While it may sound exotic and even a little “far out” to some people, acupuncture is really an ancient practice that has been used successfully to treat a variety of health conditions, including obesity and weight loss. When utilized as an adjunct therapy to dietary and lifestyle changes, acupuncture is very effective in a few key ways at making it easier for people to lose weight and then maintain the loss successfully.
Acupuncture is a needle-based alternative therapy, believed to help promote weight loss primarily by suppressing the appetite, boosting metabolism, and reducing stress and anxiety, all factors known to contribute to overeating and weight-loss difficulty. Considered more of a secondary goal in acupuncture, weight loss is often the result of treating the physical, emotional, and mental imbalances that lead to weight gain in the first place.
How Acupuncture Works
Though the exact mechanism is uncertain, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine theory, illness in a person arises when the cyclical flow of Qi (pronounced “chee”), or life energy, becomes unbalanced or is blocked along certain pathways in the body. By inserting needles into specific points along these pathways (termed “meridians”), acupuncturists can unblock and re-balance the flow, resulting in healing.
Western medicine views acupuncture points as places to stimulate nerves, muscles, and connective tissue. This stimulation appears to boost the activity of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, and increase blood flow to stimulated areas, which promotes healing.
Acupuncture points are also considered to have increased electrical sensitivity, and inserting needles at these points stimulates sensory receptors in the nervous system. Nerves then transmit these impulses to the hypothalamic-pituitary system at the base of the brain, causing the release of endorphins and neurotransmitters, including serotonin, promoting relaxation throughout the body.
So how does this help with weight-loss? When a person is feeling relaxed, emotionally stable, and is thinking more clearly, it is easier to deal with the stress, frustration, and anxiety that can trigger overeating and binging on fattening foods. Endorphins also affect the digestive and hormonal systems, so acupuncture can help restore the body systems that may be out of balance (i.e., the metabolism and the will power).
What To Expect From A Session
An initial consultation is the first step toward undergoing acupuncture treatments for weight-loss. A practitioner is likely to ask about your entire health history, as well as patterns of overeating and any real digestive difficulties. To determine the type of treatment that will help you the most, your practitioner may ask many questions about your symptoms, behaviors, and lifestyle. He or she may also closely examine:
• The shape, coating and color of your tongue.
• The color of your face.
• The strength, rhythm and quality of the pulses in your wrist.
An initial evaluation may take up to 60 minutes or longer. Subsequent appointments usually take about a half-hour. A common treatment plan for a single complaint would typically involve six to 12 treatments, scheduled over a few months. The cost is typically $50-$85 per session, and insurance may even pay for treatments.
Acupuncture points are located in all areas of the body, but many that contribute to weight loss are located on the external portion of the ear. In Chinese medicine, the ear represents one of several microsystems of the body, and it is used frequently during treatments.
Acupuncture needles are very thin, so insertion usually causes very little discomfort. Between 5 and 20 needles are used in a typical treatment. You may feel a twinge, or even a deep, aching sensation once a needle reaches the correct depth. This sensation indicates the imbalance, and will usually dissipate within a few minutes. Your practitioner may gently move or twirl the needles after they’ve been placed, or apply heat or mild electrical pulses to the needles.
In most cases, the needles will remain in place for 10 to 20 minutes while you lie still on the table and relax and the practitioner monitors you. When it’s time, there is usually no sensation of discomfort as the needles are removed.
The practitioner may also prescribe various Chinese herbal remedies, foods and dietary changes, breathing exercises, and activity or exercise plans for you to follow. The number of acupuncture treatments considered necessary will vary and depend much on the individual being treated, primarily their efforts and commitment to following the practitioner’s recommendations.
Research On Acupuncture and Weight Loss
Although there is a need for more scientific research on the role of acupuncture in promoting weight loss, some studies have been conducted. In a research review published in 2009, scientists analyzed 31 studies (with a total of 3,013 participants) and found that acupuncture was associated with a significant reduction of average body weight and improvement in obesity. In another 1998 study, frequent acupuncture (administered twice daily for four weeks) was found to suppress appetite and promote weight loss among overweight participants.
What to Know Before You Go
The risks of acupuncture are low if you have a competent, licensed acupuncture practitioner. As with just about any medication or other type of therapy or treatment, there are some possible side effects and complications:
• Soreness. After acupuncture, you might have soreness, minor bleeding or bruising at the needle sites
• Organ injury. If the needles are pushed in too deeply, they could puncture an internal organ — particularly the lungs. This is an extremely rare complication in the hands of an experienced practitioner.
• Infections. Licensed acupuncturists are required to use sterile, disposable needles. A reused needle could expose you to diseases such as hepatitis.
Not everyone is a great candidate for acupuncture, or for particular types of acupuncture. Conditions that may increase your risks of complications include:
• Bleeding disorders. Your chances of bleeding or bruising from the needles increase if you have a bleeding disorder or if you’re taking blood thinners such as warfarin (Coumadin).
• Having a pacemaker. Some types of acupuncture involve applying mild electrical pulses to the needles, which can interfere with a pacemaker’s operation.
• Being pregnant. Some types of acupuncture are thought to stimulate labor, which could result in a premature delivery.
Results You May Experience
After a session, some people feel relaxed while others feel energized. But not everyone responds to acupuncture. If you are following your prescribed treatment plan and going for sessions but don’t experience improvement with your weight-loss efforts within a few weeks, acupuncture may not be helpful for you.
There is also evidence to support that acupuncture works best in people who expect it to work. Since acupuncture has few side effects, it may be worth trying as an additional treatment for people who have had difficulty losing weight through diets and other conventional methods. It’s important to keep your regular doctor informed, also, so your health can be monitored from both approaches.
The Bottom Line
The basics of healthy weight loss and maintenance will always be nutrition- and activity-based changes. But there is a “third part, the mind-body aspect, you need to make sure you’re not missing out on,” says Wendy Kohatsu, MD, an integrative medicine specialist and assistant clinical professor of family and clinical medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. Acupuncture may help us bridge that mind-body connection more effectively, helping to heal the issues of overeating and weight-loss difficulty on a much deeper level.
If you decide that acupuncture might be a good approach for you, look for an acupuncturist with experience in the treatment of weight loss and management on www.Acufinder.com.