Using acupuncture for weight loss is a relatively new application for this ancient medical treatment. An element of Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture focuses on balancing energy within the body and with the natural world. Although western medicine lacks the scientific proof it needs to confirm that acupuncture works, individuals know, and many studies verify, that acupuncture is a highly effective and gentle treatment for hundreds of health problems.
Acupuncture involves inserting very thin, sterile needles into specific points along invisible pathways of the body called meridians. The flow of energy along the meridians can be disrupted by physical or emotional problems or environmental conditions. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, this energy, called chi or qi, which is pronounced “chee,” is the vital force behind all life. Stimulating the chi opens blocked energy pathways and helps the body return to good health.
Over 460 acupuncture points are located along the 12 meridians in the body. The acupuncturist decides which points to stimulate based on physical observation of the patient (especially the tongue), discussion with the patient, and palpation of the pulses of the wrists.
Acupuncturists typically stimulate points on the ears for supporting weight loss. These points help the patient relax and release endorphins that can curb appetite. The various ear points calm the mind and reduce stress, reinforce the spleen and promote digestion, relieve hunger, control compulsive overeating, and aid metabolism.
Based on the physical and emotional assessment of the patient the practitioner may also place needles in other parts of the body in addition to the ear. To support weight loss the acupuncturist may choose points for improving overall health, increasing circulation of the blood, stimulating the metabolism, reducing food cravings, correcting hormonal imbalances, reducing water retention, and calming the nervous system.
Needles usually stay in place for 15-30 minutes while the patient rests. After removing the needles the acupuncturist may place ear tacs with adhesive on them on the same spots. The tacs continue to stimulate the acupuncture points between treatments. The patient can press on the tacs or wiggle them around to help resist the urge to eat.
Acupuncture is not a one-time treatment; practitioners typically recommend a number of treatments spanning weeks or months. Daily treatments may be needed at first to relieve serious overeating or compulsive eating. The acupuncturist may use different points during different treatments and may recommend herbs to supplement the treatments.
Evidence shows that acupuncture relieves dental pain, nausea from chemotherapy, soft tissue injuries, menstrual cramps, backaches, asthma, and emotional disturbances. Research is ongoing into the effectiveness of acupuncture for other health concerns, including weight loss.
Acupuncture has been demonstrated to enhance the functioning of the nervous system, endocrine system, and digestive system; reduce food cravings; and speed up metabolism. These improvements help energize the body, maximize nutrient absorption, suppress the appetite, and reduce anxiety—all of which can contribute to weight loss.
While research on the effectiveness of acupuncture for weight loss in inconclusive so far, there is evidence that it works. According to researchers at the University of Adelaide in South Australia, “Frequent stimulation of specific auricular [ear] acupuncture points is an effective method of appetite suppression which leads to weight loss.” Other research reported in the British Journal of General Practice found that, “Acupuncture stimulates the auricular branch of the vagal nerve and raises serotonin levels, both of which have been shown to increase tone in the smooth muscle of the stomach, thus suppressing appetite.”
Another study found that people who combined acupuncture with a light exercise program and reduced caloric intake lost more weight that people who did not use acupuncture as part of their weight loss programs. The group that used acupuncture experienced significantly greater loss of appetite than the group that did not include acupuncture in their weight loss plans.
Research conducted in 2003 and reported in The Journal of Medical Acupuncture found that study participants who received acupuncture lost three times more weight than participants who did not receive acupuncture.
Acupuncture appears to aid weight loss by:
- Reducing food cravings;
- Lowering insulin and lipid levels;
- Decreasing appetite and feelings of hunger; and
- Aiding relaxation.
Acupuncture is not a silver bullet for losing weight; weight loss still takes work. Acupuncture appears to works most effectively for weight loss when it is used in conjunction with a balanced, healthy diet, healthy eating habits, and regular exercise.
Acupuncture as Complementary Medicine
Western medicine considers acupuncture to be a type of complementary medicine, which means it works together with conventional medical treatments. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, supports research on acupuncture and recommends that individuals who use complementary treatments like acupuncture tell their physicians. Medical providers need to know about other treatments in order to provide coordinated care and because of possible conflicts with conventional therapies and medicines. An increasing number of doctors are trained in complementary medicine and are more than willing to work with patients who want to use acupuncture and other non-conventional treatments for weight loss.
Is Acupuncture Safe?
According to the National Institutes of Health, experts generally agree that acupuncture is safe when administered by acupuncturists who are well trained and who use sterile needles. Most states have licensing requirements for acupuncturists.
The Bottom Line
Acupuncture for weight loss can be a potent tool for shedding pounds, especially when used in combination with a balanced diet, healthy eating habits, and moderate exercise.