Integrative Medicine to Treat Eating Disorders Integrative medicine can be defined as “a healing-oriented discipline that takes into account the whole person — body, mind and spirit — including all aspects of lifestyle. It emphasizes the therapeutic relationship and makes use of both conventional and alternative therapies.”

Complementary and alternative therapies used in integrative medicine can include acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal medicine, dietary supplements and others that give the clinician a wide array of treatments for difficult conditions. This is particularly true in the integrative medicine approach to eating disorders.

Eating disorders have been documented in adolescents and adults for many years. More recently, there is evidence that these disorders can also affect young children.

The cornerstones of an integrative medicine model for eating disorders includes some components that are found in every approach to the treatment of eating disorders, but may be used in a unique manner. Others are more specific to the use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies. The most important difference in this model when compared to other treatment strategies is the philosophical underpinning of integrative medicine — that is, the belief in the self-healing nature of body, mind and spirit.

The integrative medicine philosophy holds that the body, mind and spirit are able to heal with support from conventional and alternative therapies, given needed changes in lifestyle. These changes happen in concert with the therapeutic relationship the patient has with his or her therapist, physician or other healer.

The cornerstones of this integrative medicine approach can include:

  • Medical treatment that focuses on reducing the risk of, detecting and treating complications of the disease and on improving overall health status.
  • Nutritional therapies to improve nutritional status, help women improve their relationship with food, and improve digestion and absorption of needed nutrients.
  • The use of botanical therapies to reduce side effects of pharmacological therapies.
  • Body movement to help patients get back in touch with physical cues and learn healthy behaviors.
  • Psychological testing to identify co-occurring diagnoses, including mood and personality disorders, and inform treatment strategies.
  • Skills training, which may include the use of cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavior therapy, to enable patients to cope more effectively with stressors in their lives and with situations and emotions that may trigger relapse.
  • Complementary and alternative therapies, which may include massage, mind-body, chiropractic, acupuncture and energy medicine therapies.
  • Prescription medications, which are used cautiously in children and adolescents and should be prescribed only to manage behavior that is life-threatening or therapy interrupting.

Eating disorders comprise a spectrum of disorders that are difficult to treat and have a high risk for morbidity and mortality. The integrative medicine approach offers many options to explore. While research into these therapies is still in the early stages, the benefit-to-risk ratio is favorable. Recovery from eating disorders is possible and the earlier they are treated, the better the prognosis.