Alternative and Holistic Care for Bulimia

While there are many evidence-based treatments that are often used to help people struggling with bulimia nervosa (BN), some types of alternative and holistic therapy may also be able to help.

Alternative holistic therapy

These types of complementary and alternative medicine may address different physical symptoms of bulimia and other eating disorders or help round out or expand upon emotional or cognitive care.

In any case, it’s important to note that most medical experts advise alternative or holistic therapies be considered supplemental treatments to evidence-based care. Still, alternative and holistic therapy could potentially offer different aspects of healing and recovery to an individual’s treatment program.

What Is Alternative Therapy?

Alternative therapy is an umbrella term that refers to any type of therapy not considered part of conventional medicine. [1] This can include everything from traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic practices to the relatively new-age technologies involved in biofeedback.

What all “alternative therapies” do have in common is a lack of clinical evidence of their effectiveness. Sometimes, these types of care even lack testability.

Due to this dearth of data, the use of alternative therapies to treat eating disorders like BN, binge eating disorder (BED), anorexia nervosa (AN), or other types of illnesses are not without controversy.

Risks of Alternative Therapies

Purveyors of conventional medicine insist that any methods recommended to patients in need of serious help be well-proven, and established by the careful collection of evidence. 

Others take issue with how broadly the term applies.

There is no standardized usage around the phrase “alternative therapy,” nor a universal list of alternative modalities, so methods with some evidence of efficacy, methods with no evidence of efficacy, and even methods shown to potentially cause harm can all be grouped under this umbrella.

This can make it confusing for patients to distinguish methods they may want to try. [1] And some unscrupulous providers may advertise dangerous or ineffective services as “alternative.”

Alternative Therapy vs. Holistic Therapy

One of the most prominent subcategories of alternative therapy is a holistic therapy.

Holistic approaches span a wide spectrum, but the core philosophy of each is that humans are more than physical beings, and treatment must strive to do more than alleviate physical symptoms.

Rather, holistic therapies function to treat someone as a whole. This means incorporating aspects of care that cater to their emotional and spiritual well-being, as well as taking cultural and socioeconomic factors into account. 

Self Care

Common Types of Alternative Therapies Used to Treat Eating Disorders

Strictly speaking, “alternative” medicine has been around for thousands of years.

Many of those methods have stood the test of time, and today there are a number of alternative treatments commonly used to help patients with eating disorders, including: [2]

Herbal Treatments

Humans have been using different plants and herbs for medication since time immemorial. In fact, most modern medications are based on chemical properties or reactions seen in the natural world.

While different mixtures can be used to help alleviate a wide range of physical ailments, the use of herbs for cognitive health is more controversial. Still, some people use herbs, in the form of extracts, glycerites, and tinctures, to help address their eating disorder symptoms.

Common herbal treatments for eating disorders include ashwagandha, which is thought to help promote general health and relaxation; fenugreek, which can function as an appetite stimulant; milk thistle, which can boost liver health; and catnip, which can help soothe the digestive system. [3]

While these herbs don’t present serious health risks to the average person, they can negatively interact with certain medications, and some may affect the body in ways that are important to understand before taking them. For these reasons and more, it’s important to consult with a doctor before beginning an herbal regimen.


Hypnosis may sound like something that only happens in movies or magic shows, but it’s a serious form of alternative therapy used by many people.

In hypnosis sessions, an individual is induced into a trance-like state, or a state of deep relaxation, through breathwork, repetitive phrasing, and other techniques. Once there, they are guided by a mental health professional to accept certain new ideas or let go of old ones.

While in a state of hypnosis, people are thought to be more suggestible, which allows the professional to plant these ideas more deeply in their mind and more directly influence the way the client thinks. 

Hypnosis is often thought to help both self-confidence and the ability to cope with stress. In the context of eating disorder treatment, it may help encourage healthier eating, better body image, and a greater amount of self-esteem. [2]

Biofeedback Therapy

Biofeedback therapy is a type of therapy in which one practices skills and utilizes certain equipment to understand and gain some control over different bodily functions.

Using a combination of electronic instruments and the help of a mental health professional, a person can begin to learn more about their individual body’s reaction to stimuli. The thought is that this can help them gain control over these reactions, and they can think their way into stopping or suppressing negative physiological responses or promoting positive ones.

Heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature, sweating, and muscle activity are some of the bodily functions people practicing biofeedback therapy attempt to harness.

How Effective Are Alternative Therapies for Bulimia Nervosa?

It’s difficult to assess the effectiveness of alternative medicines, as their lack of clinical testing is often the reason they’re considered alternatives to begin with. On top of that, eating disorders still aren’t fully understood, with research into the subject expanding the conversation on potential treatments all the time.

Some experts argue that alternative treatments are unfairly dismissed out of hand, even when they may be able to provide some help for a patient. [4] While the common forms of these therapies may lack widespread clinical analysis, most have at least some history of helping alleviate the types of physical and psychological symptoms often tied to BN and other eating disorders.

More worrying is the under-regulation of alternative medicine. This lack of official oversight makes it possible for individuals to claim anything they want about these treatments and utilize ingredients, equipment, or techniques that may be unsafe.

The Placebo Effect

Provided the treatment isn’t actively harming a patient, alternative medicine could prove helpful, even if treatment only works as well as a placebo.

The placebo effect, in which a patient sees the results they expected to see, despite taking a fake medication, has been proven to exist and, in some cases, can help reduce a person’s stress levels. [5] If nothing else, this can help put them in a better mindset for recovering from a serious mental health condition.

Dangers of Alternative Treatments

The biggest danger of alternative treatments may not be that they’re under-tested but that they’re under-regulated. The laissez-faire nature of the medical supplement market has, unfortunately, laid the groundwork for a booming industry of medical scams.

If a holistic treatment promises results that are too good to be true, it likely is.

A company may grossly misdirect customers about the helpfulness of certain products. They may have sub-standard cleaning and storage practices, which could contaminate their products with dangerous materials. Or they could promote doses of vitamins, minerals, and other supplements that are actually harmful, among many other forms of exploitation. [6] 

There are many reasons to be suspicious of a purported treatment, but some common signs to look out for include:

  • Attacks on the medical or scientific community, especially if a company is telling customers not to trust or use standard treatments
  • Claims of a “scientific breakthrough,” “miracle cure,” “secret ingredient,” or “ancient remedy”
  • Promises of significant, fast improvement with no side effects

If any alternative or holistic treatment is promising results that seem too good to be true, it is likely just that. It’s important to think twice—or, better yet, consult your medical team—before starting on any alternative supplements.

How to Use Alternative Care for Bulimia Treatment

In many ways, the more pressing issue about alternative treatments is when people use them as a primary source of care without incorporating more proven techniques into their plans.

Alternative treatment should not be thought of as a replacement for evidence-based treatments (e.g., cognitive behavioral therapy), but rather as an additional method of care.

This can be a particularly dangerous gamble when it comes to bulimia nervosa and other eating disorders, which are generally very complex conditions and can be particularly harmful, or even deadly, if left untreated or treated unsuccessfully. 

However, alternative treatments may have a positive effect when used in tandem with other, more established types of care.

Evidence-Based Treatment

It’s highly advised that people struggling with eating disorders utilize evidence-based treatment, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, as their primary source of treatment. But if the patient finds help in other modalities, such as herbalism, acupuncture, or Ayurvedic practices, it can be helpful for them to incorporate those treatments, as well, so long as they discuss the options with their care team.

If you want to try integrating a certain type of alternative treatment into your recovery plan, make sure to discuss the idea with your therapist, physician, or a licensed medical professional. Only engage treatment providers who are reputable and utilize safe care practices.

But with medical approval, these practices can offer help to round out the recovery experience and make it an overall more pleasant and lasting journey.


  1. Tabish S. A. (2008). Complementary and Alternative Healthcare: Is it Evidence-based? International Journal of Health Sciences; 2(1):V–IX.
  2. Complementary and Alternative Medicine. St. Luke’s Hospital. Retrieved February 9, 2023.
  3. Anorexia Nervosa. Mount Sinai. Retrieved February 9, 2023.
  4. Marchant, J. (2015). Consider all the evidence on alternative therapies. Nature; 526:295.
  5. Morton E. Tavel. (2014). The Placebo Effect: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The American Journal of Medicine; 127(6):484-488.
  6. Simon, S. (2019, January 30). The Truth About Alternative Medical Treatments. American Cancer Society. Retrieved February 9, 2023.

Last Update | 03 - 11 - 2023

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