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Alternative therapies can be helpful for both treating and preventing eating disorders. Here are nine kinds of therapy that may help.

There is no single therapy that works for everyone that has any particular eating disorder every time. These nine natural therapies, however, are helpful for many people.

1. Acupuncture

Studies in Germany and China support the use of a specific kind of acupuncture for treating anorexia nervosa. Needling of the sifeng acupuncture point between the fingers increased levels of ghrelin, a hormone that signals the brain that you need to eat. This form of acupuncture also decreased the production of leptin, a hormone that signals the brain that you are full.

Acupuncture has also been tested as a treatment for bulimia nervosa. Patients who received acupuncture reported increased quality of life measures, but there was no definite weight loss effect.

2. Aromatherapy

The scents of essential oils act on specific nerve circuits in the brain that regulate the emotional connection with food. Here are some examples from the research literature, most of which is published in Japanese:

  • The scent of lavender reduces the sensation of pain, and may help people overcome food avoidance due to unpleasant experiences of food.
  • The scent of citronella reduces appetite in general. It is helpful for people who have binge eating disorder, but should be avoided by people who have anorexia nervosa. 
  • Bergamot, the scent prominent in Earl Grey Tea, reduces anxiety, as does the inhaling the essential oil of winter savory (also known as satureja).
  • Lemon and ginger help compensate for loss of taste sensation due to damage to the taste buds (from exposure to stomach acid in repeated vomiting).
  • The scent of rose often helps in depression.
  • Aromatherapy massage usually offers more relief for depression than inhaled aromatherapy.

3. Herbal remedies

A study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders reported that a little under 40 percent of people who live with eating disorders attempted to treat themselves with herbal remedies but usually these herbs aren't used beneficially. People with eating disorders may use syrup of ipecac to induce vomiting or senna, rhubarb, or aloe laxatives.

Most herbal remedies have limited usefulness in treating eating disorders. There is scientific evidence for the use of certain Chinese hangfang herbal formulas for treating anorexia due to cancer treatment, but this is not the same kind of anorexia as anorexia nervosa. It's necessary to get someone trained in Traditional Chinese Medicine to make the formula for you. Off-the-shelf remedies usually won't work.

What about cannabis for eating disorders? Pot smokers often get the munchies, so wouldn't marijuana be helpful in anorexia? Cannabis has been clinically tested as a treatment for anorexia nervosa in Israel. The preliminary study found that marijuana helped with motivation for body care, depression, and sense of self-efficacy, but didn't result in weight gain.

4. Massage and 'enjoyable touching'

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have found that massage helps increase emotional connections and relieves feelings of isolation in children who have eating disorders. Adults with eating disorders, however, often seek various forms of "happy endings" for their massage sessions that outweigh the benefits for massage in dealing with their condition.

5. Mindfulness meditation

There have been 14 studies of mindfulness meditation as a treatment for binge-eating disorder. These studies consistently show that meditators have greater control over emotional eating and fewer binge eating episodes, but meditation doesn't consistently result in weight loss. Studies of mindfulness meditation for treating anorexia have consistently found that meditation helps people who have anorexia feel better, but it does not consistently result in weight gain.

6. Money and other explicit rewards

In one study researchers offered women who had binge eating disorder cash payments if they avoided overeating. The study found that these binge eaters were risk-averse. The longer the payout was scheduled into the future the smaller the effect on eating behavior. Binge eaters tend to want all kinds of explicit rewards, including money but also including massage, game time, or residential "privileges," now rather than later. The longer the reward is deferred, the less motivating effect it has.

7. Music therapy

Playing music is sometimes used as a form of mealtime support for people who have anorexia nervosa. When music is played, one study found, people who anorexia were less concerned about how much they were eating, drank more of a meal replacement beverage, and reported that they felt less distressed about food. These results were only found when music was played without video. Music with video, in this study, made mealtime anorexia symptoms worse.

8. Turning off internet and TV

A study of teenage girls with anorexia found that using the Internet for more than one hour a day was associated with a fatter self image, even when the weight on the scales suggests thinness. The same study found that adults with anorexia nervosa who watched more than two hours of television per day reported up to five times more worry about losing control over food.

Limiting exposure to computer, telephone, and television screens reduces severity of symptoms in anorexia.

9. Yoga

One study found that an hour of yoga before a meal reduced the frequencies with which participants who had eating disorders rated themselves as afraid, ashamed, distressed, guilty, hostile, irritable, jittery, nervous, scared, or upset. It is not necessary to master any particular method of yoga to feel better as a result of doing it. Even yoga without the more difficult poses can improve mood and make dealing with food easier.

Yoga has also been used as a tool for preventing eating disorders. One study found that middle schoolers (aged 10 to 14) who did yoga were more likely to have a positive self-image and less likely to develop anorexia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, or bulimia nervosa when they reached high school age.

  • Bischoff-Grethe A, Wierenga CE, Berner LA, Simmons AN, Bailer U, Paulus MP, Kaye WH. Neural hypersensitivity to pleasant touch in women remitted from anorexia nervosa. Transl Psychiatry. 2018 Aug 16
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  • Karlsen KE, Vrabel K, Bratland-Sanda S, Ulleberg P, Benum K. Effect of Yoga in the Treatment of Eating Disorders: A Single-blinded Randomized Controlled Trial with 6-Months Follow-up. Int J Yoga. 2018 May-Aug
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  • Katterman SN, Kleinman BM, Hood MM, Nackers LM, Corsica JA. Mindfulness meditation as an intervention for binge eating, emotional eating, and weight loss: a systematic review. Eat Behav. 2014 Apr.15(2):197-204. doi: 10.1016/j.eatbeh.2014.01.005. Epub 2014 Feb 1. Review. PMID: 24854804.
  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth

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