Acupuncture-the Eastern practice of using super-thin needles to stimulate strategic points on your body-has an interesting health reputation. Traditional practitioners believe the ancient alternative medicine can help rebalance your body’s energy (called “qi”) by directing its flow.
That may sound a little out-there, but even modern-day docs think the teeny needles might help stimulate nerves and muscles to help relieve pain, according to US organisations. In fact, an extensive body of research suggests the natural treatment can help ease headaches, back pain, neck pain, PMS, and osteoarthritis.
Scientists are only beginning to understand all of the benefits acupuncture has to offer, and recent studies have been exploring the therapy beyond its ability to manage pain. Among its growing list of potential uses? Weight loss.
It’s not your typical fat loss prescription, so how exactly could those tiny pricks drop the number on your scale? We talked to an acupuncturist and an obesity doc to find out.
What's the theory behind acupuncture and weight loss?
Here’s the claim: “Acupuncture supports weight loss from many different angles,” says acupuncture practitioner Jennifer Oh. One of the most important ways, she says, is by giving your metabolism a boost by helping regulate your digestion, insulin, and hormones.
From the Chinese Medicine perspective in which acupuncture is rooted, the idea is that when your major digestive organs aren’t functioning at 100 percent, your metabolism can get sluggish.
Your body needs to use a lot of energy to burn fat, which isn’t a big deal if your metabolism is chugging along smoothly. But “if your metabolism is affected and your energy is low, your body goes into what I call ‘low power mode,’” says Oh. This makes it harder to drop kilos.
Stimulating specific trigger points on your body can be like “little on-off switches” for various systems in your body, Oh explains. Flipping them on theoretically revs your flow of energy, and subsequently, your ability to burn fat.
This boost can also help suppress appetite, says Oh. “Hunger is a sign you are low in energy,” she says, so when those levels become more stable, you shouldn’t feel as ravenous.
But what does science say about acupuncture and weight loss?
Researchers have some other theories behind acupuncture’s link to weight loss.
Acupuncture might reduce inflammation.
In one small 2015 study, 80 obese people received three to six months of acupuncture while eating a low-kJ diet. Not only did the treatment help them lose weight, but it also reduced the amount of inflammation in their bodies, which studies have linked to obesity.
In a similar study, researchers split 161 obese people into two groups: one received authentic acupuncture while the other got a sham treatment. Both groups ate a low-kJ diet. After assessing their progress six and 12 weeks later, they discovered that while both groups lost weight, only those who received the authentic acupuncture saw improvements in certain inflammatory markers.
Acupuncture may tamp down your hunger.
In a study of 60 overweight people published in Australian Family Physician, nearly all of the participants who used an acupuncture simulation device for two weeks reported a lower appetite and lost weight after, while a control group didn’t notice any similar effects. This could be due to the release of serotonin-a mood-boosting chemical that has been linked to lowering your appetite-through specific trigger points, the study authors note.
A more recent pilot study published in BMJ Open Gastroenterology found that just one week of acupuncture also lowered levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin. The study was small and only included 10 people, so more research needs to be done to fully understand how acupuncture impacts our hunger hormones.
Acupuncture could improve your mood.
“Other theories explain the benefits of acupuncture on hormones such as cortisol and oxytocin, both of which affect weight and appetite,” explains bariatric physician Dr Nancy Rahnama.
Then there’s the potential effect on your endorphins, says Dr Rahnama. “It has been explained that acupuncture stimulates the nervous system to increase the release of endorphins, which can help decrease the appetite and improve the mood,” she says. Since feeling happier could make emotionally-driven junk food binges less common, the practice could, in theory, lead to weight loss that way.
So, can acupuncture really help you lose weight?
While the research is limited and the evidence is mixed, it is compelling, says Dr Rahnama. However, that’s not enough to say that acupuncture can be used a legit treatment for obesity.
Plus, there’s one major caveat: The treatment only seems to be effective when used in conjunction with traditional weight loss methods that are proven to work, like a healthy eating plan and exercise. “When done correctly, acupuncture is a great supplement to a weight loss program, as patients have noticed decrease in appetite, improved mood, and decrease in stress,” Rahnama says. “However, acupuncture should not be the sole treatment for obesity.”
You could technically chalk up any pounds lost to the placebo effect-but that doesn’t necessarily mean the treatment isn’t worth trying. “I say that any positive effect can help, whether it is placebo or not,” says Dr. Rahnama.
Should you try acupuncture for weight loss?
If you’re trying to lose weight-and you aren’t freaked out by needles-acupuncture can be a part of a larger slimdown strategy. However, “relying on acupuncture alone can be a slow process, and thus, discouraging,” says Oh.
She recommends thinking of acupuncture treatments like personal training sessions-you’ll get much better results if you make healthy choices that support weight loss in other areas of your life. Outside of acupuncture, you should exercise regularly, focus on healthy eating habits, get quality sleep, and find some time to relax each day.
“Natural, sustainable weight loss and healthy metabolism function involve a multidimensional mind-body-spirit understanding of the ways in which your emotions, beliefs, lifestyle, energy, and food all affect your body,” says Oh. Before you commit, make sure your acupuncturist values addressing all those factors-not just the idea of a cure-all poke.
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