Acupuncture is believed to help balance the flow of energy through the body and lead to a slew of physical and mental health improvements, but can it also help with weight loss?
Out with the new, in with the old — or so goes many Americans’ attitudes toward health interventions these days. Modern pharmaceuticals? No thanks. Ancient Eastern medical practices? Yes please.
“Many people are trying to go away from traditional types of medicine and go toward what they consider to be more natural remedies or more … complementary techniques” for a range of health complaints, says Dr. Tiffany Lowe-Payne, an osteopathic physician and weight-loss specialist in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Weight loss is no exception, with therapies including meditation and hypnosis showing potential to support people’s efforts. Why not acupuncture?
The therapy — a traditional Chinese medicine practice that involves being stimulated by tiny needles that are inserted in specific points on the body — is believed to help balance the flow of energy through the body and lead to a slew of physical and mental health improvements, explains Dr. Wayne Jonas, a family physician, executive director of Samueli Integrative Health Programs in Alexandria, Virginia, and author of “How Healing Works.” From a Western perspective, he adds, it also seems to activate the body’s nervous system and the brain’s natural painkillers.
But does it work? While the best research on acupuncture suggests it can be an effective treatment for chronic pain, the research on acupuncture for weight loss isn’t robust or conclusive, or clear whether the results are due to the treatment itself or placebo effect. Still, there’s reason to believe it may help you shed pounds when used in conjunction with diet, exercise and other lifestyle modifications. A 2018 review of 27 clinical trials including 2,219 patients, for instance, found that while acupuncture alone wasn’t so effective for weight loss, it showed promise when paired with lifestyle modifications, especially among people who were overweight but not obese.
Here are some of the ways in which acupuncture may help you lose weight:
— Acupuncture may affect your hormones.
— Acupuncture promotes healthy digestion.
— Acupuncture can relieve stress.
— Acupuncture may reduce cravings.
— Acupuncture can lead to better sleep.
— Acupuncture can boost your energy.
Acupuncture may affect your hormones.
In one 2018 study published in a Chinese medical journal, researchers randomly assigned 100 patients with pre-diabetes to one of three groups: lifestyle intervention (reasonable diet and moderate exercise), lifestyle intervention plus the diabetes drug metformin or lifestyle intervention plus acupuncture. After 12 weeks, participants in the acupuncture and the metformin groups had significantly reduced their body mass indexes, and saw improvement in other health markers like fasting blood glucose, hemoglobin A1C and total cholesterol, while those who made lifestyle changes alone only saw significant positive changes in their fasting blood glucose levels. The researchers concluded that acupuncture may help people with pre-diabetes lose weight by reducing their insulin and leptin resistance; both insulin and leptin are appetite-regulating hormones that can play a role in long-term weight-loss.
Acupuncture promotes healthy digestion.
One of the ways acupuncture seems to ease a variety of health complaints is by quieting the sympathetic nervous system — or the fight-or-flight stress response — and activating the parasympathetic system, or your body’s “rest and digest” state, says Shari Auth, a doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine who co-founded WTHN, an acupuncture studio in New York City. Through that mechanism, it can improve blood flow to your stomach, which aids digestion. “Whether that’s reducing bloating or gas or irritable bowel syndrome or constipation, acupuncture is good for all kinds of digestive complaints,” and it can boost metabolism, she says.
Similarly, acupuncture can be an effective stress-reliever. A series of animal studies suggests that may be the case because it seems to block stress-induced spikes in stress hormones like cortisol, as well as the action of the sympathetic nervous system. (Rodents who didn’t receive their version of acupuncture or received “sham” treatments — essentially receiving it in a random place on their bodies — didn’t experience the same blocks to their stress responses.)
“Acupuncture … is supposed to release endorphins, or the happy hormones, and when you release endorphins it has a calming effect,” Lowe-Payne adds. That’s also why acupuncture may be effective at helping people manage depression and anxiety. No matter how you choose to manage stress, though, doing so effectively is critical for weight loss and maintenance. “If you have lower stress by natural means, then the thought is it will help with stress eating and trying to self-medicate with foods,” Lowe-Payne says.
Acupuncture may reduce cravings.
Some research has suggested that acupuncture can help people curb or kick additions. One study out of Yale University, for instance, found that people who were addicted to cocaine were less likely to use the drug over the eight-week study period if they received acupuncture in specific points of their ears. Study participants who received “sham” acupuncture, or had needles placed in parts of their ears that Chinese medicine doesn’t map to any benefits, as well as those who only underwent relaxation exercises, continued to use cocaine more regularly.
Other research has shown support for similar ear-based acupuncture as a weight-loss aid, perhaps because it helps some people manage what some consider an addiction to food. “We know that food addictions can lead to weight gain,” Jonas says. “Acupuncture might alter brain chemicals associated with these addictions and, in this way, help with weight loss.”
Acupuncture can lead to better sleep.
In the same way acupuncture seems to provide stress relief and help with digestion — by turning off the body’s fight-or-flight response — it can also improve sleep. And sufficient high-quality sleep is a well-known player in weight loss and maintenance. “When we are sleep deprived … it can affect your brain function and your ability to make really good decisions,” Lowe-Payne says. “People who are sleep deprived are more likely to be snackers, are less focused and will to go for (foods) that are more comforting.”
Acupuncture can boost your energy.
In addition to supporting good sleep, which should improve your daytime energy, acupuncture can provide an energy boost on its own. Some research has shown that the therapy can help cancer patients battle treatment-related fatigue significantly more than a sham treatment. For relatively healthy folks just trying to drop a few pounds, though, an acupuncture-related energy boost can support diet and exercise behaviors that may lead to weight loss. “Sometimes we’re going to sugar to get quick energy,” but acupuncture is a calorie-free boost, Auth says. What’s more, she adds, the therapy “can help you with your energy levels so you have enough energy to get to the gym.”
What to Know Before Your First Acupuncture Appointment
Though it involves needles, acupuncture shouldn’t hurt. After all, the needles are about the size of a human hair; 40-some of them could fit in the type of needle most Americans are used to from shots and blood draws, Auth says. “Acupuncture is a whole new relationship with needles.” Auth recommends getting the therapy at least once a month for the best results.
Be sure to find a licensed practitioner and check with your doctor if you have ongoing health problems, especially those involving the central nervous system, Lowe-Payne advises. Though the therapy is generally safe and less expensive than many drugs and diet pills, the industry isn’t tightly regulated and often sessions aren’t covered by insurance.
Manage your expectations, too. “It’s important that we prioritize the approaches (for weight loss) that we do have evidence to support: eating the right foods and getting regular exercise,” Jonas says.