Alternative medicine approaches from around the world have gained increasing popularity in the west over the past several decades. And for good reason—there are centuries’ worth of medical knowledge cultivated in other parts of the world.
Of all the non-western medicinal practices, acupuncture is among the most prevalent. Best known for its potential beneficial impacts on chronic pain and migraines, acupuncture may have promise in treating an array of different conditions, from seasonal allergies to anxiety.
But what about weight loss? Is there any reason to think that acupuncture might be an effective tool for shedding excess pounds and maintaining a healthy weight? Read on to find out.
The Potential Benefits of Acupuncture
Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine treatment dating back to at least 100 BCE—and potentially as early as 6000 BCE. The practice involves the insertion of thin needles at specific points in the body to stimulate the flow of “qi”—which is thought to restore interconnected wellness in the body.
While the establishment of acupuncture practice predates what we would call modern science and medicine, there is actually compelling evidence to suggest that, although acupuncture points and meridians are traditionally spoken of as pathways for “qi” and “energy” to flow, those same points are shown to correspond—as much as 80 percent—to locations of intramuscular connective tissue.
So then, how exactly does research suggest that acupuncture works? What sort of benefits is it purported to offer? Before we tackle the topic of weight loss, let’s go over a few of the more common benefits acupuncture is thought to offer.
Can Alleviate Acute And Chronic Pain
Of all the potential benefits and effects of acupuncture, few are more promising or well-known than its effects on pain. Studies have repeatedly pointed to a noticeable impact of acupuncture on bodily pain, one that is unlikely to be explained by placebo effect alone.
Existing research may be insufficient to make any definitive claims as to acupuncture's efficacy as a treatment for pain. But, functional MRI images suggest that the brain exhibits a significant response to acupuncture treatment, releasing numerous neurotransmitters that could account for an altered perception of pain.
Can Promote Relaxation And Reduces Anxiety
Again in the case of anxiety, the existing research into acupuncture doesn’t let us draw any definite conclusions. But, the results seem to lean toward suggesting a genuine therapeutic effect when it comes to anxiety and related disorders.
This may be due to the release of endorphins that can come as a result of this treatment. While it’s difficult to determine what acupuncture can or cannot do, one key thing to keep in mind is that alternative medicine doesn’t need to replace mainstream medicine in your care routine, but can rather be added in to compliment other forms of treatment if appropriate.
Can Assist in Regulating Hormonal Imbalances
Many factors can impact hormonal balance, including nutrient intake, other medications or supplements someone is taking, and additional genetic factors. Controlling for dietary intake is rarely if ever done in most of the studies that link acupuncture and hormone levels, which can make it hard to draw conclusions.
However, there are some studies that suggest a potential benefit of this treatment for hormone regulation that warrant deeper exploration. While acupuncture may be a potentially helpful tool in some cases for impacting hormonal balance, it most likely will need to be paired with other clinical approaches that support foundational dietary and lifestyle changes to be effective
May Enhance Immune System Activity
Increasingly, evidence points to a potentially significant impact of acupuncture treatment on immune function. Studies suggest that acupuncture may have a notable impact on immune regulation, making it a potentially useful tool in a number of different immune conditions.
May Support Energy Levels
Those who receive acupuncture treatment often refer to an increase in energy in their daily lives—and indeed, this may be more than just a hunch or fluke. Studies point to a significant potential for acupuncture to positively influence conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, wherein the individual suffers from chronic low energy and feelings of fatigue.
Inflammation and immune dysfunction are thought to be related to conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). If acupuncture can in fact reduce inflammation and improve immune function, then that could explain why it might have an impact on CFS and general fatigue.
Does Acupuncture Help with Weight Loss?
Now, the big question: can acupuncture help you reach your weight loss goal? There have been a number of studies on this topic, and while they vary in terms of quality, they actually do generally point to a connection between acupuncture and decreases in waist circumference and body weight.
One possible explanation for why acupuncture may assist with weight loss is its effects on appetite. Some studies suggest that thyroid and endocrine ear acupuncture treatment may lead to a decrease in feelings of hunger, as well as to a drop in stress-related food cravings.
One randomized controlled trial found that auricular acupuncture led to lower ghrelin hormone levels in the body. Ghrelin is a hormone that’s responsible for feelings of hunger. Acupuncture has also been shown to influence leptin levels in the body, which is the hormone responsible for fat storage.
While there does appear to be some promise when it comes to this treatment, the caveat is that acupuncture alone does not seem to be particularly effective for weight loss. The potential weight reduction benefits of acupuncture may be more apparent when coupled with a healthy diet, appropriate exercise, and positive lifestyle changes.
Precautions with Acupuncture
After seeing the evidence for the positive potential benefits of acupuncture, you might be wondering if this practice can come with any side effects. Luckily, there aren’t too many things to worry about—the common side effects of acupuncture include bleeding, swelling, chronic pain, and infection.
Depending on what your goal is, however, the frequency of your acupuncture sessions may vary. For some conditions, such as treating chronic pain, you may require several sessions a week to see a benefit. This can be different for each person, so make sure to consult a trusted healthcare professional to help you create a proper treatment plan.
You should also ensure that your acupuncture practitioner has the proper training and certifications, which can vary depending on your location. You should also always consult your primary care doctor when including alternative therapies in your repertoire.
Other Holistic Approaches That May Help with Weight Loss
There are lots of holistic practices and herbal medicines that have been used for centuries, especially in places like China. But acupuncture isn’t the only holistic, complementary practice that can aid with weight management. Aside from the “big two”—that is, diet and exercise—there are a number of different tools that can help you to lose weight and feel great, both inside and out.
Yoga and Meditation
Yoga is another ancient eastern tradition, this time from India. It is a mind-body practice that engages the body in various stretching poses, encouraging a mindful, meditative state. Aside from its potential physiological benefits—improved metabolic rate and increased muscle tone—it may also, through the meditative aspect of the practice, lead to reductions in stress and stress-related cravings and appetite.
Meditation, likewise, may also assist with weight loss. According to studies, mindfulness meditation practice may be associated with weight loss. Though the exact reasons for this are not entirely clear, it does seem to revolve around eating habits, and how meditation may improve them.
Mindful Eating and Cultivating a Healthy Relationship to Food
Mindful eating is a mindfulness practice that involves conscious awareness of the different facets of hunger and the experience of eating. This involves paying close attention to the experience of eating each bite of food, noticing things that trigger feelings of hunger, and observing food cravings as events that are largely mental in nature.
By changing the way one thinks about hunger and food, it may become easier to avoid reactive eating, and to better recognize feelings of fullness, thus leading to better regulated food consumption. For these reasons among others, mindful eating is shown to have a significant potential to aid in weight loss.
Getting Plenty Of Sleep
Sleep is a huge factor when it comes to feeling your best. But it’s not just about energy and warding off fatigue—healthy sleep may actually play a major role in fat and weight loss.
Studies show that good sleep may be one of the keys to effective weight loss. If you’re working on losing weight and the pounds just don’t seem to want to come off, perhaps you should ask yourself: am I getting enough sleep?
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Heather is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN, LDN), subject matter expert, and technical writer, with a master's degree in nutrition science from Bastyr University. She has a specialty in neuroendocrinology and has been working in the field of nutrition—including nutrition research, education, medical writing, and clinical integrative and functional nutrition—for over 15 years.