Many people ask me if acupuncture can help them lost weight. Most seem to be looking for a fast fix. I tell them it is not a magical cure for obesity or overeating, but it can facilitate the weight loss process. Obesity is an epidemic in this country, and it has grave consequences, not only because it vastly increases the risk for disease and joint strain, but it also raises the cost of healthcare. There is a difference between being overweight and being obese. Both refer to a state where a person weighs more than is considered healthy for his or her height. This is determined by the Body Mass Index (or BMI), which is a calculation based on height and weight, and is not a direct measurement of body fat. While it is not a perfect estimation, it is used as a reference and a predictor of obesity-related diseases. (Direct body fat measurements may be taken with ultrasound, calipers measuring skin fold thickness, MRI, and so on.) If a person’s BMI is 25.0 to 29.9, then they are considered overweight. If a person’s BMI is 30 or above, then he or she is categorized as obese. Over one third of adults and 17% of children in the United States are obese! According to the Center for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov):
• Overweight and obesity result from an energy imbalance. This involves eating too many calories and not getting enough physical activity.
• Body weight is the result of genes, metabolism, behavior, environment, culture, and socioeconomic status.
• Behavior and environment play a large role causing people to be overweight and obese. These are the greatest areas for prevention and treatment actions.
Overweight and obesity greatly increase the risk of many diseases, as research has showed: cardiovascular disease (high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke), certain cancers, diabetes, osteoarthritis, fertility and menstrual disorders, high cholesterol, and sleep apnea among others. My personal feeling is that our culture is one of excess and portion sizes are too large. We also consume foods of poor quality, i.e, processed foods that contain chemicals and enormous amounts of sugar and salt, as well as foods that have antibiotics and hormones in them. Our modern lives are sedentary for the most part, and sitting at a desk all day is not exactly a natural way of life for our physiques. It doesn’t provide any physical release for stress or metabolic stimulation. Adrenal fatigue and stress which raise cortisol levels are other reasons why people retain fat. Certain medications and illnesses (such as hypothyroidism) may cause people to gain weight as well, so the culprit isn’t always lifestyle or behavior. There are many, many reasons why people struggle with their weight.
Like any other syndrome in Chinese medicine, obesity is viewed as an imbalance of energy that can be alleviated through lifestyle changes, acupuncture and possibly herbal remedies.* Excess fat in the body is generally thought to be the result of one of a couple of syndromes (or perhaps a combination): an accumulation of “phlegm-damp,” and/or a deficiency of the spleen and kidney energies. Simply put, if a person overeats (especially sweets or greasy foods), they may compromise their spleen energy or qi, which is responsible for healthy digestion and metabolic function; if this occurs, the person will not be able to convert that excessive food into fuel and it will turn into fat, an accumulation of Phlegm-dampness. On the other hand, if the spleen or the kidneys are weak (perhaps from illness or poor lifestyle choices), the body’s qi will not be able to keep up with a healthy maintenance of transforming food and water into fuel that the body uses efficiently. Hence, more puffiness or fat accumulation. So, it can be seen as an issue of lifestyle and poor eating habits, or by an inherently sluggish metabolism brought on by other factors.
The treatment protocol is along the lines of dispelling this fat or “phlegm-damp” accumulation as well as invigorating the spleen and kidney energies to help it move along. Specific points on the body can do just that; a complete analysis must be done to ensure that all aspects of the patient’s health are addressed, not merely the weight issue. For instance, if the patient has a low functioning thyroid, this might be a deficiency syndrome, but it might also be a more complex issue where other layers of imbalance are embedded. Again, it is a holistic approach to treatment and not a quick fix for weight loss. Lifestyle issues MUST be addressed; proper exercise and diet modification are imperative. Occasionally, I will prescribe an herbal formula that might contain something like hawthorne berry and fennel to assist with the removal and breakdown of dampness in the body. Green tea and probiotics are also thought to be helpful for weight loss. Sometimes people overeat due to anxiety; in this case, acupuncture does well to quell this nervous energy and the ear points I use for addiction can reduce cravings, especially for compulsive overeaters or people with sweets cravings. I always include ear points to address cravings for weight loss patients.
Recent research published in Medical Acupuncture showed that ear acupuncture helped people lose more weight: 20 obese women who received weekly ear acupuncture treatments lost 10 pounds while keeping a 2,000 calorie per day diet and a 15 minute daily walk; the other group who kept the same daily habits but who did not use ear acupuncture only lost an average of 3 pounds. If you suffer from cravings or struggle with your weight, please discuss it with me and see Specials page for treatment offers focused on this issue.
(*Chinese herbs like ephedra were abused by people with weight loss goals with serious consequences; this herb was used inappropriately- it has a stimulating effect and is meant to treat respiratory disorders such as asthma and is NEVER intended for weight loss! Teas that are said to be “Slimming” are usually just laxatives. An appropriate formula for weight loss is one that is gentler and used safely over a longer period of time.)