Approximately 42% of Americans will be considered obese by 2030. This is a staggering prediction! It seems that we are on a never-ending quest for that magic bullet. But is there really a magic fix for obesity? I fear not, as obesity is a complex issue that oftentimes requires a multidisciplinary approach. However, Traditional Chinese Medicine may be another option for weight management.
While people seek out acupuncture for a variety of health problems and often come in with a long list of complex issues they want to address, many of them will ask if acupuncture can also help them lose weight. The answer is yes – along with healthy changes to diet and movement, acupuncture has been shown to dramatically impact weight in number of ways.
The difficulties with losing weight
Obesity, diabetes and the associated increased risk for stroke and heart disease are a world-wide problem. Obesity affects over one-third of adults in the US now and childhood obesity is on the rise.
Metabolic syndrome, according to the NIH, is defined as having three out of five metabolic risk factors, including a large waistline or “apple shape,” high triglycerides, low HDL “good” cholesterol, high blood pressure and high fasting blood sugar.
The spectrum of obesity, insulin-resistance, pre-diabetes and eventually diabetes can be deadly. Insulin-resistance – high levels of insulin circulating in the blood stream caused by excessive consumption of sugar, combined with reduced ability of the cell’s receptor sites to absorb the insulin, which then leads to sugars being stored as fat, is at the core of this pathology.
This complex interaction leads to keeping people from losing weight despite dieting and exercise. They include poor nutrition and food addiction to sugar, sodas and highly processed industrialized foods, inflammation, hormonal imbalances, poor digestive function, toxins, sluggish metabolism, and stress.
The old myths of weight loss – eating a calorie-reduced, low-fat diet, using highly processed meal replacement products and exercising yourself to exhaustion – have been tossed out by now, because they only lead to a yo-yo diet effect with greater weight gain following each weight-loss cycle.
Weight loss is a complex process that must address the various underlying causes which includes:
1. Boost your nutrition – eat unprocessed, natural, whole, foods
2. Regulate your hormones – improve thyroid function, reduce stress hormones, balance sex hormones
3. Reduce inflammation – address food sensitivities, hidden infections and toxins
4. Improve your digestion – heal your gut, regulate elimination
5. Maximize detoxification – identify and eliminate hidden toxins
6. Enhance energy metabolism – boost mitochondrial function – and
7. Soothe your mind – reduce stress, and adrenal fatigue.
Where does acupuncture fit into a weight loss plan?
Acupuncture can address just about every one of these aspects and greatly improve the results of a multi-faceted weight loss program. Let’s take a closer look at what acupuncture has to offer.
1. Acupuncture reduces food cravings and regulates appetite
Ear acupuncture is one of the most successful methods for addiction treatment, including food addiction and emotional eating where bingeing or constant nibbling serves to stuff down difficult emotions like sadness, anger, boredom and loneliness; or where sensations like pain, fatigue and thirst are mistaken for hunger.
Ear acupuncture stimulates the vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve that is part of the involuntary nervous system and controls such automatic functions as regular heart rate and digestion.
In a randomized study by Sabina Lim and others (Graduate College of Basic Korean Medical Science at Kyung Hee University, Seoul, South Korea), 91 obese persons were randomly assigned to a group receiving stimulation of a five-needle protocol on the outer ear, a group receiving a single ear acupuncture point, or sham (fake) acupuncture. The five-needle group achieved the largest drop in waist circumference, as well as drop in body fat, followed by the one-needle group, and no change in the control group. The study was published in Acupuncture in Medicine on Dec 16, 2013.
2. Acupuncture regulates hormones
Acupuncture’s balancing effect on overall body chemistry, including hormones, is well-established. Acupuncture lowers stress hormones. It regulates sexual and reproductive hormones and is widely used in addressing menstrual, fertility and menopausal concerns.
An area of particular interest is the effect of acupuncture on obesity hormones.
Hunger and satisfaction are regulated by two hormones: grehlin stimulates hunger and initiates eating, while leptin suppresses food intake. Surprisingly, in obese people leptin in the bloodstream is increased, while grehlin is decreased. Obese people are considered not only insulin-resistant, but also grehlin-resistant. (Obesity Review, Jan 2007)
In a Turkish study reported in Acupuncture in Medicine, September 2012, 40 obese women were randomly assigned to receive acupuncture on five common points twice weekly for five weeks for a total of 10 sessions. The results showed that acupuncture lowered insulin and leptin levels and increased plasma grehlin in the treatment group, compared with a control group receiving sham acupuncture. Acupuncture also reduced the BMI (basic metabolic index).
The conclusion is that acupuncture can help normalize obesity hormones and the hunger response and contribute to improving metabolism.
3. Acupuncture reduces inflammation and pain
Acupuncture is mostly known for – and researched for – its ability to relieve pain, reduce inflammation and heal injuries.
Acupuncture promotes blood flow, which brings oxygen, nutrients, immune substances, hormones, pain killers and anti-inflammatories to the compromised area. Acupuncture needles create “micro traumas” that stimulate the body’s natural healing response. Acupuncture releases natural painkillers such as endorphins and enkephalins. Acupuncture relaxes tense muscles that put pressure on joints and impinge nerves.
About 3 million Americans visit acupuncturists each year, most of them for the relief of chronic pain. Now a new study shows the relief they get may be modest — but real.
The study is a review of previous acupuncture studies that compared the ancient Chinese practice to standard pain care or to sham acupuncture. In the latter, patients are needled in a manner different from (or at spots on the body not tied to) traditional acupuncture.
The researchers found that people who got acupuncture ended up having less pain than those who didn’t receive it. And the result was similar among different sources of pain, whether it was chronic back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, or headache.
In the end, their results translate to about 30% less pain compared to people taking pain medications and other standard treatments for pain.
4. Acupuncture improves digestion and metabolism
Acupuncture addresses many digestive problems, including GERD, reflux, stomach ulcers, IBS, diverticulitis and colitis. Acupuncture can help regulate digestion and elimination of toxins.
Chinese medicine describes the digestive process as a function of the stomach, which breaks food down, and the “spleen,” which transforms the nutrients from food into usable energy. What is termed the “spleen” here includes functions of the pancreas, the small intestine and the metabolic process on a cellular level. The Western medical equivalent of this spleen function is the mitochondria or the “powerhouses” of the cell that break down glucose and fatty acid for ATP, an energy-carrying molecule. Remember High School biology and the Krebs cycle? People with insulin-resistance have compromised mitochondrial function.
Acupuncture can help restore the body’s homeostasis, bringing back its optimal functioning.
In acupuncture lingo, we call it “Restoring the Qi” or the body’s vital energy.
5. Acupuncture reduces stress and increases relaxation
Stress-reduction and increased relaxation are probably the biggest all-encompassing effects of acupuncture. The effects of stress, especially chronic, long-term stress, on lowered immunity, increased depression and anxiety, lack of sleep, and overall compromised health have been well-established.
Increased stress and lack of sleep lead to increased release of the stress hormone cortisol from the adrenal glands. Cortisol makes us feel hungry even when we are full. Loss of sleep also decreases levels of growth hormone, which regulates the proportion of fat to muscle. And lack of sleep interferes with carbohydrate metabolism. Plus, tired people tend to eat more for the short-term energy boost they gain, especially from carbohydrate-rich foods.
As we’ve seen, there are many factors that interfere with successful weight loss. The causes leading to obesity and the difficulties with losing weight are complex. A successful weight maintenance plan must address all these aspects. At Meng’s Acupuncture Medical Center we offer our patients a comprehensive approach to weight loss and pain management. For more information or to schedule a consultation, contact us at 561-656-0717.
Yanhong Meng, AP, DOM
Dr. Meng, MD (China), AP, received her medical degree from the prestigious Shandong University in China and has also completed several advanced training courses in oriental medicine from well-respected TCM hospitals in China. She has over 18 years of experience as a doctor of Chinese medicine. She has owned and operated Meng’s Acupuncture Medical Center since 2007.
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