Holistically Healing Anorexia
Anorexia nervosa is a psychological condition defined by a universal refusal to eat or gain weight, resulting in extreme weight loss. Though anorexia can look different depending on the individual, warning signs include a fear of consuming fat, overactivity, an obsession with working out and physical appearance, and low self-esteem. Fatigue, dizziness, intolerance to cold, insomnia, an absence of menstruation, thin hair, a low or irregular pulse rate, low blood pressure, and feelings of shame and denial can all result.
Unfortunately, an estimated 8 million people in America struggle with this disorder - specifically 7 million women and 1 million men, with varying ages, sexualities, religions, and nationalities affected. Anorexia is not designated to a specific type of individual, although it is most prevalent in young women. The condition can lead to an abundance of health issues if not treated in a timely manner. A common long-term complication is cardiac arrest due to electrolyte imbalances caused by insufficient potassium and sodium levels. Potassium deficiency can also lead to irregular heartbeat, which can ultimately lead to heart failure. Other complications include osteoporosis, anemia, liver damage, and multiple organ failures.
Since anorexia has the highest death rate of any mental illness, it’s important to recognize the warning signs and to understand possible causation. Anorexia can be caused by psychological, social, cultural, and environmental factors. Images we see in the media that glorify being skinny, peer pressure, family and/or childhood suffering/trauma, hormone functioning, and our genetic predisposition are all factors that can contribute to the condition. The most common age of onset is between the ages of 12 and 25, so be aware and look for signs in girls and young women who you know and care about.
Anorexia is an extremely severe disorder and treatment requires a holistic approach with support on all levels. The following considerations will help to increase appetite, gain muscle mass, rebuild the liver, cleanse the bloodstream, and restore balance and vitality on a spiritual and emotional level.
As a psychological disorder, anorexia’s root cause is often related to anxiety, depression, or another underlying emotional disturbance. Feelings of sadness, anger, shame, and loneliness often accompany the disorder. Anorexia’s rituals and obsessive restrictions help to distract from these feelings, so healing will require learning to accept and move through emotions. Specifically, learning how to deal with negative emotions is a must. Instead of shutting down or denying your feelings, they must be let in so that they can be processed, integrated, and healed from.
Various forms of psychotherapy can be effective in assisting with this shift, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). Art therapy, dance movement therapy, and somatic experiencing are alternative avenues to explore for emotional healing. Introspective activities such as journaling and meditation can also help you to begin opening up to your inner emotions. Practice self-compassion, self-forgiveness, and patience as much as possible, as this is a long and challenging - though deeply rewarding - process.
Anorexia causes damage not only to the body but to the mind and spirit as well. The toxic effects of restriction and obsession can include a warped sense of purpose and meaning in the pursuit of thinness, and a deeper sense of spiritual barrenness. Finding or creating new sources of meaning in life will assist with healing. Ask yourself what is important to you, what your most cherished values are, and what you want to devote your newfound energy and attention to. Get back in touch with the habits, hobbies, and supportive friendships that made you feel the most like yourself and that nourish your soul. This may even be a time when you want to start volunteering or shifting the energy of your focus for some time. Healing from anorexia can be an opportunity to grow and transform.
Various forms of energy medicine can help with spiritual healing, such as Reiki, emotional freedom technique (EFT), and acupuncture.
Specialized counseling is highly recommended for full recovery. Cognitive behavioral therapy and group therapy are both helpful tools that can be accessed quite easily. Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on changing unhealthy lifestyle and thought patterns that have been acquired and providing alternative coping mechanisms. Whether you choose to try group therapy or one-on-one therapy, both have their individual benefits and will help on your path to recovery. Typically, cognitive behavioral therapy should be done anywhere from 5-20 hours/week, depending on the individual. Discuss with your therapist about flexibility in terms of frequency, as they can assess your situation and determine a good starting point.
To find a therapist near you, visit Psychology Today’s database.
Exercise should be slowly and delicately incorporated into an everyday routine. Low-intensity exercise is best in order to prevent overworking the body or creating an unhealthy routine that intensifies the condition. Physical activity will help to stimulate appetite and assimilate nutrients.
*Exercise may need to be avoided depending on the severity of the disorder, so discussing with your physician or nutritionist is best.
TRY: Yoga can offer physical, emotional, and spiritual support through this difficult time in your life. Take a beginner class or seek one-on-one lessons from a professional yoga teacher. Once you develop a core understanding and know how to safely practice, you can continue to develop your physical and mental strength even from the comfort of your own home. Practicing yoga 3x/week for 30-60 minutes is ideal to begin. Yoga poses that can be beneficial for anorexia include the crab pose, pigeon pose, locust pose, plow pose, and goddess pose.
Daily walking in nature is also highly beneficial.
Meditation is a practice that exercises your mind + body connection, which is crucial to anorexia recovery. It allows you to be in tune with how you feel and teaches you to show your body compassion and unconditional love. Meditation can be done anywhere at anytime and will be practiced uniquely - there is no right or wrong!
WAYS TO INCLUDE MEDITATION:
· Begin your morning with a sun salutation. This will help to ease your soul and get you into the right mindset.
· A quick meditation before and after every meal can help with digestion and promote healthy eating patterns.
· Practicing before bed will help release tension from the day and bring light and gratitude to your evening. This will relax your body and promote better sleep.
CONSUME ENOUGH PROTEIN
Including a good quality protein with every meal helps to keep blood sugar levels stable, repair body tissue, and restore lost muscle mass. Consume healthy fats with proteins first thing in the morning - for example, poached eggs with tomatoes and avocado, or a spirulina smoothie with coconut oil, protein powder, and ground flax seeds. This will increase energy, as healthy fats and protein typically score low on the glycemic index. This means they convert energy and affect blood glucose levels slower, helping you feel more balanced and composed. Consuming regular meals and snacks (as needed) is also important for keeping blood sugar levels stable and for reaffirming that enough food is being consumed.
Add in: quality protein sources, such as white meat poultry, wild-caught salmon, free-range eggs, mung beans, lentils, quinoa, tempeh, spirulina, almonds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds.
HEALTHY CALORIE-DENSE FOODS
Calorie-dense foods are foods that provide a large number of calories in a small amount of food. This can be beneficial when trying to gain weight, as portions are typically small but add easy calories to any meal. Calorie-dense foods such as processed meats, white bread, and fast food should all be avoided, as they provide no nutritional value.
Add in: tahini, dates, avocados, almond butter, chia seeds, coconut milk, pecans, and dark chocolate. Try on their own or add to smoothies or other dishes.
Bitter greens encourage the gallbladder to produce bile and increase appetite. They stimulate the body to create the digestive juices and enzymes necessary to aid digestion and the assimilation of food. Bile breaks down fatty foods so that enzymes can finish breaking them apart for the body to absorb. This is crucial because fats transport essential fatty acids, fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), and carotenoids such as beta-carotene.
Add in: arugula, dandelion, kale, radicchio, watercress, rapini, and mustard greens in your regular diet. Bitter greens can easily be enjoyed and added to salad, fresh juice, smoothies, pesto, and herbal tea infusions.
INCREASE WATER INTAKE
Increasing and maintaining your water intake on a daily basis will help stimulate your appetite and promote a healthy liver by flushing toxins out of the body. Aim to drink half your body weight in liquid ounces/day.
· Drink from a glass bottle to avoid the BPA exposure we typically obtain through plastics. BPA can disrupt regular hormone function.
· Don’t drink water during your meal, as this will interfere with digestion.
· Don’t drink ice cold water, as this will also disrupt digestion and contribute to low HCl production and hindered immunity.
A high-quality multivitamin is imperative in any case of anorexia since there are limited nutrients being ingested due to low food consumption and poor assimilation of these nutrients. A multivitamin is a fundamental base to ensure sufficient vitamin and mineral levels.
DOSAGE: The nutrients an individual needs will vary depending on the severity of the condition. Typically, a high dosage multivitamin with the following doses is recommended: calcium at 1,500 mg/day, vitamin A at 10,000 IU/day, potassium at 100-200 mg/day, selenium at 200 mcg/day (not exceeding 40 mcg/day if pregnant), natural beta-carotene at 25,000IU/day, and magnesium at 1,000mg/day. Amounts in a complex will vary. *Ensure it does not contain iron if also supplementing with iron separately.
Fat is an essential component of any diet and it should be included in the form of both food and supplementation. Some people with anorexia are afraid to consume fat for fear of gaining weight, so supplementation may be needed along with proper education of healthy fats and what they do for the body. Fish oil contains omega 3 fatty acids that help to increase cellular repair and reduce inflammation in the nerve cells. Omega 3 fatty acids have also been shown to improve cognitive function such as memory.
DOSAGE: Roughly 2,000 mg/day. The number of capsules will depend on the brand.
A probiotic supplement is needed for the maintenance of good gut and immune health. 70% of our immunity is in the gut, so making sure to balance the bacteria in the GI tract is crucial to healthy digestion and assimilation of nutrients.
DOSAGE: 50 billion CFU/day. The number of capsules will depend on the brand.
Anemia, or low red blood cell count, is a common complication of anorexia. Supplementing with iron can help to replenish red blood cells, which is important as they’re responsible for carrying oxygen throughout the body. Iron supplementation is especially important for menstruating women, *however, it can be dangerous if not needed so checking blood levels first is wise.
DOSAGE: 20 mg/day.
You can buy the herbs below at your local health food store or through an online reputable retailer such as Mountain Rose Herbs.
DANDELION has a long history in herbalism as an extremely bitter herb that can be used to aid in the digestion of food and the restoration of liver health. Dandelion is extremely cleansing and is able to purify and filter the blood of harmful toxic waste.
USE: Dandelion root and leaves typically have the most nutritional value and healing properties. The leaves can be used in salads or substituted for greens. Make sure to stay hydrated if regularly consuming dandelion leaves, as they’re a natural diuretic and can produce an increased amount of urine.
You can also buy the loose leaf and make an infusion using 3-4 tbsp in a quart mason jar. Cover with cold water and a lid, then shake to mix and let sit overnight. Drink daily in the morning with an additional 1-2 cups throughout the day.
GINGER ROOT has been used as a medicinal herb for centuries and boasts a variety of health benefits. It can enhance appetite, helping you feel hungrier and consume food more frequently. It also acts as a nervine and can ease symptoms of depression and/or anxiety, which are often experienced alongside anorexia. Ginger can also suppress vomiting and relieve nausea.
USE: Ginger can be consumed as a food source and/or as a herbal tea. Consume a pinch of Himalayan rock salt with ½ tsp grated ginger and a squeeze of lemon before each meal. As a herbal tea, boil a liter of water and add a 1-inch piece of chopped ginger. Boil for roughly 10-15 minutes and enjoy alone or with a touch of raw honey 2-3 times per day.
GOTU KOLA is a herb typically used in Chinese medicine that can address an imbalance of neurotransmitter function. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that communicate information to our brain and body. If they’re out of balance, we can experience mood and weight fluctuation. Some research has suggested that neurotransmitters play a role in anorexia, so using herbal, nutritional, and lifestyle practices to ensure that neurotransmitter function is optimal is crucial. Gotu kola is also used as a natural appetite stimulant, which is needed when trying to gain weight.
USE: To use gotu kola, you can buy the loose leaf and make an infusion using 3-4 tbsp in a quart mason jar. As above, cover with cold water and a lid, then shake to mix and let sit overnight. Drink daily in the morning with an additional 1-2 cups throughout the day.
WILD YAM is another beneficial herb used to ease the symptoms of anorexia. It can be used to strengthen the liver, which is necessary for the effective removal of toxins in the body. Elevated liver enzymes are quite frequent in people with anorexia; these are a strong indicator that liver cells are damaged. Wild yam can also help in balancing hormonal issues, and provides a calming effect on the nervous system.
USE: As with most of the suggestions listed above, wild yam can be consumed as a herbal infusion. Make an infusion using 3-4 tbsp in a quart mason jar. Cover with cold water and a lid, then shake to mix and let sit overnight. Drink daily in the morning with an additional 1-2 cups throughout the day.
With an integrative approach and a supportive lifestyle and diet, anorexia can be treated on the physical, mental, and spiritual planes. Be gentle with yourself and remember that healing is a process and a journey.