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Treating Eating Disorders with Traditional Chinese Medicine

Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine focus on bringing the body back into balance, and reconnecting the mind, body, and spirit to their right relationships with one another. In TCM, each energetic system in the body has physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual effects. This means that imbalance in a certain system can have manifestations in any or all of these arenas. By treating the physical body, an acupuncturist can help heal emotional or spiritual trauma. And by focusing treatment on an emotional imbalance, we can right physical symptoms of imbalance and dis-ease.
 
Because this inherent mind-body connection is at the very heart of acupuncture theory and practice, it can be a very effective therapy in supporting patients with eating disorders on their road to recovery. Eating Disorders are complex pathologies that affect all levels of being, with physical manifestations, emotional imbalances, mental insecurities, and spiritual challenges.  Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine can work alongside nutritional counseling and psychotherapy to empower patients with Eating Disorders to heal themselves.
 
From a TCM perspective, Eating Disorders are usually caused by an imbalance in multiple energy systems. In fact, an imbalance in almost every system in TCM can be a cause or an effect of an Eating Disorder. Because of this, an acupuncturist works closely with the patient to understand the unique nature of their experience, and understand what energy centers to treat.
 
One of the most common energy systems that is out of balance in an Eating Disorder is that of the Spleen and Stomach. The Spleen and Stomach represent the Earth element, and an energy of groundedness and being centered. Overanalyzing oneself, obsessive thinking, and worrying about body image are often indicative of an Earth energy weakness.  The Spleen and Stomach are also our first line of processing nourishment – both in the physical form of food and in a myriad of emotional and spiritual forms. When the Spleen/Stomach energies are weak, we are not able to receive nourishment in any of its many forms. For a patient with an Eating Disorder, this is obviously a vicious cycle, as depriving the body of physical nutrition makes the Spleen/Stomach energy that much weaker, and that much less able to accept emotional nourishment. Treatment with acupuncture and herbs can help strengthen this Earth energy – our center and our core – to make the body and mind ready to accept the nourishment we deserve.
 
On a physical level, imbalance in the Spleen/Stomach can manifest as bloating, nausea, constipation, diarrhea, reflux, diarrhea, irregular menstruation in women, and unyielding fatigue – all common physical symptoms that patients with Eating Disorders experience.
 
Another energy center that I frequently see problems in with Eating Disorder cases is the Liver energy system. The Liver/Gall Bladder systems represent the Wood element, and are an embodiment of expansion, growth, planning, and outward movement. The Liver controls the eyes and how we see ourselves. Body dysmorphia and distorted body image are both symptoms of an imbalance in the Liver system. The Wood energy – like the growth of trees and plants – is one of upward and outward movement. It is what allows us to plan for the future, to set goals, to forge relationships, to find the courage to step out of our comfort zones. When out of balance, patients experience difficultly visualizing change and setting goals, symptoms of social anxiety, and can experience symptoms such as depression and frustration with themselves or others. Physical symptoms of a Liver imbalance include muscle tightness and tension, headaches, and painful periods.
 
Treatment with acupuncture and herbs therefore works to soothe the Liver/Gall Bladder energies and put the patient in a position where they are ready to take the next step in their healing.
 
Because the nature of eating disorders necessitates that multiple levels of our beings are affected, more often than not, additional energy centers are also out of balance. TCM works at painting a picture of where the patient is – in mind, body, and spirit – at that particular moment in time. And then we as acupuncturists look at the picture to see what is too strong, what is too weak. And then we use acupuncture and herbs to right that wrong.
 
By its very nature, acupuncture helps to bring the patient more into their physical body. I notice again and again in treating patients with Eating Disorders that the physical nature of the medicine helps them to connect with their bodies in a positive and meaningful way. It introduces positive body sensations, promotes a sense of calm and well-being, and helps set them on a path to health – in all the dimensions in which we exist.
 
Overcoming an Eating Disorder is incredibly hard work for a patient.  And unlike some other health conditions and treatment – such as taking a pill for high blood pressure, or getting acupuncture to release a muscle knot – it requires an immense amount of dedication, introspection, desire, and effort on the patient’s part. Healing is an active process, and that is perhaps more clear than ever in patients struggling to overcome an Eating Disorder.Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine don’t heal a patient – the patient does that. Rather, this medicine works with the patient’s own resources to remind the mind and body how to exist in harmony with each other, and position the patient in a better place from which to travel the road to recovery.

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