Acupuncture for Weight Loss

Frustrated woman with scale

Is your New Year’s resolution to lose weight? Year after year, weight loss is the top New Year’s resolution, so you’re not alone. In her guest post, licensed acupuncturist Meret Bainbridge explains the role that acupuncture can play in helping people lose their extra pounds.

Guest post by Meret Bainbridge, L.Ac

While people seek out acupuncture for a variety of health problems and often come in with a long list of complex issues they want to address, many of them will ask if acupuncture can also help them lose weight. Some secretly hope for a magical fix – that the right combination of acupuncture points will induce weight loss without changes in diet and exercise. I wish it were this easy!

The difficulties with losing weight

Obesity and diabetes and the associated increased risk for stroke and heart disease are a world-wide problem. Obesity affects over one-third of adults in the US now and childhood obesity is on the rise.

Metabolic syndrome, according to the NIH, is defined as having three out of five metabolic risk factors, including a large waistline or “apple shape,” high triglycerides, low HDL “good” cholesterol, high blood pressure and high fasting blood sugar.

Dr. Mark Hyman, in his book “The Blood Sugar Solution” has nicknamed this epidemic “diabesity” – the spectrum of obesity, insulin-resistance, pre-diabetes and eventually diabetes. Insulin-resistance – high levels of insulin circulating in the blood stream caused by excessive consumption of sugar, combined with reduced ability of the cell’s receptor sites to absorb the insulin, which then leads to sugars being stored as fat, is at the core of this pathology.

Dr. Hyman describes the complex causes that lead to being overweight and keep people from losing weight despite dieting and exercise. They include poor nutrition and food addiction to sugar, sodas and highly processed industrialized foods, inflammation, hormonal imbalances, poor digestive function, toxins, sluggish metabolism, and stress.

The old myths of weight loss – eating a calorie-reduced, low-fat diet, using highly processed meal replacement products and exercising yourself to exhaustion – have been tossed out by now, because they only lead to a yo-yo diet effect with greater weight gain following each weight-loss cycle.

Weight loss is a complex process that must address the various underlying causes.

According to Dr. Hyman the “Seven Steps to Ultrawellness” include:

  1. Boost your nutrition – eat unprocessed, natural, whole, primarily plant-based foods cooked from scratch
  2. Regulate your hormones – improve thyroid function, reduce stress hormones, balance sex hormones
  3. Reduce inflammation – address food sensitivities, hidden infections and toxins
  4. Improve your digestion – heal your gut, regulate elimination
  5. Maximize detoxification – identify and eliminate hidden toxins
  6. Enhance energy metabolism – boost mitochondrial function – and
  7. Soothe your mind – reduce stress, and adrenal fatigue.

Dr. Hyman’s books give detailed guidance on how to identify what is at the root of your own weight gain and inability to lose weight, and create your own individualized weight-loss program. I highly recommend delving into his approach.

Meret Bainbridge performing acupuncture 9-2014

Where does acupuncture fit into a weight loss plan?

If you are looking for a quick fix, a magic needle – acupuncture will disappoint you. Acupuncture by itself will do very little to help you lose weight.

Successful weight loss takes nothing short of a complete life style change including a nutrient-dense diet, nutritional supplementation, smart efficient exercise, sufficient sleep and stress reduction.

But acupuncture can address just about every one of these aspects and greatly improve the results of a multi-faceted weight loss program. Let’s take a closer look at what acupuncture has to offer.

1. Acupuncture reduces food cravings and regulates appetite

Ear acupuncture is one of the most successful methods for addiction treatment, including food addiction and emotional eating where bingeing or constant nibbling serves to stuff down difficult emotions like sadness, anger, boredom and loneliness; or where sensations like pain, fatigue and thirst are mistaken for hunger.

Ear acupuncture stimulates the vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve that is part of the involuntary nervous system and controls such automatic functions as regular heart rate and digestion.

In a randomized study by Sabina Lim and others (Graduate College of Basic Korean Medical Science at Kyung Hee University, Seoul, South Korea), 91 obese persons were randomly assigned to a group receiving stimulation of a five-needle protocol on the outer ear, a group receiving a single ear acupuncture point, or sham (fake) acupuncture. The five-needle group achieved the largest drop in waist circumference, as well as drop in body fat, followed by the one-needle group, and no change in the control group. The study was published in Acupuncture in Medicine on Dec 16, 2013.

2. Acupuncture regulates hormones

Acupuncture’s balancing effect on overall body chemistry, including hormones, is well-established. Acupuncture lowers stress hormones. It regulates sexual and reproductive hormones and is widely used in addressing menstrual, fertility and menopausal concerns.

An area of particular interest is the effect of acupuncture on obesity hormones.

Hunger and satisfaction are regulated by two hormones: grehlin stimulates hunger and initiates eating, while leptin suppresses food intake. Surprisingly, in obese people leptin in the bloodstream is increased, while grehlin is decreased. Obese people are considered not only insulin-resistant, but also grehlin-resistant. (Obesity Review, Jan 2007)

In a Turkish study reported in Acupuncture in Medicine, September 2012, 40 obese women were randomly assigned to receive acupuncture on five common points twice weekly for five weeks for a total of 10 sessions. The results showed that acupuncture lowered insulin and leptin levels and increased plasma grehlin in the treatment group, compared with a control group receiving sham acupuncture. Acupuncture also reduced the BMI (basic metabolic index).

The conclusion is that acupuncture can help normalize obesity hormones and the hunger response and contribute to improving metabolism.

3. Acupuncture reduces inflammation

Acupuncture is mostly known for – and researched for – its ability to relieve pain, reduce inflammation and heal injuries.

Acupuncture promotes blood flow, which brings oxygen, nutrients, immune substances, hormones, pain killers and anti-inflammatories to the compromised area. Acupuncture needles create “micro traumas” that stimulate the body’s natural healing response. Acupuncture releases natural painkillers such as endorphins and enkephalins. Acupuncture relaxes tense muscles that put pressure on joints and impinge nerves.

Chris Kresser, in his blog series “Chinese Medicine Demystified: How Acupuncture Works,” explains the mechanisms of acupuncture in medical terms. For a listing of the vast research in this field, see Freek Zijlstra,”Anti-inflammatory Actions of Acupuncture.”

4. Acupuncture improves digestion and metabolism

Acupuncture addresses many digestive problems, including GERD, reflux, stomach ulcers, IBS, diverticulitis and colitis. Acupuncture can help regulate digestion and elimination of toxins.

Chinese medicine describes the digestive process as a function of the stomach, which breaks food down, and the “spleen,” which transforms the nutrients from food into usable energy. What is termed the “spleen” here includes functions of the pancreas, the small intestine and the metabolic process on a cellular level. The Western medical equivalent of this spleen function are the mitochondria or the “powerhouses” of the cell that break down glucose and fatty acid for ATP, an energy-carrying molecule. Remember High School biology and the Krebs cycle? People with insulin-resistance have compromised mitochondrial function.

Acupuncture can help restore the body’s homeostasis, bringing back its optimal functioning.

In acupuncture lingo, we call it “Restoring the Qi” or the body’s vital energy.

5. Acupuncture reduces stress and increases relaxation

Stress-reduction and increased relaxation are probably the biggest all-encompassing effects of acupuncture. The effects of stress, especially chronic, long-term stress, on lowered immunity, increased depression and anxiety, lack of sleep, and overall compromised health have been well-established.

Increased stress and lack of sleep lead to increased release of the stress hormone cortisol from the adrenal glands. Cortisol makes us feel hungry even when we are full. Loss of sleep also decreases levels of growth hormone, which regulates the proportion of fat to muscle. And lack of sleep interferes with carbohydrate metabolism. Plus, tired people tend to eat more for the short-term energy boost they gain, especially from carbohydrate-rich foods.

As we’ve seen, there are many factors that interfere with successful weight loss. The causes leading to obesity and the difficulties with losing weight are complex. A successful weight maintenance plan must address all these aspects.

So – can acupuncture help you lose weight?

The answer is not a simple “yes” or “no”. But acupuncture can address many of the deeper-rooted issues with weight problems. There is definitely a place for acupuncture in a multi-faceted weight loss program. In fact, it can be a determining factor of its success.

Guest post by Meret Bainbridge, L.Ac., who practices at Acupuncture by Meret in Portland, Maine.

Have you ever tried acupuncture before? What was your experience?

Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. She now hosts and produces the Catching Health podcast and writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.