Some proponents of acupuncture suggest that the needle-based alternative therapy may help promote weight loss. Long practiced in traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is thought to stimulate the body’s flow of vital energy (or “chi”) and, in turn, improve several factors known to contribute to weight problems and obesity.
Although scientists aren’t sure what the mechanism might be, it’s thought that undergoing acupuncture may suppress appetite, boost metabolism, and reduce stress.
However, these theories have yet to be extensively tested in scientific studies.
How Is It Done?
Typically, a licensed acupuncturist will select a number of acupuncture points which may vary from person to person. Tiny, sterilized needles are inserted into these invisible acupuncture points (some acupuncturists use electro-acupuncture, stimulating the points gently with a metal probe). The points may be on the body or on the outer ear. If needles are used on the ear, they are only inserted to a shallow depth.
Some acupuncturists may apply a pellet, or ear “seed”, or tiny, indwelling needles over certain acupuncture points on the ear. Held in place with tape, they are usually left in place for several days and can be massaged periodically (to gently stimulate the acupuncture point) to help with cravings.
Is Acupuncture Really Helpful For Weight Loss?
Although there is relatively little scientific support for the theory that acupuncture can promote weight loss, some studies suggest that acupuncture may be of some benefit to people looking to lose weight.
In a research review published in the International Journal of Obesity in 2009, for instance, scientists analyzed 31 studies (with a total of 3,013 participants) and found that acupuncture was associated with a significant reduction of average body weight and improvement in obesity.
However, the review’s authors caution that many of the reviewed studies were of poor quality.
Also, clinical trials on acupuncture vary greatly, as there is no consensus on the most appropriate sham intervention, making it difficult to compare study results.
In a study published in Acupuncture in Medicine in 2012, researchers gave 40 women either acupuncture or sham acupuncture (non-penetrating acupuncture at the same points). After two 20 minute sessions per week of 5 weeks, hormone levels were measured. Women who received acupuncture had decreased insulin and leptin levels and a decrease in body mass index (BMI) compared to the women who received sham acupuncture.
Other research on acupuncture’s effects on weight loss has yielded mixed results. For instance, in a 2009 study of 27 women with a body fat over 30 percent, women were divided into three groups. One group followed a diet and exercise plan, the second group had diet, exercise, and acupuncture, and the third group received no treatment. At the end of the 8 week period, body mass index and fat mass decreased significantly in both treatment groups, but there was no significant difference between the two treatment groups. The authors concluded that acupuncture combined with diet and exercise didn’t result in greater reductions in body weight, fat mass, or body mass index compared to diet alone.
Possible Side Effects
Acupuncture should only be administered by a qualified healthcare professional who is licensed to practice acupuncture. While the risks are generally considered low if it’s done by a competent licensed practitioner, possible side effects include: soreness, infections, and injury or organ puncture due to improper needling depth. Sterile, disposable (single-use) needles should only be used.
If you have a bleeding disorder or are taking blood thinning medication or supplements, such as warfarin or garlic, have a pacemaker, have a compromised immune system, or are pregnant, you may not be a good candidate for acupuncture.
If you’re considering trying it, talk with your doctor first to discuss whether acupuncture is appropriate for you.
Ear acupuncture shouldn’t be confused with ear stapling, a procedure that has been found in case reports to carry a significant risk of complications including infection and deformity.
Some Final Thoughts
Should you try acupuncture? The current evidence isn’t strong enough to show that it can lead to weight loss. If you’re still considering trying it, be sure to talk with your healthcare provider first to weigh the pros and cons and discuss other strategies that may be right for you.