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Tuesday, March 19, 2019
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As a future naturopathic doctor (ND), it will be your privilege and responsibility to connect with patients to find health care and lifestyle solutions that will help them lead better lives. When working with those who have eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia or binge-eating, understanding that these are forms of illness and not mere habits is integral to their eating disorder treatment and ongoing care.

Of the many potent treatments relative to helping people suffering from eating disorders, two effective methods in the naturopathic doctor’s approach are personalized nutritional interventions and counseling. These are just two examples of how complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practitioners mix conventional medicine with alternative treatments in an integrative approach. By working as part of a team of integrative health care providers, naturopathic physicians can contribute to the care and treatment of patients with chronic conditions such as eating disorders. Although many NDs are very successful in solo practice, integrative groups are increasingly seeking out qualified NDs because of their combination of primary care training and extensive knowledge of how to support the body’s healing systems.

Want to learn how to help someone with an eating disorder through naturopathic or other complementary and alternative medicine? At National University of Health Sciences (NUHS), our goal is to train and prepare medical professionals who can treat patients holistically and address their needs using an integrated approach working collaboratively with allopathic physicians (conventional medical doctors). Here are a few of the ways that naturopathic physicians and other CAM practitioners provide effective eating disorder treatment care and support in an integrative health care environment: 

Conventional Eating Disorder Treatment Techniques

When a patient is determined to have an eating disorder (after undergoing a physical examination, psychological evaluation, and other studies as needed), the next step is to engage in eating disorder treatment methods. Conventional treatment methods include:

  • Psychotherapy
  • Nutrition education
  • Behavior modification
  • Prescription medications (such as antipsychotics, antidepressants, etc.)

The treatment of eating disorders is frequently viewed as a collaborative approach by medical practitioners, mental health providers and dietitians who specialize in this area. As a complementary and alternative medicine practitioner, you can contribute your knowledge and specialized training to benefit your patients through collaboration with these other medical professionals.

How Naturopathic Medicine Supports Eating Disorder Treatments

Naturopathic physicians and other CAM practitioners provide unique perspectives on an integrative treatment team. They are also sometimes called upon to provide treatments when conventional methods are ineffective.

When it comes to eating disorder treatment methods — or treatments for any other illnesses or conditions, for that matter — what sets complementary and alternative medicine apart from other health care approaches is its focus on natural healing. For example, at its core, naturopathic medicine is a system of primary health care that focuses on diagnosing, treating and preventing illness by relying on nature's healing powers, and is centered around six core principles:

  1. Do No Harm
  2. Treat the Whole Person
  3. Identify and Treat the Causes
  4. The Healing Power of Nature
  5. Doctor as Teacher
  6. Promoting Wellness

Keeping these principles in mind means that NDs always focus on treating the underlying cause of a patient’s condition. For eating disorders, this may be depression, anxiety, trauma or another cause. And while this might involve inter-disciplinary cooperation with a psychologist, especially given the dire nature of some eating disorders, the ND has a unique perspective. The approach involves looking at the long term changes to body: What nutrients have long been depleted? What effect does this have on brain function? What effect does it have on behavior? What organs or blood components are now compromised because of the eating disorder, such as stomach, heart, kidney etc.? It also involves determining what deep-seeded conflicts and obstacles to cure the patient could use help overcoming.

Alternative Treatments for Eating Disorders

Identifying and treating eating disorders is something that every primary naturopathic physician should be able to do. If trained, they may be able to provide a variety of medical services, or they may collaborate with specialists in natural eating disorder treatment approaches such as:

  • Acupuncture — Acupuncture can complement conventional eating disorder treatment methods by assisting with related health conditions, reducing stress and helping to speed recovery of affected body systems.
  • Botanical Medicine — This approach aims to nourish the patient’s organ systems, which are often severely affected by the damage caused by an eating disorder.
  • Chiropractic Therapy — Balancing the body’s skeletal system can help bring the body as a whole back into proper alignment.
  • Homeopathy — Homeopathy can help address imbalances or conditions that lead to eating disorders. For example, zinc deficiency is being studied as a potential factor in the onset of anorexia nervosa.
  • Meditation Meditation helps relieve feelings of anxiousness or stress that come with trying to halt harmful behaviors such as intentionally starving oneself, binge-eating and purging.
  • Relaxation Therapy — This form of treatment, which can include massage therapy, aims to decrease stress hormones, increase positive chemical (dopamine and norepinephrine) levels and decrease body dissatisfaction.

Naturopathic doctors, while not as well known as conventional medical practitioners, are increasingly being sought out for their holistic, natural approaches to maintaining good health and treating ailments. As interest in complementary and alternative medicine grows and more people seek treatment from naturopathic physicians, the community as a whole will become more aware that conventional Western medicine is not the only eating disorder treatment approach for intervention and care.

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Posted by Dr. Fraser Smith

Fraser Smith, ND, has taught Naturopathic Medicine at National University since he helped launch the program in 2006. Today, he serves as assistant dean of the program. He graduated from Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto and earned his Master of Arts in training and development from Roosevelt University.