Bach flowers for eating disorders

On recent visits to the UK I have noticed an ‘Emotional Eating Kit’ for sale in chemists and health stores. This product, made by Nelsons, contains three Bach flower remedies: Chestnut Bud, Crab Apple and Cherry Plum, to be taken either separately or in combination. It is clear from the testimonials that some users have found the kit helpful. But there will be others who have not been helped, either because they needed different remedies from those included in the kit, or because their eating disorder was too serious to be managed safely by the Bach flowers alone.

The term ’emotional eating’ refers to the tendency to turn to food when feeling unhappy, bored or stressed, but the kit would undoubtedly attract interest from people with other food-related problems. These range from the obsession with diet which often develops after a stringent weight-loss program or in excessively health-conscious people, to the potentially life-threatening conditions of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Self-help with the Bach flower remedies can play a useful part in the management of all these disorders, but the more severe variants need professional care as well.

The Nelsons website gives the following descriptions of the three remedies in the kit: ‘When you find yourself repeating the same dieting mistakes, Chestnut Bud helps you gain knowledge from your experience’; ‘When you feel unclean or dislike something about yourself, Crab Apple helps you accept yourself and your imperfections; ‘When you fear you might lose control of your diet, Cherry Plum can help you to think and act rationally’. While one or more of these flowers might certainly be appropriate for a person with emotional eating problems, another might do better with a different selection from the total series of 38  remedies. To give a few examples: Agrimony for those who hide their troubles behind a smiling face but seek comfort in drinking, smoking or eating to excess; Gentian or Gorse for those who feel discouraged or even hopeless about their prospects of recovery; Mimulus for those with specific fears around food; Rock water for those who have unrealistically high personal standards and aim for rigid self-control; White chestnut for those who are troubled by unwanted thoughts about food or weight.

A cornerstone of Dr Bach’s philosophy can be summed up in the phrase ‘treat the person, not the disease’. This maxim is such an important feature of the holistic healing approach that I chose the title Persons not Diseases for my latest book. Different people who present with similar symptoms or behaviours may require quite different combinations of remedies. So there is no standard formula in the Bach system for treating pain, or insomnia, or eating problems; the selection of flowers depends purely on the current emotional state of the individual concerned.

Persons not diseases

People choose to explore natural therapies for many different reasons. One of the main ones given by the clients I see in my work as a Bach flower practitioner is the wish to be valued as a ‘whole person’ whose psychology and life circumstances are unique. Even if their orthodox medical treatment has been successful on a physical level, they often feel that they have been have labelled as ‘just another case’ of the condition in question, being managed according to a set protocol, and that staff lacked either the time or the interest to look beyond their diseased part.

It would be a great mistake to reject the ‘disease-centred’ model which prevails in modern medicine, for this has yielded huge advances in knowledge about the causes, prevention and treatment of specific disorders. And it is good to see mainstream healthcare considering lifestyle factors such as nutrition, exercise and stress management, which may reduce the need for drugs and surgery. But this is not enough for people who want to explore the personal context of their illness in more depth, which is why they may turn to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and the ‘holistic healing’ approach.

One of the basic principles of this approach is the focus on persons rather than diseases. The Bach flower system, as originally formulated, exemplifies this – Dr Edward Bach advocated ignoring the medical diagnosis when selecting remedies, and focusing purely on the sufferer’s current state of mind. Involving the patient, or client, as a partner in this process is empowering and therapeutic in itself.

But, as CAM becomes more widely accepted and integrated with orthodox medicine, there is a risk of the person-centred approach being replaced by the ‘one size fits all’ method of giving the same mixture to everyone with a particular condition. This may reflect a wish to appear more ‘scientific’, or be done to save the time and trouble of making an individual assessment of each case. A couple of examples, again involving the Bach flower system, will illustrate the trend.

In a UK chemist’s shop I saw an ‘Emotional Eating Kit’ made up of three remedies: Crab Apple (for body image problems), Cherry Plum (for loss of emotional control) and Chestnut Bud (for those who continually repeat the same mistakes). One or more of these remedies might certainly be appropriate for someone with an eating disorder, but so might several others: Vine (for over-control), Rock Water (for perfectionism and self-denial) and Pine (for self-blame) come to mind, but any of the 38 flowers could be indicated for different individuals.

A search for Bach flower remedies in the medical literature shows that a number of academic researchers have tried to evaluate the system by prescribing a standard mixture of remedies for the condition under study. That they mostly find no advantage over placebo is hardly surprising, because they have not respected an essential feature of this therapy, namely individualized treatment in which clients themselves have choice and control.