As an acupuncturist I am constantly surprised at how many patients tell me that they suffered with an eating disorder during their teenage years. In my personal life I have also have friends that have suffered, and friends with daughters who struggle. Despite my experience being predominantly with females, young men are affected, but generally at a ratio of 10:1. What I do hear regularly is the devastating effect it has on not only the sufferer, but the whole family; and that finding help can be a battle due to limited funding and resources.
Despite years of research into the cause of anorexia and bulimia, there is still no simple explanation. The root is believed to be about someone having control over their weight and shape when other areas of their life feel out of control. At this time they experience feelings of being powerless or worthless. This can arise from a combination of personal, family or genetic factors which alongside life experiences lead those suffering to feel vulnerable about their weight and shape and dieting behaviour becomes unhealthy.
The effects of an Eating Disorder
Undereating and lack of nutrients affects our body and mind in many ways;
- Mood is generally lower and can lead to depression and feelings of panic.
- Obsessive and compulsive behaviour can lead someone to become inflexible and have to follow rigid routines often relating to exercise, cleanliness and tidiness.
- The ability to concentrate can be impaired with thoughts becoming deeper and irrational.
- Often a voice can be heard encouraging negative behaviour.
Sustained undereating for long periods of time may take its toll on physical health;
- The heart may become weaker and lead to low blood pressure and poor circulation which lead to feelings of extreme cold, leg ulcers or irregular beating.
- In an attempt to protect itself, the production of sex hormones is interrupted and puberty can be delayed. Even when normal eating and weight resumes it may take some time for normal functioning to take place.
- Puberty is also a time when bones grow and strengthen. Hormone interruption and poor nutrition can prevent this from occurring and lead to osteoporosis and a high risk of fracture in later life.
- The digestive system slows down which means that food moves more slowly through it and leads to misleading feelings of fullness or bloating.
- In some people the skin and hair can become dry and show signs of early aging which includes premature greying or thinning.
- Sleep may be disturbed and waking early feeling restless is common which drives them to go and exercise, and so the cycle continues.
Treatment for Eating Disorders
Treatment for eating disorders is available but recovery can take a long time. During this time the support of family and friends is invaluable. Treatment usually involves monitoring a person’s physical health while helping them deal with the underlying psychological causes. The NHS recommends a variety of tools which includes;
- self-help manuals and books, possibly under guidance from a therapist or healthcare professional
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) –this focuses on changing how a person thinks about a situation to change how they act
- Interpersonal psychotherapy – a talking therapy that focuses on relationship-based issues
- Dietary counselling – a talking therapy to help a person maintain a healthy diet
- Psychodynamic therapy or Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT) –focuses on how a person’s personality and life experiences influence their current thoughts, feelings, relationships and behaviour
- Family therapy –involves the family discussing how the eating disorder has affected them and their relationships
- Medication –i.e., an antidepressant may be recommended to generally improve the emotional well-being of the patient
The NHS also provides a list of service providers in your locality and can be found by visiting;
You can also talk in confidence to an adviser from the eating disorders charity Beat by calling their helpline on 0345 634 1414. They also have a designated youth helpline on 0345 634 7650.
How can acupuncture support someone with an eating disorder?
It is believed that acupuncture can be used alongside considerable counselling and careful management as an effective complimentary therapy.
This is because Chinese medicine is based on a wide understanding of the workings of the body, mind and spirit as a flow of energy known as Qi. When the flow of Qi is disrupted in response to life circumstance, physical and emotional symptoms can occur. When taking a comprehensive case history the physical symptoms and emotional vulnerability would be highlighted and these may be treated with acupuncture to encourage someone back to full health.
If you would like any more information please get in touch
British Acupuncture Council
National Centre for Eating Disorders