver Qi Stagnation,” explains Eu Yan Sang Physician Vong U Chan. 

You can use licorice (Gan Cao), Polygonati Rhizome (Huang Jing), Four Gentlemen decoction (Si Jun Zi decoction), and Shen Ling Bai Zhu powder to tonify the Spleen and nourish Blood and Qi.

Ophiogon (Mai Men Dong) and Chinese peonies (Shao Yao) are beneficial for nourishing Liver and stomach Yin. Xiao Yao and Chai Hu Shu Gan powders can resolve Stagnation and regulate Liver Qi. 

Identify The Root Cause Of Your Eating Disorder

Identifying the root cause of eating disorders is necessary for improving food consumption. Use this guide to help you overcome a particular condition. If you wish to use herbal formulations or ingredients, do speak to a clinical physician and TCM practitioner beforehand. This will enable you to develop a safe targeted approach that avoids potential contraindications.

References

  1. John Hopkin’s All Children Hospital. Eating Disorder Facts. 
  2. Eating Disorder Hope. What is an Eating Disorder: Types, Symptoms, Risks, and Causes.  
  3. BC Children’s Hospital. What is an eating disorder 
  4. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Eating Disorders.  
  5. NATIONAL EATING DISORDERS ASSOCIATION. PICA 
  6. Center for Discovery. DBT vs. CBT 

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