Weight loss methods and strategies are numerous, but not all of them are equally good for you. Regular exercise and a well-balanced diet are the cornerstones of a healthy and successful weight loss. To boost our weight loss efforts we have tons of natural strategies at our disposal. Simple lifestyle tweaks go a long way. When it comes to natural methods acupuncture is dubbed effective for weight loss. Is there any truth in those claims or acupuncture for weight loss is yet another trend that yields no results? We’re going to discuss this subject below so scroll down to learn more.
What is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese treatment that involves inserting thin needles through the skin at specific points on the body to various depths. This type of alternative medicine has become popular across the globe. For centuries acupuncture has been used to provide relaxation or improve health and this practice continues in the modern age as well.
For example, in a period between 2002 and 2007, the number of acupuncture users in the United States increased by 0.3% or over 1 million as it jumped from 2.13 million to 3.14 million Americans. Moreover, the number of ever acupuncture users increased from 4.2% to 6.3% of the population within the same period i.e. it went from 8.19 million to 14.01 million people (1).
While statistics on this subject is scarce it’s safe to assume these numbers only climbed higher from 2007 to 2021. As people acknowledge the importance of a healthy lifestyle and natural methods of improving health, acupuncture gains even greater value.
How Does It Work?
There’s more to acupuncture than inserting needles into the skin. In traditional Chinese medicine, health is the result of the balance of yin and yang, which are complementary extremes of the life force called qi (chi). The imbalance of these forces leads to illnesses, as practitioners of this traditional medicine believed. Qi flows through pathways or meridians in the body which are accessible through 350 acupuncture points.
As an acupuncturist inserts the needles into the specific acupuncture points in proper combinations the balance of energy flow restores. Scientific proof regarding the existence of acupuncture meridians is scarce. Some studies do show a close connection between acupuncture points with structures of the connective tissues (2). A lot more research is necessary to uncover the underlying mechanisms of acupuncture. However, this ancient practice has a number of health benefits and is a perfect fit for a holistic and natural lifestyle.
Can Acupuncture Help You Lose Weight?
People go to an acupuncturist’s office for a wide range of reasons. Chances are high you’ve come across claims that acupuncture could help support weight loss. It’s natural to wonder if those claims are correct. The reality is that the link between acupuncture and weight loss is poorly explored. But it doesn’t mean the evidence is nonexistent.
For instance, one study investigated the effectiveness of acupuncture in obesity. The scientists reviewed 21 studies with 1389 participants in total. When compared to sham acupuncture, significant reductions in BMI, weight, body fat mass and total cholesterol were found. Subjects in acupuncture groups also experienced greater BMI reduction, improved waist-to-hip ratio, better total cholesterol, and triglycerides than their counterparts from no-treatment groups. Scientists concluded that acupuncture could be an effective treatment for obesity (3).
A different study, published in the International Journal of Obesity, had similar findings. It analyzed 31 studies with a total of 3013 subjects. Results showed that compared to the control of lifestyle, acupuncture was linked with a significant reduction in body weight and improvement in obesity. Compared to sham acupuncture, the acupuncture treatment reduced body weight of 1.56kg on average. Moreover, acupuncture also led to more improved outcomes of body weight and obesity than conventional medication. Scientists concluded acupuncture may be an effective obesity treatment. They also confirmed the amount of evidence is not fully convincing due to the poor methodological quality of the trials. Researchers emphasized the importance of new, well-planned, and long-term studies to evaluate the impact of acupuncture on weight loss (4).
A group of scientists from Cairo carried out a study whose main objective was to examine the effectiveness of body acupuncture on weight loss and pro-inflammatory markers. They enrolled 80 obese Egyptians divided into three groups based on their BMI. The subjects underwent acupuncture treatment for three to six months in combination with a low-calorie diet. Findings revealed that acupuncture reduced adiposity. Scientists concluded acupuncture in combination with diet restriction was effective for weight loss and inflammatory reactions. Therefore, acupuncture could pose as a synergistic treatment option for obesity control (5).
Additionally, the Obesity Reviews journal published a study that found that acupuncture plus lifestyle modification was more successful than lifestyle modifications alone in weight loss. The combination of acupuncture and lifestyle measures was more effective than sham acupuncture plus lifestyle adjustments too. The study also identified types of acupuncture that favored weight loss. They are:
- Auricular acupuncture (ear acupuncture)
- Manual acupuncture
- Pharmacopuncture (herbal acupuncture i.e. injection of herbal medicine into acupuncture points)
Interestingly, weight loss occurred in overweight, but not in obese subjects. In the same way, acupuncture was effective for weight loss only in combination with other lifestyle adjustments. In this study, acupuncture alone was not more effective than sham acupuncture with no other treatment (6). In other words, to maximize the effects of acupuncture on weight loss it’s useful to combine it with lifestyle adjustments.
The World Scientific Journal featured a study that also found that body acupuncture in combination with diet restriction was effective for weight loss and reduction of the risk factors linked with excess weight such as dyslipidemia or abnormal amount of lipids in the blood (7).
How Does Acupuncture Promote Weight Loss?
As seen throughout this post, acupuncture could work for weight loss. More research on this subject is necessary, especially regarding long-term effects. But how does acupuncture help us slim down? Not much is known about the exact mechanisms of action but current evidence shows acupuncture applied to specific acupoints can contribute to the restoration of endocrine and metabolic disorders in subjects with simple obesity. Simple or primary obesity is the most common type of obesity and it refers to excess weight gain due to diet.
In obese people, acupuncture may modulate the cerebral nervous system and activate specific brain regions and relevant molecules. Therapeutic mechanisms of acupuncture nearly cover all cellular and molecular events during the pathophysiological process of obesity. The effects of acupuncture are multitargets and modulation induced by this ancient practice on various pathways could pave the way to weight loss (8).
The main reason behind the poor understanding of how acupuncture works is that studies focus on a specific aspect only. For example, clinical studies focus on the beneficial effects of acupuncture on the endocrine system, digestion, and metabolism. On the other hand, laboratory evidence shows acupuncture regulates lipid metabolism, relieves oxidative stress, modulates inflammatory responses, and promotes browning of white adipose tissue. Additionally, acupuncture has the potential to suppress appetite by regulating appetite-regulating hormones. These hormones are ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin controls appetite and meal stimulation while leptin regulates fat storage and metabolism.
To simplify, advocates of acupuncture for weight loss (and studies we mentioned above) show this practice can stimulate qi and thereby influence factors that support weight loss. These factors include:
- Accelerating metabolism. Acupuncture has the potential to speed up metabolism and, as you already know, metabolic rate is crucial for weight loss. Slow metabolic rate contributes to weight gain because it burns fewer calories and at a slower rate (9). To slim down successfully, you need to accelerate metabolic rate so that you burn more calories than you consume. Acupuncture could help with that.
- Suppressing appetite. Overeating is a problem for many people. This is particularly the case if you consume heavily processed foods which lead to overeating and subsequent weight gain (10). In fact, overeating can impair weight loss efforts as you continue consuming more calories than you burn. The goal here is not to starve yourself, but to modify how much you eat. As seen above, acupuncture could suppress your appetite and help you feel full for a longer time.
- Managing stress. When left unmanaged stress can harm our health in many ways. Chronic stress also contributes to weight gain because stress hormones affect fat cells (11). Additionally, stress can also decrease your motivation, lower physical activity levels, and makes you more inclined to eat unhealthy foods. A growing body of evidence confirms that acupuncture can aid the management of stress and depression (12, 13).
How Many Acupuncture Sessions Are Needed to Induce Weight Loss?
When it comes to weight loss, we usually want to achieve it as fast as possible. We expect significant changes immediately, but that’s not how weight loss works. It takes time and patients. One acupuncture session is not enough to slim down. That being said, a specific number of acupuncture sessions at the practitioner’s office doesn’t exist.
Every person is different and requires an individual approach. Your metabolic rate, current weight, and other factors differ from someone else’s. Based on the current weight and weight loss goals the acupuncturist recommends the most suitable approach including the level and length of the treatment. People who aim to lose between 10 and 15 pounds usually need several treatments a week. The overall duration of acupuncture treatment is six to eight weeks.
As the treatment advances week by week the number of sessions may change. The acupuncturist will closely monitor your results and how you respond to the treatment. They will use that info to tweak the length and level of the treatment as you move forward from one week to another.
Is Acupuncture Safe?
Acupuncture is considered a safe procedure when performed by a licensed and trained professional. To get the most out of acupuncture it’s crucial to find a reputable acupuncturist. Their level of expertise matters the most. Always make sure the acupuncturist is trained properly and has credentials (14). You may even see your doctor and ask them to recommend a reliable acupuncture practitioner in your area. Acupuncture needles are regulated by the FDA and only licensed professionals are allowed to use them.
Although generally harmless, acupuncture may not be safe for men and women who take anticoagulants (blood thinners) or people with bleeding disorders. Moreover, people with a cardiac pacemaker, infusion pump, and/or other electrical devices in the body should avoid electroacupuncture.
Every form of treatment comes with a certain risk of side effects. Acupuncture is not the exception. The most common adverse reactions include:
- Bruising at the site of needle insertion
People may also experience dizziness, fainting, local internal bleeding, convulsions, dermatitis, nerve damage, increased pain, and injury to an internal organ. It’s useful to mention the number of acupuncture-associated complications is very low (15).
These side effects do not affect every person, they’re rare. The best way to minimize the likelihood of adverse reactions is to follow our suggestion from above and look for a reliable acupuncturist.
Acupuncture Could Keep You Motivated
Successful weight loss and its maintenance are all about staying motivated. Easier said than done, right? Sometimes it’s difficult to stay motivated on the weight loss endeavor, especially when it takes more time than expected. Acupuncture could help you push yourself to work harder.
For starters, acupuncture sessions could help you relax and suppress your appetite. As you manage stress, your energy levels increase. Workouts don’t seem so frustrating and tedious. Plus, you won’t overeat.
As you go to treatment sessions regularly and, actually, notice improvements on the scale, you’ll be motivated to modify your lifestyle. Remember, studies show that acupuncture works best when you pair it with other lifestyle changes. Effective acupuncture treatment could encourage you to adopt healthier habits and thereby support your weight loss further.
Other Benefits of Acupuncture
Acupuncture can do more than we think. This ancient practice can help relieve:
- Neck pain
- Lower back pain
- Headache and migraine
- Knee pain
Advocates of acupuncture also state it could help manage allergies, anxiety and depression, hypertension, insomnia, menstrual cramps and PMS, morning sickness, sprains, and even to support digestive health.
Acupuncture Isn’t A Replacement for A Healthy Diet and Exercise
Despite the proposed benefits of acupuncture for weight loss, we shouldn’t regard this practice as a replacement for a well-balanced diet and regular exercise. In fact, acupuncture should be an adjunct to dietary modifications and regular workouts. It’s not uncommon for people to look for an easy way to slim down, but the best results come when you do it gradually and make wise choices. And the wisest choice is to eat a well-balanced diet, exercise, and introduce other useful and natural methods into your daily life.
Studies show that acupuncture can support weight loss. But more research is necessary, especially regarding long-term results. To get the most out of acupuncture, you may want to find a reliable acupuncturist.