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Traditional Chinese Medicine, which includes acupuncture, acupressure, and herbal medicine, can have a role in treating eating disorders. Sometimes it "presses a pause button" to stop unremitting symptoms, and sometimes it results in clear improvement.

Traditional Chinese Medicine is venerable tradition of health treatment that includes acupuncture, acupressure, herbal medicine, moxibustion, tai chi, and qi gong. The theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine is resolutely non-scientific. It has energy organs that don't precisely correspond to organ systems as they are understood by conventional medicine. It deals with the circulation, blockage, excess, and deficiency of "energy" that is visualized as flowing through "channels" in the energy body. It counteracts "evil influences" that cause disease, and has combinations of symptoms rather than named diseases.

And no two patients of Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners receive exactly the same treatment for the same symptom patterns or the same disease as defined by scientific medicine.

Another characteristic of Traditional Chinese Medicine, however, is that it often works. Modern doctors in China don't take the ancient teachings about chi and energy channels and the eight classifications of symptoms as literally true, but they consistently find that the actions prescribed by this 2000-year-old system of health treatment often works, and sometimes gets results that cannot be achieved by Western medicine.

How does Traditional Chinese Medicine conceptualize eating disorders?

If you were to ask a thousand-year-old Chinese director to diagnose someone who would get a diagnosis of anorexia by Western medicine, that doctor might see several different patterns of symptoms:

  • Spleen Chi Deficiency. The "spleen" is the body's processes for connecting to the earth and processing food. Chi is vital energy. People who have this syndrome aren't grounded, and can't find the energy to process food. They don't get the energy they need from food.
  • Spleen and Stomach Damp Heat. In this syndrome, some malicious influence is making the digestive system soggy and hot. It's more energetic than the body it inhabits. It needs to be cooled off.
  • Stomach Chi Deficiency. The "stomach" just can't rev up to process food and send it down the digestive tract for further processing, so food keeps coming back up.
  • Spleen Blood Deficiency. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, "blood" does more than transport nutrients and oxygen to every cell in the body. It's also a little like motor oil for your car. "Blood" lubricates joints and connections and keeps them moving smoothly. If you don't have enough "blood" for your digestive processes, which on an energetic level connect you with the earth, then you'll eat in fits and starts and maybe from time to time food will move backward through your digestive tract.

If all of this sounds utterly non-scientific, that's because it is. However, each one of these energy patterns is associated with points on the body that can be stimulated with acupuncture needles or acupressure massage to cause a change. And each of the acupuncture and acupressure points is also changed by herbal medicines. It's even possible to describe herbal formulas as if they were a combination of acupuncture or acupressure points. Herbs are chosen to continue the work of acupuncture or acupressure.

Acupuncture and acupressure don't work if they aren't applied to the right points on the "energy channels" that are visualized as running up and down the human body. You can't just start poking anywhere and everywhere and expect to get results. Very specific combinations of points on the body or in the ears are needled for specific combinations of symptoms that correspond to what Western medicine calls eating disorders.

Can anything from Traditional Chinese Medicine possibly relieve the symptoms of eating disorders?

Doctors who practice Traditional Chinese Medicine are confident that they can usually treat symptoms and get a cure or at least good results. There is a "catch" to this presumption, however. Doctors who practice Traditional Chinese Medicine define both the disease and its remission in terms of energy. The patterns of excess and deficiency or cold and heat or up and down or inner and outer may be brought back to normalcy as they are defined in Traditional Chinese Medicine. But further testing is needed in all cases to make sure that the traditionally Chinese treatment is making a difference in the course of the disease as it is understood in Western medicine, too.

From the point of view of an observer grounded in Western medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine is usually helpful for:

  • Providing a break in the unremitting experience of symptoms. Some who is obsessed with avoiding for or obsessed with eating food will usually think of something else when they get poked with a lot of needles. Some Western-trained doctors refer to this phenomenon as "hitting the reset button".
  • Relieving anxiety and depression. If you can overcome your anxiety about acupuncture (acupuncturists trained in China use much thicker needles than most acupuncturists in North America or Europe), you just may also overcome your anxiety about your eating disorder.
  • Redirecting energies, that is, making things that should go down keep from coming back up, or things that should stay in keep from going out. Acupuncture, acupressure, abdominal massage, and herbal formulas chosen by a doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine often correct vomiting, laxative use, and abuse of diuretics.

Chinese studies find that up to 95 percent of eating disorder patients benefit from Traditional Chinese Medicine. It doesn't take the place of science-based medicine, even in healthcare in China, but it is a useful addition to the doctor's toolbox for treating eating disorders.

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  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth

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