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Naturopathic Treatment for Eating Disorders

Naturopathic Treatment for Eating Disorders

There are many different approaches to health and healing in our day and age. There is medical science, sometimes referred to as “western” medicine, and there are complementary and alternative types of medicine as well. One of these is referred to as naturopathic treatment, a specific subset of alternative medicine that has become increasingly popular in treating eating disorders. If you’re interested in learning more about naturopathic treatment, what it is, how it works, and what it may be able to do for those suffering from an eating disorder, the following guide will help.

What is Naturopathic Treatment?

By definition, naturopathic treatment is any system of alternative medicine that’s based on a very specific theory: illnesses can be treated successfully, or even prevented outright, without the use of pharmaceuticals. Instead, diet control, exercise, massage, and other, similar techniques are used to accomplish the same goals as prescription drugs.

History, Key Findings and Statistics about Naturopathic Treatments

Naturopathic medicine’s roots run deep, thousands of years in fact. Ancient cultures from all over the world developed their own traditions, including the following:

  • Monastic (European)
  • Kemetic (Egyptian)
  • Hippocratic (Greek)
  • Taoist (Chinese)
  • Indian (Ayurvedic)

In the 20th century, however, the modern American naturopathic tradition began when Dr. Benedict Lust immigrated from Germany, bringing with him modern European traditions. Dr. Lust founded the first school of naturopathy in 1900, with 1902 being the first graduating class, according to the National University of Natural Medicine (2019).

Benefits of Naturopathic Treatment in Eating Disorders

When it comes to approaching eating disorders, naturopathic treatment has a number of advantages over traditional Western medicine.The holistic, natural approaches that naturopathic doctors take are, in fact, used in conjunction with Western medical science, according to the National University of Health Sciences (Smith, 2019). One of the specific goals of naturopathy – treating the whole person – lends itself well to how Western medicine treats eating disorders to begin with, which typically involve a multi-pronged approach that includes a registered dietitian and a mental health professional as well as medical specialists. 

Different Types of Naturopathic Treatment 

Before we can discuss how naturopathic treatment can be beneficial to anyone suffering from an eating disorder, it’s important to understand what general types of treatments there are and how they can be used. Let’s go through each one, briefly, and then expand on how these specific traditions and approaches can be beneficial.

Traditional Alternative Medicine

The idea of there being a “traditional” type of alternative medicine may sound counterintuitive, but it’s true: these medical traditions have withstood the test of time, being developed over hundreds or even thousands of years by shamans and healers. These techniques often predate the modern world and scientific study – and, because they have been so effective, modern medical scientific researchers are increasingly examining these traditions to see just how, and why, they work so well.

When it comes to treating eating disorders, many of these alternative medicine traditions can be useful:

  • Acupuncture has been shown to help promote better overall health and aid in easing the types of conditions that are commonly associated with healing disorders like low energy, insomnia, anxiety, hair loss, muscle cramps, anemia, fatigue, and dry skin (Wu, 2016). 
  • Ayurveda Ayurveda has much to offer to those suffering from eating disorders. Ayurvedic medicine can help in rehabilitating agni, the term for metabolic processes, by bringing balance to your doshas, or the forces that create your physical body and addressing the deep roots of a distressing condition (Ashram, 2016).
  • Naturopathy is often also categorized as a “traditional” alternative medicine, though in fact many naturopaths incorporate a wide variety of approaches pulled from sources such as Ayurvedic medicine, acupuncture, meditation, relaxation therapy, massage, and even botanical medicine (many of which are detailed below). 

Body-Based Alternative Medicine

The following approaches all deal specifically with body movement, muscle and bone adjustment, and developing a better connection between mind and body. These methods include:

  • Massage therapy has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety in individuals being treated for eating disorders in ways that traditional treatments without a massage component simply do not. (Hart et al., 2001, p. 297)
  • Tai Chi and related movement-based therapies have been used to great effect in the UK for treating not just eating disorders but also stress and high blood pressure, according to the National Health Service (NHS, 2021)
  • Yoga, with its tenets of peacefulness, self-compassion, mindfulness, and self-empathy, both empowers and enhances recovery from eating disorders and body image despair according to the National Eating Disorders Association (Samuels, 2018)

Dietary Approaches

As eating disorders are tied inexorably to a patient’s diet, naturopathic dietary approaches are almost always incorporated into eating disorder treatments. These approaches can include:

  • Dietary supplements are often employed to ensure that someone suffering from an eating disorder has the essential vitamins and minerals that their body needs while undergoing treatment.
  • Nutrition and dietary education is also a cornerstone of treating someone with an eating disorder. Providing the patient with detailed information about the effects of the food they ingest often leads to understanding that alters their eating habits and helps them steer more closely to better health.

External Energy Approaches

Some non alternative medical traditions believe that external energies play a major role in the health of a person. These external energies can be from objects or other sources, and it’s the manipulation of this energy that these traditions are most concerned with. These energy approaches, many of which have Eastern origins and therefore overlap with many other traditional approaches, include:

  • Electromagnetic therapy,unique in that it is a newer therapy that’s been subject to much Western medical research, involves neuromodulation, which uses electromagnetic impulses to help recondition the brain of someone suffering from an eating disorder (Lee et al., 2017, p. 83). Yet, as it does not involve the use of prescription medication, it can still be categorized as a naturopathic therapy.
  • Reiki, which uses the power of touch to channel energy throughout the body, may not have an exhaustive body of evidence to support its ability to heal those suffering from eating disorders, but this hybrid “energy massage” practice has been shown to reduce stress in clinical settings according to the University of Minnesota (Miles & Ringdahl, 2016)
  • Qigong, a Chinese practice similar to tai chi, focuses on concentrating and manipulating the body’s internal energy (chi) through the power of movement, concentration, and meditation. Practicing qigong has shown to be beneficial in speeding up the recovery process of those suffering from eating disorders (Gueguen et al., 2017

Mindfulness Approaches

The mind-body connection is quite real and quite strong, and it’s something that even Western medicine respects quite highly. Positive levels of emotional and mental health aid in physical healing, and mindfulness approaches have shown to provide beneficial results in many instances, not just in treating eating disorders. These approaches include:

  • Meditation, specifically the Buddhist tradition of mindfulness meditation, has been recommended by the American Counseling Association for its excellent therapeutic approach, offering patients the ability to master the psychological turmoil that often goes hand-in-hand with an eating disorder (American Counseling Association, 2012, p. 10)
  • Biofeedback, a mind-body technique that uses visual or auditory feedback to help patients gain control over their own bodily functions, has been shown to be an excellent alternative to treating the symptoms of eating disorders in research studies (Imperatori et al., 2018, p. 1806)
  • Hypnosis, or hypnotherapy, is often used in conjunction with many psychological treatments. There’s little existing evidence that hypnotherapy by itself is useful in treating eating disorders, but as part of a larger overall treatment plan, hypnosis can be an excellent way to reduce stress and anxiety associated with eating disorders (Hypnotherapy And Eating Disorders Treatment, 2014)

Senses

Some alternative approaches to naturopathic health include involving senses in improving overall health. These treatments often incorporate several or even all of the five senses – hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch – at once. These include:

  • Art, dance, and music, and participating in either enjoying or creating artistic endeavors, has always been a popular therapy for a number of psychological treatments. This includes eating disorders.
  • Visualization and guided imagery, often employed as part of a meditation or other mindfulness approach, has long been proven to help center someone suffering from depression, anxiety, fear, and a number of other negative emotions. Many of these emotions are present in patients suffering from eating disorders.

Precautions

As with any treatment for a serious condition, naturopathic treatments are not necessarily meant to be the only type of therapies used to help treat someone suffering from an eating disorder. While many turn to naturopathic treatments out of a desire to avoid having to resort to pharmaceutical-based therapies, in many instances more traditional Western medicine may be needed, at least partially, to help heal both the mind and the body of someone who has been diagnosed with an eating disorder. This means it is simply unsafe to rely upon naturopathic remedies exclusively during treatment. Always consult a wide array of medical experts to ensure that the recovery of eating disorder patients are monitored and evaluated wholly and completely.

References:

Naturopathic Medicine
National University of Natural Medicine
https://nunm.edu/about-naturopathic-medicine/

How Naturopathic Physicians Support Eating Disorder Treatment
National University of Health Sciences
https://blog.nuhs.edu/the-future-of-integrative-health/how-naturopathic-physicians-support-eating-disorder-treatment

Chinese Medicine Helps with Treatment for Eating Disorders
Acupuncture and Massage College
https://www.amcollege.edu/blog/treating-eating-disorders-with-traditional-chinese-medicine

Pathology Of Eating Disorders
Ayurvedic Medicine
http://ayurveda.alandiashram.org/ayurvedic-medicine

Anorexia nervosa symptoms are reduced by massage therapy
National Center for Biotechnology Information
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16864390/

Anorexia nervosa symptoms are reduced by massage therapy
National Center for Biotechnology Information
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16864390/

Tai Chi & Chi-kung aid Obesity recovery
Tai Chi Union Health Committee
https://www.networks.nhs.uk/nhs-networks/tai-chi-chi-kung-for-rehabilitation/news/Tai-chi-chi-kung-aid-obesity-recovery

So You’re Ready to Add Yoga to Your Eating Disorders Recovery Plan?
National Eating Disorders Association
https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/so-you%E2%80%99re-ready-add-yoga-your-eating-disorders-recovery-plan

Neuromodulation for the treatment of eating disorders and obesity
National Center for Biotechnology Information
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5788100/

How Does Reiki Work?
University of Minnesota Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing
https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/explore-healing-practices/reiki/how-does-reiki-work

Group Qigong for Adolescent Inpatients with Anorexia Nervosa: Incentives and Barriers
National Center for Biotechnology Information
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5289494/

Treating Eating Disorders With the Buddhist Tradition of Mindfulness
American Counselling Association
https://www.counseling.org/resources/library/vistas/vistas12/article_32.pdf

Feedback-Based Treatments for Eating Disorders and Related Symptoms: A Systematic Review of the Literature
National Center for Biotechnology Information
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6265864/

Hypnotherapy And Eating Disorders Treatment
Mirror Mirror Eating Disorder Help
https://mirror-mirror.org/myths-realities/hypnotherapy-and-eating-disorders-treatment