Occasionally I am asked whether acupuncture can treat someone with an eating disorder, such as anorexia, bulimia, or obsessive overeating. As with any condition, there is no one size fits all—everyone is different and heals at their own pace and in their own way. That said, I have worked with a number of patients who have suffered with eating disorders and who have been helped—sometimes dramatically so—from acupuncture.
Many years ago I worked for a non-profit agency whose mission was to promote women’s health and physical activity. Our mission tended to attract many women with eating disorders, as interns, volunteers, clients, and employees. Some were very much in denial about their eating disorder, and others were in recovery and willing to share their story.
Today, as I work with patients who have a history of an eating disorder, I am thankful to those women who years ago opened up their lives to me and shared their experience of living with this illness. As an acupuncturist, my job is to take that information and put it into the context of Chinese medicine; sometimes not so easy and straightforward.
Each person with an eating disorder comes with a unique set of circumstances, and can have one (or more) of a variety of imbalances in Chinese medicine. However, whether the condition is anorexia, bulimia, overeating, pathological food restriction, or night eating, in Chinese medicine the following organs are affected by eating disorders:
Heart. While you tend to think of your Heart as something that primarily pumps blood and is prone to heart attacks as you get older, the Heart organ system in Chinese medicine houses something called the Shen. The Shen is the home to your mind, memory, consciousness, and spirit. While these functions are attributed to the brain in Western medicine, we tend to intuitively know that the Heart is also an organ of feeling. (Think valentines, having a “broken heart” or heartfelt thanks.)
As an organ of emotion and spirituality, there is always some level of Shen imbalance in people who are struggling with an eating disorder. I believe that your approach to eating mirrors your approach to life, and if you’re binging, vomiting, not eating, or unhealthily restricting your food intake, your heart and spirit are as out of balance as your physical body. In Chinese medicine, an eating disorder would be considered a Shen disturbance.
Liver. Your Chinese Liver system is also concerned with emotions. The Liver is responsible for the smooth flow of everything in your body, including your emotions. When what you desire is very different from the reality of your life, it can evoke strong feelings of anger, frustration, and low self-worth. When those feelings are constantly suppressed, Liver energy becomes stuck and can show up as irritability, angry outbursts, and yes, pathological eating. In some people, especially those with eating disorders, those emotions are turned inward and may also become depression and anxiety. In the patients I’ve seen with eating disorders, there is always some element of Liver stagnation.
Spleen. The organ system most damaged by eating disorders is your Chinese Spleen. Paired with the Stomach, your Spleen is responsible for the process of taking in food, digesting it, and converting it into the energy and nutrients your body needs to function on an everyday basis. Your Spleen is also in charge of holding things in and up in your body.
An eating disorder can damage your Spleen in a couple of ways. First, the digestive process can be impaired, even years after an eating disorder, causing symptoms such as stomachaches, gas, heartburn, constipation or loose stools, and even lack of energy or fatigue.
In addition, I have seen in a couple of women in my clinic who have recovered from their eating disorder, but who have damaged the holding function of their Spleen. This has shown up in an ability to become pregnant, but a tendency towards miscarriages (an inability to “hold” the fetus). Another sign of damage to the Spleen is easy bruising, as the blood isn’t being “held” in the vessels very well, and chronic diarrhea as…well, you get the point.
Kidney. Your Chinese Kidney is the home to all the vital substances in your body—Yin and Yang, Qi and Blood, and Essence, which is kind of like your DNA and body constitution all wrapped into one. Your body constitution is a gauge of how healthy you are, and it’s affected by how you live your life. For example, you may be a big, strong and healthy person who damages your health by partying, eating poorly and skimping on sleep—all things that can deplete your body constitution. In contrast, you may be smaller and not be as strong, but if you guard your health by eating well, sleeping, etc. you may live to be a ripe old grape.
My point is this—eating disorders damage your body constitution, and as a result, the health of your Chinese Kidney.
The good news is that if you are suffering from an eating disorder or have a history of an eating disorder, all is not lost. First, you need help from a mental health professional who is skilled in treating people with eating disorders. Then, when you are ready to get your body back into balance and repair the damage, Chinese medicine, through the use of acupuncture and herbs, can help by calming your Shen, soothing your Liver, strengthening your Spleen, and rebuilding and strengthening your Kidney.