As a psychiatrist, I am clearly familiar with the
psychodynamic issues underlying eating
disorders, and I see psychotherapy as a vital
part of treatment. At the same time, I would
like to share my experience with observing and treating some
of the biochemical underpinnings, hastening recovery and
helping to maintain it as well.
Many years ago, a psychologist who specializes in eating
disorders began to send me her clients because she had heard
that antidepressant medications worked for these patients. I
had by then shifted to a more holistic approach, so I told her
that before I prescribed antidepressants, I wanted to try some
more natural methods. I had discovered that in many cases of
eating disorders, there is an underlying biochemical issue—a
combination of food sensitivity, blood sugar imbalance and
nutrient deficiency. She agreed, her patients cooperated, and we
had some excellent, medication-free results. This encouraged
me to continue on this natural path as I have to this day. Here
are some of my discoveries, as well as subsequent research by
others in this growing field.
We crave the foods that we are sensitive or “allergic” too.
Not a typical allergy with hives or stomach aches, these
sensitivities are intolerances, often inherited, and show up
in any number of ways—for example, depression, inability
to lose weight, eating disorders, tinnitus, unexplained aches
and pains—many, many others. The very foods we crave will
create the most symptoms and are the most damaging. In
fact, food cravings are similar to an addiction to alcohol. As
you withdraw from the foods you're addicted to, you begin
to have withdrawal symptoms and the cravings begin. And if
you happen to be addicted to wheat or baked goods, you can
never get enough of them, so you binge on them, despite your
best intentions to the contrary. People addicted to grains may
drink excessive amounts of grain-based liquor or beer and can
become alcoholics. They're sensitive to and addicted to the
alcohol, but it's the grain-base that is causing the problem.
They can even feel “drunk” after eating cereal or baked goods.
Not so different from your regular carb-binger, except the
target is alcohol instead of refined carbs. Nutrients
It's not just a matter of willpower. In order to break the
addiction cycle, in addition to avoiding the undesirable
foods, you have to supply the body with a good, supportive
nutritional program of healthful food, vitamins, minerals, and
amino acids. Then, the cravings will often simply go away! It's
quite remarkable; with a nutrient rich diet, and good vitamin
and mineral formula, you can stop the cycle. In fact, once the
diet and nutrients are in place, the cravings and addictions will
often just fall away. Remember that nutritional supplements
are not a substitute for healthy food, but a supplement to
restore missing ingredients and balance biochemistry.
Magnesium is often deficient, and taking it can be very helpful.
It's great, too, for muscle tension, insomnia, and even, heart
palpitations. The amino acid glutamine is also useful for
reducing cravings. I've had former alcoholics (yes, former) say
that the glutamine cut their cravings for good; they no longer
were battling the desire to drink. They were done for good.
Glutamine works similarly with bulimics and binge eaters.
Zinc: Some years ago, researcher Alex Schauss did a study on
patients who were suffering from anorexia nervosa. By using a
simple test called a zinc taste test, he found that they were zinc-deficient.
He then gave them liquid zinc therapeutically, with
very successful results. The test consists of the person taking
some liquid zinc sulfate solution in their mouth, and if they
describe it as having a bad or strong taste, they usually have
sufficient levels of zinc. On the other hand, if they can't taste
the solution or if it tastes just like water, then they may have a
cellular zinc deficiency, even if their blood levels look adequate.
It's a vicious cycle since zinc deficiency affects taste; so zinc-deficient
anorexics don't taste their food, so are less motivated
to eat it. Zinc supplementation has continued to be used in
nutritionally oriented settings, including my own practice.
Serotonin: Bulimia and binge-eating is often treated with the
SSRI antidepressants such as Prozac, Zoloft and Lexapro
They raise brain levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter or
chemical messenger in the brain that causes a feeling of well-being
and relaxation, and reduces hunger. Rather than using
medication, my preference is to prescribe the materials that
make serotonin, the amino acids L-tryptophan or it's relative,
5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophane), and there is research to back it.
In her book,
The Diet Cure, Julia Ross refers to a study
where bulimics were deprived of tryptophan. In reaction, their
serotonin levels dropped and they binged more violently,
ingesting and purging an average of 900 calories more each day.
In another study, adding extra tryptophan to the diet reduced
bulimic binges and mood problems by raising serotonin levels.
More recently, an Oxford researcher, Katherine Smith, reported
that even years into recovery, bulimics can have a return of
their cravings and mood problems after only a few hours of
tryptophan depletion, concluding that, “Our findings support
suggestions that chronic depletion of plasma tryptophan may be
one of the mechanisms whereby persistent dieting can lead to
the development of eating disorders in vulnerable individuals.”
The herb St. John's Wort provides another way to raise
serotonin levels. I have discussed this along with dosages of
tryptophan and other nutrients in my book, Natural Highs.
Thiamine: As we have seen, nutrient deficiencies can aggravate
anorexia, and it should be treated with nutrient rich diets. For
example, restricting your diet will make you deficient in such
vitamins as vitamin B1 (thiamin). It's found in foods that people
with eating disorders rarely eat—including beans, whole grains,
seeds, meats and vegetables. Common signs of thiamine
deficiency are loss of appetite, weight loss, constipation, anxiety,
chest pain and even sleep disturbance along with depression
and irritation. Sound familiar?
Blood Sugar Swings
One mechanism underlying the craving and eating (or drinking)
cycle is blood sugar imbalance: low blood sugar sets off the
craving. The brain experiences this dip as life-threatening
starvation, followed by a frantic search for whatever will raise
blood sugar. Just picture our ancestors in the jungle, short on
food, and having to hunt for their next meal—or die. We, on
the other hand, just go to the refrigerator. The quickest fixes
here are sugary foods or other refined carbs such as bread or
pastries. And we don't even burn any calories on our hunt.
Bottom Line: Treat Nutrient Deficiency with Nutrients
I will often order a blood test to see which amino acids are low.
By replacing them the body (and brain) comes into balance.
As a result the food cravings will often be greatly relieved or
even come to a halt, as noted in the case of glutamine for acute
There are other natural treatments, as well, for cravings due
to food sensitivities. Acupuncture and acupressure has been
shown to help, especially some techniques such as NAET that
can actually eliminate the food sensitivities themselves.
The point is, instead of simply taking an antidepressant,
there are many other ways to approach what at first appears
to be strictly a psychological problem. The combination of
psychotherapy and a nutritional/biochemical approach is the
most useful, and I have successfully treated many patients
without resorting to medication at all. Not only does this
approach work as well as medication but in my experience
working with the body's chemistry, rather than introducing
more chemicals in the form of medication, is often superior. It's
faster, has none of the side effects, and has many side benefits.
I developed Brain Recovery AM & PM formula to provide many
of the nutrients mentioned here and more, to balance amino
acids, serotonin, blood sugar, and mood.
For more information, see my books,
Natural Highs, and 8 Weeks to Vibrant Health. Also sign up for my free e-newsletter, and get a free copy of my e-book, Reclaim Your Brain.