By Jamie Starkey, LAc

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.

In the recent May 2012 publication of Obesity Reviews, a team of researchers performed a detailed systematic review of clinical studies looking at acupuncture and obesity. When compared to no treatment and pharmaceutical medications, the acupuncture studies showed:

  • Greater weight loss
  • Decreased BMI
  • Decreased weight circumference

As impressed as I was with this recent systematic review, I can remember a time when I was not so convinced of acupuncture’s effect on weight management. Confession: Once upon a time, I would cringe as patients asked if acupuncture could help with weight loss.

I, too, have battled weight my entire life as I have a very strong family history of obesity and other co-morbidities. Just looking at a cupcake would cause a 15 lb. weight gain, let alone eating one. I clearly recall a childhood memory of exercising with Richard Simmons on TV with the hopes of getting out of my “husky” jeans. I established a strong opinion that there was absolutely no easy fix in the battle of the bulge; a proper regimen of diet and exercise was the only viable option for weight management, end of story. I was, admittedly, myopic.

In Beijing, my perspective began to change slightly after treating countless patients for weight-related complaints. We encouraged patients to be diligent with healthful diet and exercise habits prior to initiating acupuncture treatments. Week after week, patients began reporting success in weight loss, but, in my mind, I always questioned whether it was the acupuncture that helped, or simply because they were dieting and working out regularly.

At some point in my career, I began to finally open myself to the idea that, yes, there is validity to Eastern Medicine’s approach to weight management. I began paying attention to my peers and my mentors. I began listening to my patients as they reported decreased cravings for salt and sugar, suppressed appetite, and weight loss. I went back to square one and opened my Eastern Medicine textbooks to relearn all that I had subconsciously closed myself off from learning.

These days, I make a concerted effort to stay current on what the scientific community has to say regarding this topic.

In addition to acupuncture’s efficacy on weight loss, scientists have provided explanations on how acupuncture promotes weight loss:

  • Increases metabolism: Auricular (ear) acupuncture has been shown to temporarily increase basal metabolic rate and suppresses appetite via effects on the autonomic nervous system.
  • Improves insulin resistance: There is some data supporting acupuncture’s effectiveness on addressing a condition called insulin resistance, which is associated with metabolic syndrome. This is done by altering activity of the sympathetic nervous system and possibly correcting the insulin signal defect.
  • Decreases abdominal fat: An MRI study demonstrated a decrease in abdominal fat storage after acupuncture treatments.
  • Appetite suppression: In the rat model, electro-acupuncture influenced the hypothalamus and obesity-related hormones to promote appetite suppression.

Clearly, obesity is not a simple issue, nor is it easy to fix. Focus on optimal health by way of proper nutrition, maintaining an active lifestyle, and applying stress management techniques. Using integrative approaches like acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine may just be the additional resource needed to enhance your weight-management regime.