Tame Emotional Eating with Chinese Medicine

Does this sound familiar? You start your day full of good intentions. Today is the day you are not going to turn to food. Today is the day you get back on track . . . and stay on track. No more overeating. No more bingeing. No more expensive shopping trips for loads of comfort foods. You are done with all that. And you really mean it (again).

Your resolve lasts until your first emotional upheaval of the day. When you feel disappointment or anxiety or guilt or regret or sadness, your good intentions start to weaken. It is so uncomfortable, you need something to take the edge off, and food is readily available to help: the chips in the break room, the candy on the co-worker’s desk, the grocery store full of comfort foods.

Emotional eating is difficult to stop because on some level it works. It solves a problem for you. It can rescue you from painful emotions, distract you from fears, and numb you out. There is a definite payoff, so to speak. In fact, the biochemistry associated with excessive eating has led researchers to investigate it as a form of addiction.

However, if the above scenario resonates with you, you also know that eating is an imperfect solution to how to feel better in the world. Emotional eating can undermine your physical health, your friendships, your romantic relationships, and even your self-respect. You miss out on a lot of life while checking out with food.

There is no shame in having a problem to solve. The question, however, is how can you meet your needs in a healthier way? The good news is there are alternatives for lasting change, and Chinese medicine is one of them. Chinese medicine is a powerful tool to make peace with food because it supports overall physical and emotional health.

Chinese medicine recognizes that how we are in the world is a reflection of our physical and emotional health. When we habitually engage in destructive behaviors like emotional eating, it simply indicates something is out of balance.

What is out of balance can differ for each person, although common themes often emerge. Sometimes the problem is an actual excessive physical appetite and never feeling full. Sometimes it is a blood sugar imbalance. Sometimes it is an insistent craving for a particular flavor. Sometimes it is excessive anxiety, worry, depression, shame, resentment, or guilt. Sometimes it is needing help being present for emotions and making more conscious choices. Sometimes it is all of the above.

Chinese medicine has a variety of tools to address this range of imbalances: acupuncture, meditation and qi gong, and herbal medicine.

Acupuncture, for instance, can be enormously useful for breaking free from emotional eating. One of the first things people notice about acupuncture treatment is a sense of calm, centeredness, and relaxation. As treatment progresses, patients report they consistently feel less reactive, are more emotionally present, and make better decisions.

This makes sense in light of what Western research is revealing about acupuncture: stimulating acupuncture points regulates the nervous system, as well as your neurotransmitters and hormones. Once these systems are balanced, many things fall into place, including emotional equilibrium and resilience.

Meditation and qi gong (meditative movements, often coordinated with breathing) are additional resources to make peace with food. These ancient techniques are ways to practice being present, aware of your thoughts, and connected to your body. We live in a culture that discourages making friends with our body and listening to what it actually needs. Qi gong and meditation are ways to reconnect, a quiet but revolutionary act. Once you learn these methods, you can practice them on your own, and they are lifelong tools you can use whenever you want or need.

Herbal medicine is another branch of Chinese medicine relevant to healing your relationship with food. Combinations of herbs in formulas that have been used for thousands of years can help heal the body and mind. When our systems are regulated, we are more emotionally adaptive, flexible, and present.

What ultimately breaks the cycle of emotional eating is being equipped and able to make conscious and self-nurturing decisions. When you are working from a healthier place, how you navigate your life shifts for the better. The space between the impulse to binge or emotionally eat and the actual decision to binge is where new possibilities are. Becoming more centered through acupuncture and Chinese medicine allows you to access these possibilities.

When you are centered and well, the emotional eating no longer runs the show. You are in charge rather than the anxiety or the shame or the frustration or the cravings. When you are able to make better choices, whole new worlds open up.

norahNorah McIntire is a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist who has treated eating disorders in private practice since 2002. She has also worked with several outpatient eating disorder programs and addiction treatment centers, providing acupuncture and meditation instruction to their clients. Norah earned her master’s degree from Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in San Diego and is both California licensed and nationally certified in acupuncture and herbal medicine. In addition, Norah has studied in China, doing clinical work at Nanjing Hospital and attending seminars through the China Nanjing International Acupuncture Training Center. She currently practices in West Hollywood, where she uses acupuncture, herbal medicine, meditation, tai chi/qi gong, and other tools of Chinese medicine to help people make peace with food. Her website is www.acuadvantage.com.