Acupuncture for Eating Disorders
Eating disorders involve an abnormal attitude towards food which causes changes to eating behaviour, potentially having detrimental effects on health and wellbeing. Eating disorders include
Anorexia nervosa—when someone tries to keep their weight as low as possible, by starving themselves and/or excessive exercise
Binge eating—feeling compelled to overeat
Bulimia—which involves binge eating followed by self-induced vomiting or the use of laxatives.
Eating disorders are usually complex conditions, perhaps involving social pressures (perceived or real) to look at certain way, as well as emotional and physical factors.
Eating Disorders and TCM
Eating in TCM is governed by an organ called Pi. Pi is often translated as ‘Spleen’, but it does not correspond to the western medical notion of that organ. Pi represents our ability to transform what we take in as food into Qi, in other words to nourish ourselves. This function extends beyond the realm of food – Pi is also involved in emotional nourishment, and if our Pi is not working effectively, it is not just our relationship with food which is impaired. Pi is also said to house the power of thought; whilst this might initially strike a western mind as odd, if we consider how often we use phrases such as ‘food for thought’, ‘digesting information’ and ‘chewing over an idea’, we can begin to understand the important parallels between taking in food and taking in information.
Pi can be weakened, therefore, not just by eating poorly, but by either a lack or an excess of other kinds of nourishment, and by excessive and one-sided thinking and intellectual endeavour. Treatment of eating disorders with TCM therefore often involves restoring Pi to its natural state in which our appetite is healthy, our emotional life nourished and balanced, and our thoughts clear and harmonious. As can be seen, the distinction we make in the west between ’mind and body’ does not exist in TCM; strengthening Pi benefits all aspects of our being.
Whilst Pi is almost always central to eating disorder problems, there are also other aspects of our being which may be involved. In fact each individual case is likely to be unique, so that TCM treatment always begins with a lengthy and detailed consultation in which we listen not only to the story of our patient’s relationship with food, but also to what they have to say about other aspects of their health. All aspects of our being are in a state of dynamic interaction with all other aspects, and treatment needs to take this into account.
A course of acupuncture treatment can gradually help to restore Pi to its natural state and resolve other imbalances which are affecting us. Herbal therapy and Chi Kung exercises are also useful; additionally TCM has its own highly sophisticated understanding of food types and how they affect the body, and this can be very helpful in understanding and treating eating disorders.
Is Acupuncture Helpful in the treatment of Eating Disorders?
Whilst the various treatment modalities of TCM have been used for thousands of years to regulate and harmonise our relationship with food and eating, there has, as yet, been little modern research on the subject. However, studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of TCM treatment for conditions such as anxiety 1 and addictive behaviours 2; and there is a small amount of research on TCM treatment of over-eating, such as a large scale study 3 showing that auricular acupuncture helped reduce over-eating in over 80% of cases of obesity due to over-eating.
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1 Pilkington K. et al (2007) Acupuncture for anxiety and anxiety disorders – a systematic literature review. Acupunct Med. 2007 Jun;25(1-2):1-10
2 Courbasson C. et al (2007) Acupuncture Treatment for Women With Concurrent Substance Use and Anxiety/Depression: An Effective Alternative Therapy? Fam Community Health. 30(2):112-120, April/June 2007).
3 Apostolopoulos A. et al (1996) Overeating: treatment of obesity and anxiety by auricular acupuncture, an analysis of 800 cases. Acupuncture in Medicine. 1996 Nov; 14(2): 116-20.