Eating Disorders: A Functional Medicine Treatment Guide
Learn about eating disorders and how functional medicine could prove effective in overcoming issues.
Almost every hour, someone dies because of an eating disorder. Eating disorders have a death rate that is higher than any other mental illness. Both men and women are afflicted by eating disorders. Around 10 million men and 20 million women have struggled with an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Without proper treatment, eating disorders can affect people for years and even a lifetime.
Conventional medicine solutions may include drug cocktails of antidepressants, anti-psychotic medications and other agents designed to modify the brain's hunger center. Functional medicine, instead, seeks to uncover the root cause of the eating disorder. Here's a guide that breaks it down for you.
The curious case of Sally
Sally (name changed) is a 12-year-old girl that has been our patient for the past one year. Sally first came into our clinic in the fall of 2019. She was accompanied by her teary-eyed mother, Mary, who told us that she had been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by a distorted sense of one's own body image and body weight, and attempting to starve oneself to achieve the "perfect" body weight. Mary had taken her daughter to several conventional doctors, and the unanimous decision seemed to be that Sally needed to be on a drug cocktail of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. She was desperate because she had been resisting the doctor's orders, and the doctors were starting to make her feel guilty for "ignoring" her daughter's health, when the reality was the exact opposite. She didn't want her 12-year-old going on strong pharmaceutical agents just because some doctors didn't want to investigate the root cause of the problem.
Something was off about Sally's case. She was not your typical teenager with an eating disorder who was obsessed with looking good. In talking to Sally over the course of an hour, we discovered that she was quite a normal 12-year-old girl who loved hanging out with her friends, and in fact, loved to eat everything. It's just that whenever she ate certain foods, she felt nauseous and had a shooting stomach pain, but her 12-year-old brain could not articulate what the problem was. In her mind and her doctor's mind, she was avoiding food and therefore had an eating disorder. The reality was that she was unable to eat because food made her uncomfortable and sick, and therefore, she was avoiding feeling uncomfortable and sick by avoiding food.
Digging in further into the case and doing some functional medicine detective work, we decided to order a GI-MAP test and an Organic Acids test for Sally. This is an at-home stool test that identifies parasites and microbiome problems in your gut. None of her doctors had ever bothered to check her gut. They had all assumed it was a brain problem, and hence had to be treated with brain medications. While we waited for the test results, we decided to put her on a 30-day elimination diet which would identify whether any particular foods were causing the problem.
The test results came back, and guess what? Sally had a virulent strain of H.pylori infection in her stomach. Could this be the problem? The Organic Acids test only confirmed what we had suspected all along: there was no brain problem at all. Out of 50+ markers on the Organic Acids, only one marker for Candida (a fungal infection) showed up. Her brain was perfectly normal.
H.pylori is usually a friendly bug that each one of has, however in some cases, it turns virulent and creates lots of problems. We decided to put her on a 2-month herbal protocol to kill this bug and some other dysbiotic bugs that were found on her GI-MAP.
One month later, Mary called our clinic tearfully again, but this time they were tears of joy. Her daughter Sally had started eating and gaining weight. It seemed that she wouldn't need the drug cocktail after all! Our theory was right. The food that Sally was eating made her so uncomfortable that she stopped eating, which ended up being misdiagnosed as an eating disorder. There was never an eating disorder or a brain problem. The poor 12-year-old just didn't know how to articulate the fact that food made her sick, and her natural reaction was to shun food.
Mary also told us that her conventional MD had fired her as a patient because in his words, she was "a careless parent," but she didn't care! She had rediscovered her beautiful 12-year-old daughter through functional medicine.
Types of Eating Disorders
Weight watching is an idea that many people are concerned with. However, it can lead to more significant issues and cause someone to suffer from a mental illness defined as an eating disorder. While some people look at eating disorders as phases or lifestyle choices, this is far from the truth. They are serious and fatal. Let's take a look at two of the most common ones.
Bulimia is characterized by cycles of excessive overeating, also known as bingeing. It's followed by purging or taking laxatives, or other behaviors to compensate for the bingeing.
Many people with bulimia start their days by eating little to nothing. That's why they often find themselves binge eating and purging later in the day. A loss of control is felt when someone who has bulimia eats. Taking better control of one's lifestyle can help to mediate those feelings and actions.
Those who suffer from binge-eating disorder suffer from extreme feelings of a loss of control. Those feelings are centered around their eating patterns. Those with this mental illness eat fast or more than intended, even when they're not hungry. Some might continue to eat long after they're uncomfortably full. Typically, the pattern begins and occurs at least once a week. Those who suffer from the binge-eating disorder may be overweight, obese, or of normal weight.
Alternative Treatments for Eating Disorders
Every patient is different, which is why functional medicine takes the time to analyze and assess the whole person. For each patient, there will be a combination of treatments. Nutritional counseling, acupuncture, lifestyle changes, psychological evaluation, and additional alternative therapies are all examples of treatment components. Every treatment plan will be different, but let's take a look at some of those used to treat eating disorders and why they're effective.
The way that Chinese medicine, for example, dissects illnesses is much different than the more "modern medicine" approach we are all familiar with. Thankfully, doctors are using integrative medicine methods like acupuncture to address deeper issues more frequently in Western medicine.
An illness is deemed to be a result of an imbalance of energy in the body, mind, and spirit as a whole in Chinese medicine. Because eating disorders are a mental illness, it makes sense to treat them with more than just the latest pharmaceutical pill. Acupuncture seeks to restore one's health by readjusting, improving, and either freeing or balancing energy. It can be beneficial to patients with digestive issues, food allergies, cravings, and eating disorders.
Plus, acupuncture is extremely effective at helping patients detox from things like sugar, alcohol, and drugs. Around half of the people who suffer from eating disorders also abuse drugs or alcohol. It's easy to see why putting a Band-Aid on the eating disorder would not effectively treat the whole patient.
Acupuncture is also effective at improving things like mental health, sense of control, physical health, depression symptoms, and social support.
Massage therapy can help to increase levels of both serotonin and dopamine. Dopamine helps to regulate muscle movement and mood. It also plays a crucial role in the brain's reward and pleasure systems. While dopamine is typically stored in the brain, serotonin is stored in the gut. Serotonin also helps regulate body temperature, appetite, and mood.
Getting regular massages can not only help one's attitude toward life but can also lead to a more positive outlook regarding recovery. For anorexia nervosa, receiving massage therapy twice a week could help lower stress hormones, increase dopamine levels, and increase body satisfaction.
Mindful meditation can help treat eating disorders, too. Mindful meditation has been shown to:
Increase acceptance of self
Reduce binge eating and emotional eating
Improve knowledge of the body's hunger cues
Help with addiction, anxiety, and pain management
Diet and Gut Restoration
90% of your body's happy hormone (serotonin) is produced in your gut. A healthy gut is the key to healthy hormones and a healthy brain and life. Autoimmune diseases, eating disorders, and many other diseases and illnesses can be remedied with the help of a healthier gut.
Those with celiac disease can't tolerate gluten. The tiniest amount can trigger an immune response that then damages the small intestine's lining. What this does is interfere with the absorption of food nutrients. Those with gluten sensitivity can generate symptoms similar to celiac disease, though, without the intestinal damage. It's possible that the uncomfortable feeling of fullness and pain causes people to make ineffective changes to their eating habits, like purging after binge eating food with gluten.
If you have a gluten sensitivity, the best thing for your path to overcoming an eating disorder would be to cut it out completely. While celiac disease used to be diagnosed by a diet elimination process, today, it can be easily identified with a blood test. To successfully diagnose and overcome eating disorders, any excellent integrative medicine doctor would say, "Test, don't guess." Alongside gut health, hormone restoration also plays a vital role in health, too.
While some forms of exercise may be dangerous for certain patients with eating disorders, there are many ways in which yoga can help those patients begin to rediscover and love their bodies, and its sensitivities, such as:
Increased feelings of relaxation
Better ability to focus
Better interpersonal relationships
More positive mindset
Physical benefits like better muscle strength and cardiovascular function
Healing from pain and tension
Improved self-confidence and body image
A greater sense of well-being
Functional Medicine Can Do Wonders for Eating Disorders
Eating disorders usually can't be treated with medication alone. Because they stem from deeper issues and are considered mental illnesses, the only way to effectively treat eating disorders is through identifying the root cause.
Your functional medicine doctor will spend time discussing the issues and help you figure out where to start. Would you like to test your body and gut to figure out where your body stands health-wise? Book your free 15-minute consultation with Dr. G to start treating your body right from the inside out!