Acupuncture is a large and respected part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). In the West, there are varying views on the idea of acupuncture. Proponents claim that it has many uses and is effective. Others discredit these claims and point to a lack of solid evidence and sound scientific theory. Weight loss is a field in which nearly everyone who can has made an effort to profit from it, ethically or otherwise. Acupuncture has been caught up in people’s efforts to capitalize on its use for obesity treatment, creating both good and bad information about it. This article gives a brief overview of the use of acupuncture in weight loss and examines the scientific evidence and Western medical theories behind it.
There have been studies published in scientific journals that demonstrate positive effects of using acupuncture to treat some conditions. In 1997, the National Institutes of Health published their Consensus Statement on Acupuncture which outlines medical conditions that may benefit from acupuncture. Weight loss was not mentioned on the list. There are some studies that point to acupuncture’s effectiveness in weight reduction. However, several of these studies have technical issues that make it difficult to draw strong scientific conclusions. Different studies have looked at using different acupoints and at varying frequencies of treatments which makes it hard to compare one study to another. Of the better designed studies, some have shown that acupuncture works and others have shown that it does not. Additionally, studies have only lasted from 3 to 24 weeks, most about 12 weeks. There are none that look at the long term effects of acupuncture on weight loss.
Currently, there it much to be desired in terms of solid research on acupuncture’s use for weight loss. Future studies need to standardize the methods and acupoints studied. It is also difficult to have a good placebo for acupuncture. While researchers can disguise a fake pill as real medicine in their control groups, one cannot hide whether or not a subject gets a needle placed in the skin. Efforts to overcome this have centered on using real and fake acupoints as well as adding electrical current to the needles versus connecting wires but not conducting current. In up to 50% of people who receive this “sham” acupuncture, there are positive physiologic effects, especially in pain perception. Therefore, there does seem to be a strong placebo effect to acupuncture. Researchers also should be “blinded” as to whether or not a subject receives real treatment or placebo to prevent them from gathering inaccurate data. This too is more difficult in acupuncture studies for the same reasons.
All that being said, acupuncture is used by many people in efforts to help them lose weight. The most popular form is acupuncture on the ear, called auricular acupuncture. TCM holds that life fore (Qi) follows lines (meridians) for hunger and the stomach that run through acupoints in the ear. Using needles, an acupuncturist attempts to realign the Qi along these meridians and rebalance hunger. The ear does have branches of several nerves that also run to parts of the digestive tract. In particular, the vagus nerve, which has a small branch to the ear, carries many signals of the parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite of the fight-or-flight response). It innervates the digestive tract as well. According to more Western theories, stimulation of this and other nerves may alter digestion and hunger.
Along these lines, upon penetration of the skin with needles, there is a release of chemical nerve signals (neurotransmitters). Endorphins, which dull pain and give a sense of euphoria, are some of those neurotransmitters. Many theorize that acupuncture draws its effects from increasing endorphin levels. Since people often eat to cope with stress or depression, any improvement in mood would help curb appetite. Several antidepressants have appetite altering effects, and many weight loss drugs exert their effects by altering levels of neurotransmitters. As more research is done on acupuncture, hopefully more clues about how to best treat obesity will emerge.