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Acupuncture For Weight Loss: Does It Really Work?

Data from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) indicates that approximately 78.6 million adults (34.9%) are clinically obese.  Healthcare costs of obesity-related medical conditions such as: cardiovascular disease, cancers, diabetes, and stroke (to name a few) – are thought to exceed $190 billion per year, accounting for over one-fifth of all annual medical expenses in the U.S.  Research suggests that obese individuals who attempt to lose weight are likely to achieve weight loss, especially if they consume less unhealthy fats, increase exercise, participate in weight loss programs, and use prescription weight loss medication.

Unfortunately, a subset of obese individuals may find it difficult to implement conventional weight loss strategies as recommended by professionals.  Other obese persons may be unwilling to sacrifice the pleasure derived from overindulgence in hyperpalatable foods and/or may dislike the feeling of physical exertion associated with exercise.  Finally, it must be considered that certain overweight individuals will implement all clinically-recommended weight loss strategies, yet fail to experience significant weight change.

In all cases, it should be acknowledged that some obese individuals turn to alternative weight loss methods with unclear scientific efficacy.  One such intervention is acupuncture – a form of complementary alternative medicine in which thin needles are inserted transcutaneously into specific bodily sites known as acupuncture points (or “acupoints”).  Proponents of acupuncture claim that it is highly efficacious as a weight loss treatment, especially when used as an adjunct to commonsense diet and exercise.

  • Source: http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html

What is acupuncture for weight loss?

The term acupuncture is derived from the Latin acus (translating to “needle”) and punctura (translating to “puncture”).  There are many types of acupuncture, but several of the most commonly studied for weight loss include: auricular acupuncture, electroacupuncture, and laser acupuncture.  In short, each of these acupuncture techniques differs slightly from the others, however, all are thought to stimulate precise acupuncture points to alter neurophysiology.  Included below is a brief description of acupuncture each.

  • Auricular acupuncture: This is a form of acupuncture that targets specific points on the external surface of the ear. Adherents to auricular acupuncture suggest that the ear is an “important microsystem” within the body, and by stimulating various sites on the ear, therapeutic effects can be attained.  Some practitioners believe that this ear-centric form of acupuncture is highly effective for spurring weight loss.
  • Electroacupuncture: This is a form of acupuncture in which acupuncture needles penetrate the skin, and simultaneously, pulsating electrical stimulation is delivered through the needles. The delivery of electrical current is thought to eliminate the need for excessive hand movement associated with non-electrical acupuncture.  Moreover, it is thought that the electrical currents help to ensure that clients get sufficient tactile stimulation
  • Laser acupuncture: This is a form of acupuncture in which low-level lasers are used as an alternative to needles. The lasers used for laser acupuncture are referred to as “cold lasers” in that they do not heat up and/or burn the skin.  Some individuals prefer laser stimulation at acupuncture sites over needles due to the lack of: transcutaneous penetration, sterility concerns (associated with needles), and side effects.  Advocates of laser acupuncture claim that light from lasers penetrate the skin and are transmitted through “meridians” to alter signaling within the body and promote weight loss.

Regardless of the type of acupuncture used, it is thought to alter physiology to stimulate weight loss.  Erroneously, uninformed champions may undermine the measurable physiological effect of acupuncture as being the mechanism by which it promotes weight loss.  Instead, the belief may be that the mechanism by which acupuncture promotes weight loss is rooted in an ancient Eastern mystical secret.

In reality, if acupuncture is capable of reducing body weight, the effect occurs as a result of bodily stimulation via needles, electrical pulses, and/or low-level lasers.  This bodily stimulation alters physiology, which in turn mediates weight loss.  It should be noted that the comparative efficacies of needles, electrical pulses (plus needles), and/or low-level lasers in acupuncture for weight loss isn’t known; certain modalities of stimulation may be superior to others.

Additionally, it isn’t understood as to whether the specific location(s) of stimulation in acupuncture matter for weight loss.  While some believe that stimulating specific acupuncture points produces a therapeutic effect unparalleled by stimulation of non-acupuncture points, others remain unconvinced.  Whether a specific type of acupuncture is more effective than another and/or stimulating certain acupuncture points triggers greater weight loss remains unclear.

Assuming an individual has located a licensed acupuncturist for weight loss, he/she will be recommended to book between 12 and 36 sessions.  Some may prefer one session per week, while others may prefer several sessions per week.  Sessions typically last between 30 and 90 minutes each, and involve either sitting [on a comfortable chair] or lying [on a massage table] while stimulation is delivered via acupuncture needles, electricity, or lasers.

By the end of each acupuncture session, the thought is that physiology will have been altered in such a way as to potentiate weight loss efforts.  The goal is for the client to lose a noticeable amount of weight over the course of several months.  Numerous anecdotal reports suggest that the technique is helpful, but in most cases it is difficult to definitively know whether any weight lost over several months was from acupuncture sessions or lifestyle changes such as dietary modifications, increased physical activity, or weight loss supplements.

How Acupuncture May Promote Weight Loss (Possibilities)

At this time, the specific mechanisms by which acupuncture induces weight loss aren’t elucidated.  It is understood that stimulation of nerves beneath the skin [as occurs in acupuncture] alters nerve signaling to the brain and autonomic nervous system.  This altered nerve signaling to the brain and autonomic nervous system may increase concentrations of certain neurotransmitters and/or hormones to provoke weight loss.

Keep in mind that while acupuncture may alter physiology and neurobiology to induce weight loss, some of the benefit may be unrelated to the technique and more related to the practitioner-client relationship.  Some individuals may find an acupuncture practitioner to be encouraging and/or hold them accountable for adjunctive weight loss efforts.  The encouragement and/or accountability may yield greater weight loss than any effect of the practice.

Appetite reduction: Acupuncture may be most effective for weight loss as a result of its ability to reduce appetite.  A study by Yao et al. (2012) assessed the effect of acupuncture on appetite among 118 individuals with obesity.  Individuals that received acupuncture experienced significantly less hunger than a control group.

Should acupuncture reduce your appetite, it is logical to assume that you’ll likely eat less and inevitably lose some weight.  There are many explanations as to why appetite may decrease after acupuncture including changes in: ANS activation, gastric motility, hormone levels, neurotransmitters, neural activity, and vagal tone. (Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23383461).

Autonomic nervous system: Evidence suggests that acupuncture modulates activation within the autonomic nervous system (ANS) via nerve innervation.  When stimulated with acupuncture, nerves beneath the skin modify signal transmission to the brain and other nerve bundles.  This alters neurobiology, hormones, and is thought to correct imbalances between sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions of the ANS.

Individuals with obesity often exhibit severe autonomic dysfunction, affecting their metabolic rate, energy level, and ability to lose weight.  In some cases, both the parasympathetic and sympathetic divisions of the ANS appear hypofunctional among those with obesity.  Should acupuncture enhance function of, and rebalance each branch of the ANS, this may be a critical mechanism by which it accelerates weight loss. (Source: Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23358101).

Beta-endorphin modulation: Stimulation of the skin with acupuncture (needles, electricity, lasers) is thought to affect concentrations of beta-endorphin.  Some acupuncture experts speculate that the technique increases peripheral and central concentrations of beta-endorphin.  Should this be true, it is possible that beta-endorphin may promote lipolysis (fat burning) by mobilizing energy stores, leading to weight loss.

Other reports suggest that acupuncture may reduce serum beta-endorphin. Since obese individuals tend to exhibit much greater concentrations of serum beta-endorphin than non-obese persons, perhaps reduction in beta-endorphin from acupuncture could promote weight reduction.  Although it’s difficult to know what role (if any) beta-endorphin plays in acupuncture-induced weight loss, it is worthy of consideration. (Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22073885).

Food cravings decrease: Many individuals with obesity struggle to resist food cravings, especially for hyperpalatable foods (high-sugar, high-fat).  Preliminary research indicates that hyperpalatable foods such as Oreos are as addictive as drugs like cocaine to rodents.  These foods essentially hijack the pleasure centers and reward circuitry of the brain to promote overindulgence and to reinforce future consumption.

Acupuncture may reduce food cravings, making it easier to cease consumption of addictive foods and/or restrict calories for weight loss.  Numerous anecdotal reports document a reduction in food cravings after acupuncture, ultimately resulting in weight loss.  Based on the finding that acupuncture can reduce cravings for addictive substances like cigarettes, it is reasonable to speculate that similar craving reduction may occur among those addicted to foods implicated in obesity.  (Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23455593).

Gut bacteria: It is possible that acupuncture affects specific strains of gut bacteria to promote weight loss.  Evidence for this potential weight loss mechanism can be extracted from a study by Xu et al. (2013).  This study recruited 45 women diagnosed with simple obesity and assessed bacterial diversity within their gastrointestinal tract.

The women were randomly divided into 3 groups – 2 groups of an acupuncture treatment (abdominal / body) and 1 of a control.  After treatment, the BMIs of the women receiving acupuncture were significantly reduced, and significant changes to gut bacteria were apparent.  The bacterial strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium significantly increased, whereas Bacteriodes and Clostridium perfringens significantly decreased.

Researchers speculated that acupuncture may have modulated the bacterial ecology of the gastrointestinal tract to restore balance.  This restoration of balance may have been a secondary effect resulting from acupunctures primary effect on the immune system.  Since data indicate that Bacteriodes are significantly elevated among those with obesity, it is reasonable to speculate that lower concentrations of Bacteriodes after acupuncture may facilitate weight loss – possibly through suppression of FIAF (fasting-induced adipocyte factor). (Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22961606).

Hormonal modulation: Following acupuncture treatment for obesity, it appears as though a multitude of hormones are altered. A study by Güçel et al. (2012) measured the effect of 2 acupuncture sessions per week (for a total of 5 weeks) on hormone concentrations in 40 overweight women.  After the 5-week study, concentrations of insulin and leptin significantly decreased compared to those that received a sham intervention.

On the other hand, concentrations of ghrelin and cholecystokinin were observed to increase.  It is understood that these hormones play important roles in appetite regulation, fat accumulation, energy intake, and metabolism.  Perhaps cumulative modulation of hormones (cholecystokinin, ghrelin, insulin, and leptin) via acupuncture helps obese individuals to lose weight.  (Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22729015).

HPA axis modulation: The hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis is often significantly altered in obese individuals compared to non-obese counterparts, leading to increased concentrations of certain hormones (e.g. cortisol within adipose tissue), poor sleep, and increased stress.  The combination of HPA-mediated increases in cortisol, poor sleep, and stress – are understood to cause weight gain.

Acupuncture appears to directly modulate activity within the HPA axis, possibly reversing abnormalities among obese individuals to promote weight loss.  A study from the early 1993 by Liu et al. discovered that acupuncture corrected hypofunction of the HPA axis among those with simple obesity, and speculated that this was a mechanism resulting in their weight loss.  (Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23162786).

Immunomodulation: Another mechanism by which acupuncture may facilitate weight loss is through immunomodulation.  A study published by Abdi et al. (2012) noted that auricular acupuncture performed over a 6-week duration significantly reduced expression of anti-heat shock protein antibodies and that these reductions were associated with statistically significant weight loss.  What’s more, the reduction in anti-heat shock protein antibodies among those that received acupuncture were maintained for an additional 6-weeks after stoppage of acupuncture therapy.

This suggests that acupuncture modulates immune function, possibly affecting more than just anti-heat shock protein antibodies.  Nonetheless, it is understood that anti-heat shock protein antibodies are elevated among those with metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disorders; two conditions closely related to obesity and being overweight.  It could be assumed that a reduction in anti-heat shock protein antibodies is a mechanism by which acupuncture induces weight loss.  (Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22788576).

Inflammation reduction: Individuals with obesity are understood to exhibit increased inflammation (as evidenced by concentrations of proinflammatory biomarkers).  This heightened inflammation is thought to impair weight loss efforts and potentiate weight gain.  Some research suggests that acupuncture may decrease inflammation by altering nerve ending-induced release of various neuropeptides such as calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP), substance P, and beta-endorphin.

The modulation of these neuropeptides may upregulate IL-10 (interleukin-10) to reduce proinflammatory cytokines such as TNF-alpha.  It may be that ongoing acupuncture therapy acts as a beneficial adjuvant in weight loss via inflammation reduction.  In brief, lowering inflammation may enhance preexisting weight loss efforts.

Mood enhancement: There is preliminary evidence suggesting that acupuncture is capable of enhancing mood among individuals with depression.  The means by which mood is enhanced as a result of acupuncture remains unclear, but altered ANS and neural activity, shifted neurotransmission, and/or modulation of hormone levels – likely contribute.  It is therefore reasonable to consider that among the overweight and/or obese, a mood improvement from acupuncture improves weight loss effort.

Obesity increases risk of depression and/or anxiety, which may cause “emotional eating” as a means to deal with uncomfortable mood.  Furthermore, depressed mood may lead an individual to feel hopeless or helpless, believing that weight loss is an impossibility.  Reversing low mood may increase energy levels and restore hope that weight loss is possible, ultimately leading to increased effort in dietary/exercise interventions – and inevitable weight loss.

Motivation: Some speculate that acupuncture may stimulate the release of neurochemicals that enhance motivation, thereby resulting in more effort being put into weight loss (via exercise and diet).  That said, regularly communicating with an acupuncture practitioner may also increase motivation to lose weight due to the combination of accountability and positive encouragement.

Additionally, the willingness to try therapies such as acupuncture may instill a sense of hope that weight loss is possible with adjunctive hard work and discipline.  Though not all overweight and/or obese individuals will find acupuncture to enhance motivation, any increase in motivation resulting from the technique may prove useful.

Neural activation: An older, simplistic theory attempting to explain the cause of overeating and obesity suggested that damage to the hypothalamus was the root cause.  In certain animal models, lesions to the ventromedial nuclei (within the hypothalamus) resulted in increased feeding behavior and overeating.  Although this theory was eventually dismissed, researchers still acknowledge that the ventromedial nuclei abnormalities could play a significant role in weight gain.

Research has shown that acupuncture is able to modulate activity within the ventromedial nuclei (of the hypothalamus).  This modulation is thought to affect signaling to glucoresponsive neurons that quickly respond to blood glucose concentrations, as well as dopamine, GABA, histamine, melanocortins, and serotonin neurons implicated in feeding.  It is evident that acupuncture also increases and modulates activity within the prefrontal cortex.

Obesity is associated with decreased activity the prefrontal cortex, perhaps an explanation as to why food cravings are difficult to resist for these individuals.  Preliminary studies have shown that increasing prefrontal activity can facilitate weight loss – possibly associated with increased self-control.  The cumulative neuromodulation resulting from acupuncture may be reason as to why some individuals end up losing weight.

Neurotransmission:  Some individuals with obesity are thought to exhibit abnormalities in the neurotransmission of monoamines such as serotonin and dopamine.  Dopaminergic abnormalities may explain food cravings, addiction, and reward associated with consumption of hyperpalatable foods, thus leading to weight gain.  Serotonergic abnormalities may occur as a result of excessive carbohydrate consumption, triggering excessive release of serotonin.

There are likely a host of other neurotransmitter abnormalities that are implicated in models of obesity.  Knowing that these abnormalities can reinforce poor eating habits among those who are overweight, reversing them may prove therapeutic.  Acupuncture has been shown to alter concentrations of dopamine and serotonin in certain regions of the brain, as well as various precursors and metabolites.

In addition, acupuncture is thought to alter peripheral concentrations of serotonin, which may enhance smooth muscle tone.  Enhancement of smooth muscle tone is thought to decrease feelings of “fullness,” as well as appetite – leading to less food consumption and weight loss.  Moreover, some have hypothesized that alterations in peripheral neurotransmitters may increase fat burning and/or metabolism my mobilizing energy stores.

Relaxation: Many people pursuing acupuncture do so with the intent of reducing stress.  It is believed that the simultaneous release of beta-endorphin and enkephalin promote analgesic-induced relaxation.  Acupuncture seems to restore balance to the autonomic nervous system and modulates neural activity plus neurotransmission.  The combination of these changes should increase mental and physical states of stress.

The effect of acupuncture-induced relaxation in regards to weight loss may be underrated for numerous reasons.  Chronic stress is understood to increase food cravings, decrease self-control, and impair sleep quality – each of which promote further weight gain.  Perhaps the increase in relaxation may have the biggest impact on body weight via decreased cravings, increased self-control, and restoration of normative sleep quality.

Smooth muscle tone: A major reason those who are overweight and/or obese have trouble with reducing caloric intake is due to their appetite.  One means by which appetite can be reduced is by increasing smooth muscle tone.  Heightened smooth muscle tone induces feelings of satiety and decreases likelihood of excessive food consumption.

Evidence suggests that acupuncture curbs appetite by increasing activation of the auricular branch of the vagal nerve and increasing concentrations of peripheral serotonin.  The combined effect of auricular activity and peripheral serotonin leads to smooth muscle tone enhancement.  This may reduce feelings of hunger and/or cravings in certain individuals, making it easier to reduce calories and lose weight.  (Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9679359).

Social accountability: While the physiological effect of acupuncture is thought to be the mechanism by which it promotes weight loss, clients may get an added benefit from having a supportive acupuncture practitioner.  Certain practitioners may hold their clients accountable for dietary modifications and/or increased exercise, claiming that results from acupuncture will only occur with a well-rounded weight loss effort.  The social accountability and positive support provided by an acupuncture practitioner may be a critical, perhaps overlooked reason as to why weight loss occurs.

Vagal tone enhancement: Acupuncture appears to affect functioning of the vagal nerve, particularly a subcomponent known as the auricular branch.  The auricular branch of the vagus nerve is thought to innervate the nucleus of the solitary tract, which in turn projects signaling to other regions such as: the reticular formation, parasympathetic neurons, hypothalamus, and thalamus.  This alters central and peripheral activity, as well as concentrations of neurotransmitters, hormones, and gut bacteria – to promote weight loss.

Evidence suggests that vagal abnormalities are seen among individuals with obesity and are associated with overconsumption of food.  Modifying vagal tone is understood to help with weight reduction – as is seen among those who respond to vagal nerve stimulation or VBLOC therapy for weight loss.  The modification of vagal activity as occurs after acupuncture is thought to decrease hunger, making it easier to lose weight.  (Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19618240).

Note: It is necessary to consider that one of the aforestated mechanisms by which acupuncture facilitates weight loss may be more important than others.  It could also be that a combination of mechanisms act synergistically and/or relatively equally to prompt weight loss.  Moreover, the most effective mechanisms by which acupuncture promotes weight loss may be subject to individual variation based on neurobiological and/or physiological underpinnings implicated in an individual’s obesity (or excessive body weight).

Benefits of Acupuncture for Weight Loss (Possibilities)

Listed below are some hypothetical benefits associated with using acupuncture as an adjunctive weight loss therapy.  The most obvious potential benefit associated with using acupuncture for weight loss is that the user may actually lose a significant amount of weight.  Other possible benefits may include: symptomatic improvement of comorbidities, few side effects, no risk of pharmacological interaction, and favorable long-term outcomes.

  • Adjunctive intervention: Certain individuals may respond inadequately to standardized weight loss approaches such as dietary modifications, caloric restriction, and exercise. Those who fail to lose weight with conventional approaches may benefit from addition of acupuncture.  There is some evidence suggesting that acupuncture may be an effective adjunct as part of a multidisciplinary weight loss approach.  It should be considered that acupuncture uniquely alters physiology and/or neurobiology in ways that cannot be accomplished with standalone diet and/or exercise, serving as a valuable complementary weight loss option.
  • Comorbid conditions: Acupuncture is touted as being an effective treatment for numerous medical conditions such as: chronic pain, depression, fatigue, hypertension, and more. Many individuals with obesity suffer from comorbid medical conditions that may take a toll on general health, as well as reinforce habits of overeating and/or sedentary behaviors.  As an example, someone with obesity may suffer from lower back pain – possibly a consequence of being overweight.  This lower back pain may decrease motivation to exercise and ultimately increase sedentary behavior.  Acupuncture may alleviate some of the lower back pain, thereby reversing sedentary behaviors and increasing physical activity; a recipe for weight loss.
  • Efficacy: There’s some evidence to suggest that acupuncture is an effective weight loss intervention. A systematic review and meta-analysis based on results from 31 trials discovered that acupuncture promotes statistically significant weight loss (an average of 3.44 lbs.).  When legitimate acupuncture is compared to a sham-acupuncture placebo, only the legitimate acupuncture stimulation results in weight loss.
  • Few side effects: When practiced by a licensed professional, acupuncture isn’t understood to provoke many unwanted side effects. Even if side effects occur, they are likely to be manageable and short-lived (lasting only 1-2 hours after acupuncture).  The lack of side effects makes acupuncture highly appealing to some, especially when compared to interventions such as weight loss medications and/or highly-specific, restrictive diets (e.g. ketogenic).  Furthermore, acupuncture can be safely conducted while a person is taking a medication – it doesn’t interact pharmacokinetically or pharmacodynamically.
  • Minimal effort: From a client’s perspective, acupuncture doesn’t require much effort. The only effort put forth by a client pursuing acupuncture for weight loss is: driving to-and-from the clinic AND willingness to face stimulation (of needles, pain, and/or lasers).  Some would argue that this is zero effort, yet the person still may lose weight.  Losing weight without effort is what many people want – especially those who dislike the transient subjective pain associated with diets and/or exercise.
  • Non-pharmacological: Acupuncture may be pursued for weight loss strictly on the basis that it is non-pharmacological and does not involve ingesting nor metabolizing an exogenous substance. Because of its non-pharmacological status, probability of adverse events or long-term effects may be reduced compared to weight loss medications.  Furthermore, the weight loss effect of acupuncture may be more sustainable than medications.  Many report that weight loss medications are nothing more than a temporary “patch” in that they’re bound to stop working (as a result of tolerance) and a rebound effect of weight gain is likely to occur.  Rebound-associated weight gain may be less likely to occur upon completion (or cessation) or acupuncture therapy.
  • Long-term effects: It is known that acupuncture can be practiced safely for an extended duration, without putting health of the client at risk. Some individuals have received acupuncture for years without any adverse events or even side effects.  The lack of adverse long-term effects associated with acupuncture is likely based on the fact that it is non-pharmacological and minimally invasive (needles) or non-invasive (lasers).  Furthermore, some believe that it may take several months of regular therapy to lose a substantial amount of weight.
  • Synergistic effect: While some studies claim that acupuncture stimulates significant weight loss as a standalone therapy, others believe that its weight-reducing effect only occurs when combined with conventional weight loss approaches. It is reasonable to consider that acupuncture may alter physiology and neurobiology enough to promote slight weight loss.  However, when dietary and exercise interventions are combined with acupuncture, the combination of these three interventions may act synergistically to yield greater weight loss than each as a standalone.

Drawbacks of Acupuncture for Weight Loss (Possibilities)

There are some potential pitfalls associated with acupuncture as an intervention to lose weight.  Possibly the most notable drawback is that the efficacy of acupuncture for weight loss is questionable.  What’s more, even if acupuncture is effective, it may be an inefficient way to lose weight compared to other adjunctive approaches.  Anyone considering acupuncture for weight loss should carefully examine the possible drawbacks listed below.

  • Adjunct-only: Most would agree that using acupuncture as a standalone weight loss approach is unlikely to be efficacious. Only when utilized as an adjunct is acupuncture likely to have an effect upon body weight.  This means that effort will required on behalf of the client in terms of: caloric restriction, dietary modification, and physical exercise.  Those pursuing acupuncture as a standalone weight loss method may be extremely disappointed with their [lack of] results.
  • Adverse effects: When practiced by a licensed professional, likelihood of acupuncture-induced adverse effects is considered minimal. Nonetheless, it should be acknowledged that some patients will experience adverse events and/or unwanted side effects.  Studies have shown that the most common side effects of acupuncture include: hemorrhage, hematoma, and dizziness – respectively.  Less frequent side effects may also occur such as: fainting, nausea, paresthesia, and/or intensification of existing pain.  Furthermore, negligence by acupuncture practitioners can occur in a small number of cases – resulting in hepatitis C infection or sepsis [reusing needles and/or lack of needle sterility]. (Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20804431).
  • Discouragement: A person who has unrealistic expectations associated with acupuncture for weight loss may believe that he/she will lose a massive chunk of weight directly from the procedure. Acupuncture isn’t known to promote significant weight loss, nor is it understood to work well as a standalone intervention.  The modest [or perhaps nonexistent] amount of weight lost as a result of acupuncture may lead to psychological discouragement on behalf of the client.  Discouragement may have serious long-term implications on a person’s psychology in regards to future weight loss efforts, possibly leading an individual to assume that they are helpless in respect to changing their weight.
  • Financial costs: Most insurance policies do not cover the costs of acupuncture, meaning you’ll end up paying out-of-pocket. Depending on where you live, the experience of the acupuncture practitioner, the type of practice (e.g. needle, electrical, laser), and duration of each session – you may end up spending a significant amount of money.  A standard acupuncture session is thought to cost between $60 and $130.  If you receive sessions once per week for several months, you may end up spending between $700 and $1600.  Though it may help you lose some weight, the return in relation to your financial investment may be poor.  Perhaps a more cost-effective investment would be in: nutritionists, personal trainers, higher-quality food, and/or a motivational coach.
  • Ineffective: The jury is still out as to whether acupuncture is definitively effective for weight loss as an adjunctive intervention. Most trials suggesting that it is effective as a weight loss aid have numerous limitations such as poor design, suboptimal methods, and/or small sample sizes.  Therefore, some could argue that there is inadequate evidence to support the usage of acupuncture for weight loss.  It is necessary to consider that acupuncture may eventually be found to be ineffective and dismissed altogether as having any effect on weight.  Moreover, even if acupuncture is “effective” in optimally designed trials, this does not mean that all individuals will derive significant therapeutic benefit regarding weight loss.
  • Negligible weight loss: Even if acupuncture is effective for weight reduction, the degree of reduction shouldn’t be considered major. While studies show that weight loss from acupuncture after 4-6 weeks is statistically significant, a systematic review suggests it’s only around 3-4 lbs.  Some may be disappointed in this minimal amount of weight lost due to the fact that acupuncture is often expensive and time consuming.  For most, it may make more sense to invest money and time in a nutritionist and/or personal trainer.
  • Non-immediate: Many people hope to lose a significant amount of weight in a short duration with acupuncture. They believe that weight loss results will be quick and that they’ll look like a fitness model within just days of the therapy.  The reality is that acupuncture may take awhile to induce any weight loss.  Some may realize that it takes several months of acupuncture stimulation before they lose any weight.  For those who are impatient and want to lose weight quickly, acupuncture may be a poor solution.
  • Side effects: As was already discussed, there are adverse effects that may occur following acupuncture, especially when performed improperly and/or by an unlicensed practitioner. That said, even when performed properly, some may experience relaxation-induced anxiety, bruising, skin irritation, and possibly exacerbation of brain fog.  While side effects are not very common, they can occur.
  • Time invested: It may take a month or two before you actually lose some weight with acupuncture. Assuming you receive 2 sessions per week for 2 months, that’s a total of 16 sessions – possibly for a total of 16 hours.  When also considering the time it takes you to drive to-and-from the acupuncture office, you may have invested between 20 and 30 hours in acupuncture for weight loss.  If you only lose 4 lbs. after 2 months, would that 30 hours be an efficient investment?  Perhaps you could’ve spent some of that time on setting up a diet with a nutritionist or exercising and attained superior results.  Acupuncture for weight loss may turn out to be a time-inefficient investment.
  • Unproven: Even if there’s slight evidence suggesting that acupuncture may be effective for weight loss, it isn’t FDA approved nor professionally recommended. Most consider it an unproven weight loss intervention.  To fully understand whether it’s effective, it is necessary to conduct larger-scale, longer-term, randomized controlled trials (RCTs) as an adjunct.

Variables that influence the efficacy of Acupuncture for weight loss

There are numerous variables that may influence the degree to which acupuncture induces weight loss.  Examples of some influential variables include: competence of acupuncture practitioner, type of acupuncture therapy, frequency of sessions, cumulative timespan over which acupuncture is received, as well as a multitude of individual factors.  When contemplating the degree to which acupuncture may help you lose weight, analyze these factors.

  1. Practitioner skill

The competence of your acupuncture practitioner may determine whether you lose weight from acupuncture, as well as the amount that you lose.  Experienced and properly licensed acupuncture practitioners (i.e. NCCAOM certified) should know the specific sites of stimulation necessary to induce weight loss, as well as understand the type of stimulation that is most likely to facilitate weight reduction.  Furthermore, a highly-competent acupuncture practitioner should have a general understanding of how frequently sessions should be recommended for weight loss (e.g. twice per week) and discuss adjunct therapies with his/her client.

An unskilled and/or unlicensed acupuncture practitioner may lack knowledge regarding specific areas of stimulation necessary for weight loss, nor know how to properly deliver stimulation.  Failure to master the technique of stimulation and/or receive an acupuncture license may increase risk of adverse events such as injury and/or infection (from unsterile needles).  Finding an acupuncture practitioner who is licensed, experienced, and skilled in terms of stimulation – will increase probability of weight loss.  Settling for an unskilled practitioner may be a recipe for zero weight loss and adverse reactions.

  1. Acupuncture details

The details of acupuncture therapy such as: type of stimulation delivered, sites targeted, and session duration – may impact weight loss results.  Someone receiving stimulation around the ears via auricular acupuncture may experience significantly different results (in terms of weight loss) compared to if he/she had received laser acupuncture around the stomach.  Additionally, the full duration of an acupuncture session may dictate how quickly weight loss occurs, and how much weight is lost.

  • Type of stimulation: There are several common types of acupuncture stimulation used for weight loss including: needle, electrical, needle plus electrical, and laser. It is unclear as to whether one type of stimulation is more effective than another for inducing physiological reactions necessary to promote weight loss.  Future research may find that one specific type of acupuncture stimulation is more effective than others in terms of weight loss.  Consider that the type of stimulation you’re receiving may be more/less effective than another.
  • Regions stimulated: The degree to which acupuncture reduces body weight may be contingent upon the regions of the body that are stimulated. Stimulation of the stomach may yield a greater weight loss effect than stimulating the ears.  Additionally, it may be that stimulating multiple regions simultaneously facilitates greater weight loss than a single bodily region.  Realize that the specific regions stimulated during acupuncture may affect the amount of weight that you lose.
  • Sites stimulated: In addition to the specific regions stimulated, the efficacy of acupuncture for weight loss may be a result of the specific sites (within a particular region) stimulated. For example, stimulating the upper stomach may have a more significant weight loss effect than stimulating the lower stomach or sides of the stomach.  It is understood that stimulation of highly-specified, precise locations may alter physiology differently than others based on nerve ending locations.  Perhaps this is reason as to why some studies document weight loss benefit from stimulation of acupuncture sites, yet no benefit from stimulation of non-acupuncture sites.
  • Session duration: The total duration of your acupuncture sessions may also dictate whether you are likely to lose weight. An extremely short session (e.g. 15 minutes) may not alter physiology significantly enough and/or long enough to facilitate weight loss.  A relatively long session (e.g. 60 minutes) may alter physiology more significantly and for a longer duration for greater weight loss.
  1. Frequency of acupuncture

The regularity of your acupuncture sessions may affect the amount of weight you lose.  Assuming acupuncture is capable of inducing weight loss, most would speculate that frequent sessions would promote greater and/or quicker weight loss than infrequent sessions.  In other words, someone who receives acupuncture daily may end up losing more weight than someone who receives just one session per week.

  • Daily: It is thought that the effects of acupuncture are not sustained for a long duration after the therapy. If this is the case, it may be necessary to receive acupuncture stimulation on a daily basis to alter physiology enough for weight reduction.  Those that are receiving daily stimulation should be hypothesized to lose more weight than lesser frequent stimulation (e.g. weekly or monthly).
  • Weekly: Receiving acupuncture once, twice, or several times per week may be less effective than daily acupuncture for weight loss. That said, there may be a magic number in terms of sessions per week necessary to sustainably maintain altered physiological biomarkers to facilitate weight loss.  Receiving acupuncture at least once per week should yield greater weight loss benefit than every-other-week or a couple of times per month.
  • Monthly: Receiving acupuncture just once, twice, or several times per month may not have much of an effect upon your body weight. If you lose weight after just one or two sessions per month, most would argue that the loss cannot be attributed to acupuncture treatment.  Without regular acupuncture stimulation, physiology should revert back to pre-treatment homeostasis and any weight lost after a once-per-month session will be regained before the next.

It may eventually be discovered that a set number of acupuncture sessions (of a certain length) are necessary per week to stimulate ongoing physiological adaptation that triggers and maintains weight loss.  Perhaps if sessions are too infrequent (e.g. once per month), no significant weight loss will occur because acupuncture-induced physiological changes revert back to homeostasis.  More frequent would be thought to sustain acupuncture-induced physiological adaptations associated with weight loss.

  1. Cumulative Timespan

Under the assumption that acupuncture is efficacious, the cumulative timeframe over which you’ve received acupuncture should affect how much weight you lose.  If you’ve only received acupuncture for a short-term (e.g. a few days), you probably won’t notice much in terms of weight loss.  However, if you’ve received acupuncture for a long-term (e.g. a few months), you likely will have noticed some weight loss.

  • Short-term: Receiving acupuncture over a short-term such as for a week or two, probably won’t yield much noticeable weight reduction. Certain physiological changes may have taken place to promote weight loss, but they may not have been maintained or activated enough for weight loss to result.  Those who’ve been using acupuncture for several days or even a few weeks probably won’t notice much in terms of weight loss.  That said, it is impossible to completely rule out the possibility of some short-term noticeable weight loss from acupuncture [such as after several weeks].
  • Moderate-term: Those who have been using acupuncture for a moderate-term of several months may have begun to notice some weight loss – when compared to shorter-term users. This is likely due to the fact that physiological changes (as induced by the acupuncture) associated with weight reduction, have been sustained long enough for weight loss to become noticeable.  If acupuncture is legitimately effective [for you], weight loss should become apparent after several months of consistent stimulation.
  • Long-term: Results over a longer-term such as a full year or two may be less predictable. Some individuals may notice that the weight loss effect [as induced by acupuncture] peaks after several months and subsides thereafter.  Others may report a consistent, predictable weight loss effect over the course of a year or two (e.g. 2 lbs. per month).  It is reasonable to assume that some individuals may adapt to the physiological effect of acupuncture after a long enough term, and weight loss may abate.  That said, the longer the term a person has consistently used acupuncture, the more likely it is they are to have lost the maximum amount of weight possible [as a result of transcutaneous stimulation].
  1. Individual factors

It is necessary to account for individual factors that may influence the efficacy of acupuncture for weight loss.  Theoretically, two individuals may receive the exact same type of acupuncture from the same professional, for the same duration, and same cumulative timespan.  Knowing this, we would speculate that the amount of weight loss experienced by each of these individuals would be relatively similar.

However, it may turn out that weight loss experienced by one person may be substantially different than that of the second individual.  These differences in weight loss from acupuncture may be explained by things such as: adjunctive weight loss efforts, body composition, degree overweight, dietary intake, exercise, genetics, medical conditions, sleep, stress, and substance usage.  In other words, a person getting plenty of sleep, keeping stress low, and consuming caffeine – may lose more weight than someone with poor sleep, high stress, and taking SSRIs.

  • Adjunctive efforts: It is necessary to recognize that the amount of weight you lose with acupuncture may be contingent upon adjunctive weight loss efforts. A person who doesn’t put forth any effort in terms of making healthy dietary modifications and/or increasing physical activity, may not notice much weight loss from acupuncture.  This could be due to the fact that physiological changes induced by acupuncture are bolstered by physiological changes from other efforts such as diet and/or exercise.  It may be that all adjunctive weight loss efforts you’ve made influence weight loss from acupuncture.
  • Body composition: It could be hypothesized that body composition (fat and muscle) predicts how much weight you stand to lose from acupuncture, as well as how quickly you lose it. Someone who’s got a lot of body fat and simultaneously a lot of muscle may respond differently to acupuncture than a person with high body fat and low muscle.  Those with a certain body composition may be more responsive to acupuncture than those with another.
  • Degree overweight: To what extent are you overweight? It may be easier to lose weight with acupuncture for someone who is 300 lbs. overweight compared to someone who is considered just 30 lbs. overweight.  We could speculate that the 300 lb. overweight individual may be more sensitive to minor physiological changes provoked by acupuncture, and therefore will lose more weight at a faster pace.  On the other hand, it may be that a greater number of sessions and/or more intense stimulation is necessary to provoke weight loss among the person who is 300 lbs. overweight because their physiology is tougher to shift.
  • Dietary intake: The types of foods that you’re eating, as well as total caloric intake may affect how you respond to acupuncture. If you’re consuming a hypercaloric diet, you may not appear to lose any weight from acupuncture.  Even if acupuncture is working, you may be overriding the weight loss by consuming so many calories, that weight loss is unrealistic.  Conversely, if you are eating a hypocaloric diet with nutrient-dense foods and minimal sugar – weight loss with acupuncture may become more noticeable.
  • Exercise: Although exercise is not necessary for weight loss, it can be an effective way to lose weight when combined with dietary modification. Someone who gets regular aerobic exercise and receives acupuncture will probably lose more weight following acupuncture than someone who remains sedentary.  This may be due to the fact that there’s a synergistic effect resulting from the combination of exercise plus acupuncture that does not occur with standalone acupuncture.  Also recognize that excessive exercise without sufficient recovery may also interfere with weight loss from acupuncture.
  • Genetics: Certain individuals may have inherited a particular gene or gene complex that affects their physiology and/or neurobiology in ways that promote weight gain. For example, certain genes may make increase likelihood of food addiction and/or binge eating.  Other genes may affect metabolism and result in slower burning of body fat.  A person with favorable genes for a healthy body weight may have more success reversing his/her overweight status with acupuncture than someone with less favorable genetics.
  • Medical conditions: It should be understood that certain medical conditions may make it difficult for an individual to lose weight with acupuncture. For example, assuming someone with undiagnosed hypothyroidism is gains weight, but pursues acupuncture – he/she should not expect to lose any weight.  Someone devoid of any serious medical conditions, especially those associated with weight gain, should be most likely to respond to acupuncture.
  • Sleep / Stress: Though acupuncture may improve sleep and reduce stress, it is not a magic bullet. Someone who doesn’t get enough sleep per night and/or is bombarded with stressors – may not respond well to acupuncture for weight loss.  A person who is getting enough sleep and is actively reducing his/her stress should be more likely to lose weight with acupuncture.
  • Substance use: Many people fail to realize that the substances they’re ingesting regularly such as: alcohol, dietary supplements, illicit drugs, and/or prescription drugs – may affect how well they respond to acupuncture. For example, someone who is taking an antipsychotic medication to manage symptoms of schizophrenia my find it difficult to lose weight with acupuncture.  This may be due to the fact that the medication’s effect on physiology is overriding any influence of acupuncture to promote weight loss.  Other agents may act synergistically upon physiology of the individual with acupuncture to promote weight loss.

Acupuncture for Weight Loss (Review of Research)

Included below are brief synopses of studies investigating the efficacy of acupuncture for weight loss.  When interpreting each study, it is important to critically examine factors in addition to the outcome including: study design, number of participants, and duration.  Also consider methodological quality, potential researcher biases, and journal of publication (some are superior to others).  You may notice a trend of research supporting the usage of acupuncture for weight loss in lower quality journals.

2015: The effects of auricular acupuncture on weight reduction and feeding-related cytokines: a pilot study.

A pilot study conducted by Ito et al. (2015) sought to determine the effect of auricular acupuncture on body weight, as well as upon biomarkers implicated in appetite and feeding.  For the study, researchers recruited 10 healthy adults (9 females, 1 male) and assigned them at random to receive either: auricular acupuncture (5 participants) OR a placebo (5 participants) – weekly for 1 month.  To gauge the effect of auricular acupuncture, researchers collected baseline (pre-trial) measures of: BMI, body weight, waist circumference, and various biomarkers [derived from blood and urine samples].

These measures were collected on a weekly basis for several additional weeks and thereafter, were compared to the baseline measures.  Researchers analyzed changes in concentrations of biomarkers such as: adiponectin, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), C-peptide, ghrelin (active and desacyl), and leptin.  Biomarker analyses revealed that participants receiving auricular acupuncture exhibited statistically significant changes in body weight after 1 week of treatment (p=0.02) compared to the placebo control.

The most significant weight loss occurred in Participant A of the acupuncture group, with a total of 5.73 lbs.  Despite significant weight loss experienced by the acupuncture group, no substantial changes in biomarkers were observed.  The lack of change in biomarker concentrations means that the mechanisms by which auricular acupuncture facilitates weight loss – remain unclear.

Researchers concluded that auricular acupuncture reduced body weight and may decrease appetite by attenuating production of the hormone ghrelin.  Despite the reported findings, it is important to avoid assuming auricular acupuncture promotes weight loss – based solely upon results from this study.  The study was extremely small-scale (with only 10 participants) and as a result, may be subject to inaccuracies.

A larger trial may reveal that auricular acupuncture has a significant effect upon biomarkers and/or that it has zero effect on body weight.  A limitation with this trial seems to be the extremely short-term [timespan] over which it was conducted.  It was stated that researchers collected body weight measures after 1 week of acupuncture, but it was also mentioned that measures would be collected once per week for 4 consecutive weeks.

This documentation was confusing in that, if researchers are reporting the effect of acupuncture (done once per week) to a placebo control, after one week – then essentially they are comparing the effect of a single acupuncture session to a single placebo session.  Even if body weight measures were collected for several additional weeks and compared to baseline, this may still be too short of a duration (with too few acupuncture sessions) to observe significant weight loss and/or altered biomarker concentrations.  A follow-up randomized controlled trial with a large sample size is certainly warranted.

Any follow-up trials should be conducted over longer term (e.g. months) for a more accurate understanding of how biomarkers change in response to auricular acupuncture over time, as well as to determine how any changed biomarkers affect weight.  Researchers may want to consider conducting sex-specific research (on groups of men-only or women-only) due to the fact that baseline biomarker concentrations could differ by sex, thereby yielding inaccurate results.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26462269

2014: Auricular or body acupuncture: which one is more effective in reducing abdominal fat mass in Iranian men with obesity: a randomized clinical trial.

A clinical trial conducted by Darbandi et al. (2014) aimed to compare the respective efficacies of auricular acupuncture and body acupuncture for fat loss.  Prior to the trial, researchers noted that the prevalence of obesity continues to increase throughout the world, and highlighted the fact that non-pharmacological interventions such as acupuncture may be helpful for fat loss.  For their trial, they recruited a total of 80 obese Iranian men with BMIs ranging from 30-40 kg/m2.

These men were divided and assigned at random to 1 of 4 groups including: body electroacupuncture (Group A), sham-body electroacupuncture (Group B), auricular acupuncture (Group C), and sham-auricular acupuncture (Group D) – for a total of 6 weeks.  It should be noted that all 80 participants were consuming low-calorie diets for the entire 6-week duration of the trial.  Prior to the trial, measures were collected including: BMI, Hip Circumference (HC), Trunk Fat Mass (TFM), Waist Circumference (WC).

The efficacy of each intervention was based upon degree of change in the aforestated measures after 6 weeks.  Results indicated that those receiving body electroacupuncture (Group A) exhibited significant reductions in all measures BMI, TFM, WC, and HC (respectively) – when compared to the sham controls (Group B and Group D).  Individuals receiving auricular acupuncture (Group B) exhibited significant decreases in BMI, TFM, WC, and HC – compared to the sham controls (Group B and Group D).

To summarize, both auricular acupuncture and body electroacupuncture effectively reduced BMI, TFM, WC, and HC.  A head-to-head comparison revealed that neither acupuncture intervention is more effective than the other for reducing BMI and TFM.  Interestingly, electroacupuncture was significantly more effective than auricular acupuncture for reducing WC, whereas auricular acupuncture was significantly more effective than electroacupuncture for reducing HC.

Researchers concluded that a combination of auricular acupuncture OR body electroacupuncture with a low calorie diet can reduce BMI, TFM, WC, and HC in obese men.  Those seeking greater hip circumference reduction may derive greater benefit from auricular acupuncture, and individuals seeking greater waist circumference reduction may derive greater benefit from body electroacupuncture.  Despite the significance of acupuncture for fat loss in this particular study, limitations should be examined, including: small sample size, short follow-ups, and [potentially] the lack of female participants.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4261582/

2012: Weight reduction effects of acupuncture for obese women with or without perimenopausal syndrome: a pilot observational study.

An observational study by Wang et al. (2012) investigated the effect of acupuncture on the body weight of obese women.  In this study, a total of 60 women classified as having either simple obesity or obesity associated with perimenopause.  All women received 3 consecutive acupuncture treatment courses, with each course lasting a total of 4 weeks.

It was explicitly reported that, in the first week of each course, all women received 5 acupuncture treatments.  At pre-acupuncture baseline, researchers recorded: BMI, body weight, obesity index scores, as well as hip/waist ratio.  Upon completion of each of the three treatment courses, the aforestated measures were compared to baseline.

Researchers reported that obesity index scores significantly decreased at the end of each acupuncture treatment course among women with “simple obesity.”  To be clear, simple obesity is defined as obesity that occurs when caloric intake exceeds energy expenditure.  Among the women with perimenopause-related obesity, obesity index scores decreased significantly only after the second and third courses of acupuncture.

Upon comparison of obesity indexes after the full 3 courses of treatment, as well as at a 3-month follow up assessment – there were no significant differences in obesity index reductions (from baseline) among those with “simple obesity” and “perimenopause-related obesity.”  These results suggest that acupuncture may be capable of attenuating obesity among women, as well as that the speed by which obesity is attenuated may be contingent upon a person’s obesity subtype.  That said, the study was non-randomized, non-controlled, female-only, with a small sample size.

Since this was merely an observational study, acupuncture is simply correlated with weight loss and cannot be considered a credible [adjunctive] cause.  One must also consider that the population of this study (obese women pursuing acupuncture for weight loss) may be more motivated and/or actively trying to lose weight – compared to women who aren’t.  For this reason, numerous interventions (unbeknownst to researchers) such as: dietary modifications, exercise, supplements, and/or medications may have been the actual cause of any observed weight loss.  A follow up study with a larger sample and randomized controlled design is warranted.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23227788

2012: Effects of auricular acupuncture on anthropometric, lipid profile, inflammatory, and immunologic markers: a randomized controlled trial study.

A team of researchers Abdi et al. (2012) assessed the effects of auricular acupuncture on various biomarkers.  The aim of the study was to determine the effectiveness of auricular acupuncture for weight loss, as well as document specific biomarker changes that could explain the mechanism of weight reduction.  Researchers organized a randomized clinical trial involving a total of 204 obese participants.

These participants were randomly divided into two groups and assigned to receive either: acupuncture OR a sham-acupuncture for an initial 6-week phase – each in as an adjunct to a low-calorie diet.  Thereafter, in a second 6-week phase, acupuncture and sham-acupuncture were discontinued and the low-calorie diet was followed as a standalone weight management intervention.  To determine the effect of acupuncture, researchers assessed body weight and biomarker concentrations to the trial.

Body weight and biomarker concentrations and we were reassessed after the first 6-week acupuncture phase, as well as after the second 6-week standalone low-calorie diet phase.  Results indicated that, after the initial 6-week phase, both the acupuncture and sham-acupuncture groups exhibited significant changes in anthropometric parameters and high-sensitive C-reactive protein.  Interestingly, only the group receiving legitimate auricular acupuncture experienced significant changes in anti-heat shock protein.

The second phase of the study was incorporated to determine the degree to which the effects of acupuncture are sustainable.  Results from the second 6-week phase revealed that the sham-acupuncture controls exhibited more substantial elevations in anthropometric parameters, whereas those receiving legitimate auricular acupuncture maintained significant reductions in anti-heat shock protein [as was documented after the initial 6-week phase].

Researchers reported that the changes in the aforestated biomarker concentrations were more significant in the first phase (0-6 weeks) compared the second phase (6-12 weeks).  It was concluded that a low-calorie diet with adjunct auricular acupuncture appears most effective for weight loss.  Based on the significant reductions in anti-heat shock protein concentrations among those receiving auricular acupuncture, immunomodulation may be a critical mechanism by which auricular acupuncture promotes weight loss.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22788576
  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22649299

2011: Effects of acupuncture therapy on abdominal fat and hepatic fat content in obese children: a magnetic resonance imaging and proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy study.

A study by Zhang et al. (2011) evaluated the effect of acupuncture therapy on abdominal fat, as well as hepatic fat among obese pediatrics.  This was a longitudinal study involving 10 children (average age of 11.4 years) that were considered obese, but otherwise healthy.  Prior to commencement of acupuncture therapy, baseline measures were collected including: BMI, body weight, as well as abdominal and hepatic fat volumes.

The children then received acupuncture over the duration of 1-month, but exact parameters remained unclear.  After the 1-month period of acupuncture, the aforestated measures (BMI, body weight, abdominal fat, hepatic fat) were reassessed and compared to baseline.  Comparisons revealed that, after 1 month of acupuncture, the children exhibited statistically significant reductions in: BMI (3.5%), abdominal visceral adipose tissue volume (16.04%), abdominal total adipose tissue volume (10.45%), and abdominal visceral to subcutaneous fat ratio 10.59%).

In other words, the acupuncture appeared to reduce BMI and abdominal fat.  Statistically insignificant decreases were recorded for body weight, waist circumference, hip circumference, abdominal subcutaneous adipose tissue, and intrahepatic triglyceride content.  Researchers went on to conclude that this study provides preliminary experimental evidence demonstrating that acupuncture therapy significantly reduces BMI and adipose tissue without affecting body weight.

Further prognosticated by researchers was that acupuncture should become more important and popular in the future for selectively reducing problematic abdominal visceral adipose tissue.  While this study may have been the first of its kind, there remain a plethora of limitations that warrant discussion.  The most striking limitation was the fact that the study was longitudinal and failed to incorporate randomization and controlling.

This means that a significant number of confounding factors may have yielded significant results.  We must consider that parents of children allowing their children to participate in such a study may have been more motivated than average to help their obese children lose weight.  Perhaps dietary alterations, exercising more frequently, and/or other changes (unknown to researchers) yielded statistically significant reductions in BMI and/or abdominal fat.

Additionally, the sample size was tiny (only 10 participants) and researchers collected a myriad of measures at pre-acupuncture baseline.  While collecting many different measures can be helpful in a randomized controlled trial, some may consider this hedging-of-bets in a longitudinal study.  The collection of a significant number of measures, with a small sample size, makes it increasingly likely that at least one measure will “significantly change” after 1-month.

In summary, unless all of the aforestated limitations are addressed, especially the suboptimal study design and small sample size, nothing can be concluded in regards to acupuncture’s effect on measures of BMI, abdominal fat, or hepatic fat – among children.  For future studies, researchers should allocate funds and efforts to conduct a randomized controlled trial with a larger sample size.  If similar results were attained from a randomized controlled trial, they would bolster credibility of acupuncture for BMI and abdominal fat reduction among pediatrics.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21595560

2010: Clinical observations on laser acupuncture in simple obesity therapy.

Hu, Chang, and Hung (2010) noted that previously-published studies had demonstrated the usefulness of laser acupuncture as an adjunct to a low-calorie diet for the management of visceral postmenopausal obesity.  Based on these findings, researchers decided to conduct a study assessing the therapeutic efficacy of laser acupuncture among individuals with simple obesity.  To clarify, laser acupuncture involves site-specific stimulation with low-energy laser beams (as opposed to acupuncture needles) and “simple obesity” refers to obesity resulting from caloric intake exceeding energy expenditure.

In this study, laser acupuncture was tested on a total of 95 participants that had been diagnosed with simple obesity (73 women, 22 men).  All participants exhibited BMIs exceeding 27 kg/m2 and sex-specific daily caloric intake recommendations were given; 1894.2 kcal (males) and 1620 (females).  Despite receiving daily caloric recommendations, the dietary protocol in the study was considered non-restrictive.

To perform laser acupuncture, a device referred to as the gallium aluminum arsenide HandyLaser Trion was utilized.  This device delivered 0.25 J of energy to specific acupuncture points (Stomach, Hunger, ST25, ST28, ST40, SP15, CV9), three times per week, over term of 4 successive weeks.  Effect of laser acupuncture in treating simple obesity was determined based on changes in body weight and BMI – from pre-treatment to post-treatment (after 4 weeks).

After 4-weeks, assessments revealed statistically significant reductions in body weight and BMI after the 4-week treatment period.  More specifically, body weight decreased by ~6.99 lbs. (3.8%) and BMI decreased by 1.22 kg/m2 (3.78%).  Researchers mentioned that participants had no major issues with adherence and concluded that laser acupuncture was therapeutically useful as an intervention for those with simple obesity.

While this study clearly supports the usage of acupuncture for weight loss among those with obesity, there are numerous limitations that necessitate discussion.  The study design was not randomized and controlled, making it difficult to know whether weight loss was actually caused by the laser acupuncture.  To understand whether laser acupuncture facilitates weight loss and BMI reduction among those with obesity, the technique should be compared to a sham-laser acupuncture.

Hypothetically, even if laser acupuncture was considered effective for reducing weight and BMI among those with obesity, it may be worth investigating whether these reductions result from acupuncture-specific practices – as opposed to generalized tactile laser stimulation.  Perhaps generalized laser stimulation at miscellaneous (non-acupuncture-specific) sites would yield similarly effective reductions in body weight and BMI.

In this case, the technique could be classified as tactile laser stimulation (or something of the sort) rather than acupuncture.  While a sample size of 95 participants is moderate, the suboptimal design is problematic in that numerous confounds may have lead to the statistically significant weight and BMI reductions after the 4-week acupuncture term.  Those participating in such a study may have already been motivated to lose weight, and efforts such as diet and/or exercise may have been the real cause of their weight loss.

Moreover, the recommendation to consume a lower number of calories may have been the primary cause of the weight loss and BMI reduction.  While diets of participants were considered non-restrictive, researchers provided calorie intake recommendations prior to the study.  It is necessary to consider that participants may have been motivated to followed the low-calorie recommendations, ultimately resulting in weight and BMI reductions after 4 weeks.

It could be speculated that some participants may have made extra effort to lose weight due to the fact that they were being monitored by a research team.  Until a randomized controlled follow-up is conducted, the data presented in these findings are relatively meaningless.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20821818

2009: Acupuncture for obesity: a systematic review and meta-analysis.

A systematic review and meta-analysis conducted by Cho et al. (2009) evaluated the effectiveness of acupuncture for obesity.  Authors of the review noted that although acupuncture is among the most common forms of complementary alternative medicine utilized for weight loss, no systematic reviews of its efficacy had been published.  Researchers sought to examine the efficacy of acupuncture in reducing body weight and document all adverse effects.

Only randomized controlled trials of acupuncture for body weight reduction were included in the review.  Data were collected from 19 electronic databases with a publication date prior to March 2008.  The Jadad scale was used to determine methodological quality and funnel plots were used to determine publication bias.  A total of 31 studies with a pooled total of 3013 participants were reviewed, and 29 studies met inclusion criteria for the meta-analysis.

According to the Jadad scale, 20 of 31 trials had the lowest possible score – indicating poor methodological quality.  Nevertheless, researchers reported that acupuncture facilitated significant reductions in body weight and/or improvement in obesity – compared to lifestyle modifications.  Furthermore, results indicated that acupuncture facilitated significant weight loss (an average of 3.44 lbs.) compared to placebo or sham-acupuncture interventions.

While some adverse effects were reported in 4 trials, they weren’t of major concern.  In the conclusion section of the study, it was mentioned that acupuncture is an effective treatment for obesity.  Experts should be skeptical of the results in this systematic review due to the fact that over 2/3rds of the trials were of poor methodological quality.  Perhaps it would’ve been useful to conduct a separate review and meta-analysis using only the 11 trials devoid of poor methodological quality.  That said, there seems to be evidence that acupuncture may be effective for weight loss.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19139756

2009: The effects of triple therapy (acupuncture, diet and exercise) on body weight: a randomized, clinical trial.

A randomized clinical trial was conducted by Nourshahi et al. (2009) to determine the effect of a combination therapy (acupuncture, diet, exercise) on body weight – among adult women.  A total of 27 obese women with at least 30% body fat were assigned at random to various groups: diet plus exercise (Group 1); diet, exercise, and acupuncture (Group 2); or no intervention (Group 3) – for a duration of 8 weeks.  To determine the efficacy of these interventions, researchers documented changes (from pre-trial to post-trial) in measures of: BMI, body weight, fat mass, and skin fold thickness.

Data indicated significant changes in BMI and fat mass among Group 1 (diet plus exercise) and Group 2 (diet, exercise, acupuncture) – compared to Group 3 (no intervention).  Upon comparison of the two experimental groups, no significant differences in measures were found.  Moreover, changes in lean body mass after 8 weeks among the control groups failed to differ from that of the control (no intervention).

This study reveals that acupuncture provides no additive benefit to conventional dietary and exercise interventions for weight loss.  It should be noted that although the study was small-scale, the design was robust (randomized controlled) and the duration was moderate (2 months).  A trial with a larger number of participants may be warranted to confirm an absence of therapeutic efficacy associated with using acupuncture for obesity.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19274056

2008: The efficacy of electroacupuncture therapy for weight loss changes plasma lipoprotein A, apolipoprotein A and apolipoprotein B levels in obese women.

Researchers Cabioglu, Gündogan, and Ergene (2008) investigated the efficacy of electroacupuncture for the treatment of obesity.  To be clear, electroacupuncture is a form of acupuncture in which pulsing electrical currents stimulate specific regions of the skin (known as “acupoints”) through acupuncture needles.  It is analogous to TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation), however, a subset of trials document superior benefit from electroacupuncture (compared to TENS) for various medical conditions (e.g. lower back pain).

In this trial, researchers sought to determine how electroacupuncture would affect various biomarkers in obese individuals.  Specifically, the biomarkers of lipoprotein A, apolipoprotein A, as well as apolipoprotein B – were tracked.  A total of 58 obese women were recruited for the trial and assigned to one of the following groups: Placebo acupuncture (15 women), Electroacupuncture (20 women), or Dietary restriction (23 women) – for a duration of 20 days.

It was noted that electroacupuncture involved targeting specific bodily sites listed as: ear points, Hungry, Shen Men, Stomach, body points, Hegu (LI 4), Quchi (LI 11), Tianshu (St 25), Zusanli (St 36), Neiting (St 44) and Taichong (Liv 3).  In addition to tracking changes in biomarkers, researchers also documented any changes in body weight over the course of 20 days.  Analysis of the data indicated that those receiving electroacupuncture experienced a statistically significant weight loss of 4.7% (p < 0.001), as well as reductions in lipoprotein A and apolipoprotein B – compared to the control.

The individuals with restricted diets also experienced statistically significant weight loss of 2.9% (p < 0.001). Researchers concluded that electroacupuncture may be helpful in the management of obesity for promoting weight loss and reducing biomarkers associated with cardiovascular disease (e.g. lipoprotein A and apolipoprotein B).  Based on these results, it may be useful to determine whether standard TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) would produce similar results.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19051333

2006: The treatment of obesity by acupuncture.

A report by Cabýoglu, Ergene, and Tan (2006) discussed the possible mechanisms by which acupuncture may facilitate a therapeutic effect among those with obesity.  The report acknowledged that acupuncture affects appetite, emotional state, intestinal motility, and metabolism.  More specifically, acupuncture appears to reduce appetite, increase positive emotion, enhances intestinal motility, and bolsters metabolism.

In addition, acupuncture alters neural connectivity in regions of the brain such as the ventromedial nuclei (of the hypothalamus).  It also stimulates the auricular branch of the vagal nerve, and alters concentrations of chemicals [by increasing serotonin, beta endorphin, and enkephalin concentrations].  The vagal stimulation and serotonergic effect are understood to enhance smooth muscle tone within the stomach, thereby minimizing appetite to promote weight loss.

What’s more, the increase in beta endorphin that occurs after acupuncture is thought to mobilize energy stores via a lipolytic effect, ultimately resulting in fat loss.  In brief, acupuncture modulates neurobiological processes in numerous ways.  The cumulative neurobiological modulation is thought to induce weight loss and improve health outcomes among individuals with obesity.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16393882

2006: Effects of abdominal electroacupuncture on parameters related to obesity in obese women: a pilot study.

A study by Lee et al. (2006) endeavored to determine the effect of electroacupuncture specifically targeting the abdominal meridian on parameters associated with obesity.  A total of 31 obese women were recruited for participation and measures of the following were collected: body weight, body fat percentage, BMI, percent ideal body weight, waist circumference, and hip circumference.  The women received abdominally-targeted electroacupuncture and the initial measures were reassessed.

It was discovered that the women exhibited decreases in: body weight (5.3%), body fat (1.3%), BMI (4.7%), percent ideal body weight (6%), waist circumference (4.6%), and hip circumference (2.1%).  Researchers acknowledge that this was a pilot study with notable limitations including: small sample, lack of a control, and non-randomization.  While this study portrays acupuncture as possibly effective, the efficacy of abdominal electroacupuncture for the treatment of obesity cannot be extrapolated.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16648086/

2005: Electroacupuncture in obese women: a randomized, controlled pilot study.

A study carried out by Hsu et al. (2005) involved 72 obese women from the outpatient department of a hospital in Taiwan.  Researchers aimed to compare the effectiveness of electroacupuncture with sit-up exercises for reducing body weight and waist circumference among the obese women.  Prior to the study, it was noted that the women exhibited waist circumferences exceeding 90 cm and BMIs exceeding 30 kg/m2.

None of the participants had received any other weight loss intervention within 3 months leading up to this study.  All 72 participants were randomly assigned into 3 groups including: electroacupuncture (Group A), sit-up exercises (Group B), and no intervention (Group C).  Treatments were continued for a 6-week duration and body weights, BMIs, and waist circumferences were compared to pre-treatment baseline measures.

Results indicated that those receiving electroacupuncture experienced significant decreases in body weight, BMI, and waist circumference compared to those performing sit-up exercises or no intervention.  Although this study highlights the efficacy of acupuncture, researchers may want to reassess whether sit-ups was a good choice of a comparison exercise.  Perhaps something like jogging for 10 minutes each day would’ve been a better comparison.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15989416/

2005: Electroacupuncture therapy for weight loss reduces serum total cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL cholesterol levels in obese women.

A study conducted by Cabioğlu and Ergene (2005) evaluated the effect of electroacupuncture therapy on obese women.  In this study, researchers specifically sought to determine if the electroacupuncture technique would reduce body weight, as well as whether it would alter deleterious biomarkers implicated in obesity.  Various biomarkers examined in this study included: serum total cholesterol, triglyceride, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL).

A total of 55 obese women were recruited and assigned to receive one of the following: control intervention (12 women), electroacupuncture (22 women), and dietary restriction (21 women).  The trial was carried out over a duration of 20 days, and those in the electroacupuncture group received electroacupuncture once per day for 30 minutes.  Bodily sites targeted with the technique were listed as follows: ear points, Sanjiao (Hungry) and Shen Men (Stomach), and the body points, LI 4, LI 11, St 25, St 36, St 44, Liv 3.

It was specified that those in the dietary restriction group followed a 1425 Kcal diet program.  After the 20-day duration of the trial, individuals in the electroacupuncture group experienced a weight reduction of 4.8% and those in the dietary restriction group experienced a weight reduction of 2.5%.  Furthermore, in both the electroacupuncture and dietary restriction groups, total cholesterol and triglyceride concentrations decreased (p < 0.05).

Interestingly, the group receiving electroacupuncture exhibited a significant decrease in LDL cholesterol compared to the control group.  Researchers concluded that electroacupuncture lowers total cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL cholesterol, likely mediated by increases in serum beta endorphin.  While a larger-scale trial is necessary to confirm these findings, this trial highlights it appears as though electroacupuncture can improve health of those with obesity.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16173527

2003: Acupuncture for the treatment of obesity: a review of the evidence.

Lacey, Tershakovec, and Foster (2003) noted that acupuncture is commonly used as an alternative intervention for an array of medical conditions, including obesity.  However, up until this point, no researchers had taken the time to dig through already-published trials in attempt to elucidate its therapeutic value among those with obesity.  In conducting this review, researchers focused on compiling data from controlled trials assessing the adjunctive effect of acupuncture for weight loss.

Researchers described various types of acupuncture stimulation, noting that auricular acupuncture (primarily targeting the ear) is the most common subtype utilized in trials for obesity.  Upon reviewing the studies, it was noted that there appeared to be challenges associated with choosing a viable placebo-control.  Moreover, a majority of the studies published up until 2003 were considered short-term (less than 3 months), making it difficult to understand the long-term outcomes associated with using acupuncture as a weight loss adjunct.

At the time of this review, no definitive conclusions could be reached regarding the efficacy of acupuncture as a weight loss adjunct.  It was understood that further research of acupuncture was necessary to determine its efficacy in weight management.  Long-term, randomized, controlled trials of favorable methodological quality were needed.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12664074

2003: Effects of bilateral auricular acupuncture stimulation on body weight in healthy volunteers and mildly obese patients.

A team of researchers Shiraishi et al. (2003) investigated the effect of auricular acupuncture in non-obese and mildly obese populations.  This trial incorporated usage of small auricular acupuncture needles that were inserted into the cavum conchae on each side (bilaterally) of participants.  Prior to the auricular acupuncture therapy, a 2-week pretreatment period was used to chart body weight.

Intriguingly, in this 2-week pretreatment period, 57.1% of participants experienced a reduction in body weight.  Researchers believed that perhaps the charting of body weight may promote significant weight loss.  It could also be thought that, upon reflecting upon pretreatment body weight, participants were motivated to lose weight – and predictably lost weight.

Following the actual treatment phase with auricular acupuncture: 35 non-obese individuals lost weight, 11 non-obese individuals gained weight, and 9 non-obese individuals experienced no change in weight.  Furthermore, all 5 of the obese participants lost weight as a result of auricular acupuncture, whereas the sham intervention had no effect on body weight.  Authors concluded that both charting of weight and auricular acupuncture appear to facilitate weight loss in obese and non-obese individuals.

Despite these conclusions, it should be noted that the sample size of this study was 60 with only 5 obese participants.  To determine whether auricular acupuncture has a significant effect upon body weight, a larger sample with a randomized controlled design with double-blinding should be used.  Everything considered, results of this study support the usage of auricular acupuncture for weight loss.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14610261

1999: Failure of acupuncture in the treatment of obesity: a pilot study.

Mazzoni et al. (1999) mentioned that acupuncture is anecdotally touted as an effective weight loss intervention for those with obesity.  For this reason, they decided to conduct a pilot study with 40 obese outpatients (33 females, 7 males), each with BMIs exceeding 30 kg/m2.  The outpatients were assigned at random to receive either: a placebo OR acupuncture over a duration of 12 weeks.

Prior to the study, researchers recorded participants’ baseline: BMI, eating attitude, mood (anxiety / depression), and obesity-related quality of life.  After the 12-week duration, these measures were reassessed and compared to baseline.  Of the 40 participants, there were 6 who dropped out of the treatment group and 12 who dropped out of the placebo group.

Results indicated that there was no significant effect of acupuncture upon BMI nor obesity-related quality of life.  However, in both the acupuncture and placebo groups, there was a significant improvement in eating attitude which researchers attributed to the placebo effect.  Additionally, mood significantly improved (in measures of anxiety and depression) in only the acupuncture group.

Based on the findings of this trail, it appears as though acupuncture is ineffective for weight loss and/or the treatment of obesity.  While it may enhance mood of obese patients, researchers conclude that acupuncture is not recommended as an intervention for obesity.  That said, it should be considered that this was a small-scale study and only 22 participants completed the full 12-week duration.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10728182

1998: Stimulation of auricular acupuncture points in weight loss.

Prior to their study, Richards and Marley (1998) noted that overweight individuals understand that dietary adjustments are useful for weight loss, but often cannot quell their appetite.  Acupuncture is known to stimulate a subsection of the vagal nerve known as the auricular branch, which increases serotonin.  The combined effect of peripherally increased serotonin and enhanced vagal tone is thought to potentiate smooth muscle tone within the stomach, ultimately attenuating overwhelming appetite.

The attenuation of an overwhelming appetite may help individuals adhere to a restricted diet and ultimately lose weight.  In this particular study, researchers used a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) device and targeted specific sites implicated in auricular acupuncture.  For the study, researchers recruited 60 overweight individuals and assigned them to either: an active group OR a control group – for a duration of 4 weeks.

Throughout the study, those in the active group received stimulation from an AcuSlim device twice per day and targeted: ear points shenmen and stomach.  Individuals in the control group received stimulation twice per day from the AcuSlim device, but the stimulation was isolated to target their thumbs (not considered acupuncture sites).  A weight loss goal of ~4.41 lbs. was set, with researchers documenting all changes in appetite and weight after 4 weeks.

Results indicated that 95% of the active group experienced reduced appetite, whereas no participants in the control group experienced appetite changes.  A total of 4 participants in the active group lost weight, whereas zero participants in the control group lost weight.  It was concluded that regular stimulation of auricular acupuncture points effectively decreases appetite and promotes weight loss.

Everything considered, perhaps the control was of poor quality in that most would not suspect to attain any benefit from stimulating just the thumbs.  Researchers should’ve tested stimulation of non-acupuncture specific sites throughout the body (such as the stomach) for an accurate comparison.  This would help determine whether acupuncture-specific sites play an important role in the mechanism of appetite suppression OR if general non-specific TENS stimulation is of equal therapeutic efficacy.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9679359

1993: Effect of acupuncture on weight loss evaluated by adrenal function.

A study by Liu et al. (1993) examined the relationship between adrenal function and simple obesity.  They discovered that individuals with simple obesity exhibited decreased function of the sympathetic-adrenal system, as well as the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) system.  Biomarkers such as dopamine, epinephrine, fasting blood-glucose, norepinephrine – were documented.

Thereafter, researchers sought to determine whether acupuncture could alter concentrations of the aforestated biomarkers, as well as obesity and lipid indexes.  Results indicated that acupuncture reversed hypofunctionality of the sympathetic-adrenal system and the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) system.  Moreover, significant weight loss occurred after acupuncture, leading researchers to suspect that the simultaneous modulation of underactive (sympathetic-adrenal / HPA) systems facilitated the weight loss.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8246584

1976: Treatment of obesity by acupuncture.

Among the first trials to test the efficacy of acupuncture for the treatment of obesity was conducted by Mok et al. (1976).  A total of 24 overweight individuals were recruited for participation in the study, each between 5% and 33% above their ideal weight.  All participants were assessed during a 3-week baseline control phase, and received acupuncture therapy for a duration of 9 consecutive weeks.

The acupuncture therapy involved stimulating 3 distinct locations of the body divided into three 3-week intervals.  Acupuncture stimulation was conducted unilaterally by oriental acupuncturists specifically with the intent of triggering weight loss.  It was reported that no significant side effects occurred, but none of the treatments were associated with any significant weight reduction.

An animal study involving guinea pigs was conducted parallel to the human trial.  In the guinea pig study, no significant weight loss occurred with the same protocol administered to humans.  What’s more, another auricular acupuncture (stimulating the ear) was also tested on the guinea pigs and failed to facilitate weight loss.

  • Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/941864/

Limitations with the research of acupuncture for weight loss

There are numerous limitations associated with research of acupuncture for weight loss.  The most glaring limitation is the poor methodological quality of most studies.  Other limitations include study designs (non-RCTs), length of trials, and the comparative efficacy of various types of acupuncture for weight loss (e.g. electro, laser, auricular).  Until these limitations are addressed, it will be difficult to know whether acupuncture should be advised as a weight loss adjunct.

  • Biases: Some researchers may be biased in determining whether acupuncture promotes weight loss. Those who are affiliated with complementary alternative medicine practices and/or acupuncture practitioners may deliberately skew trials to make it appear as though weight loss occurs from acupuncture.  Oppositely, some researchers may vehemently dislike acupuncture and may seek to prove that it doesn’t work.  Researcher biases, as well as publication biases make it difficult to determine the efficacy of acupuncture as a weight loss intervention.
  • Comparative efficacy: There are numerous types of acupuncture that have been suggested to promote weight loss including: auricular, electro, and laser. It isn’t known as to whether a certain type (or types) are more effective than others in reducing body weight.  Furthermore, it would also be interesting to compare the effect of generalized transcutaneous (non-acupuncture) stimulation to that of acupuncture-specific stimulation on body weight.  It may turn out that non-acupuncture transcutaneous stimulation yields just as significant of an effect as acupuncture.
  • Designs: All study designs should be randomized and controlled (RCT), but many are not. The literature has been muddied by trials published with zero randomization nor control.  These studies may mislead the general public regarding the efficacy of acupuncture for weight loss.  Only RCTs should be reviewed for evidence, preferably those with large sample sizes and quality methods.
  • Methods: A systematic review conducted in 2009 by Cho et al. reported that 20 of 31 RCTs investigating acupuncture for weight loss – were of the lowest possible methodological quality. As a result of poor quality methods, we cannot be sure as to whether the effect of acupuncture on body weight is of legitimate significance.  Additional research of excellent methodological quality needs to be conducted.
  • Parameters: Another problem with research of acupuncture for weight loss is that there are no clearly efficacious parameters in terms of regions/sites of stimulation, as well as duration of the stimulation. Some weight loss appears to occur with acupuncture administered to certain sites around the ear, while other weight loss appears to occur with acupuncture administered to sites around the stomach.  Moreover, it is unknown as to how the frequency of acupuncture (e.g. sessions per week) and the cumulative timeframe over which it is administered (e.g. 3 months) affect weight loss.
  • Sample-size: Most trials attempting to determine the efficacy of acupuncture for weight loss utilize small sample sizes. Small sample sizes are problematic in that results may be underpowered and subject to inaccuracies.  Additionally, large samples without randomization or controlled designs are arguably useless.  Larger samples with improved designs and methods should help us determine whether acupuncture is effective.
  • Specific population: At this time, it is unclear as to whether acupuncture may be more or less effective in certain populations. We may find that acupuncture is only effective for weight loss among those with obesity, but ineffective for those who are marginally overweight.  Furthermore, we don’t know whether a person’s sex (male vs. female), as well as age may influence the effect of acupuncture on body weight.

Verdict: Acupuncture may facilitate modest weight loss

As of current, it is difficult to know whether acupuncture is an effective method to induce weight loss.  Based on evidence from the systematic review and meta-analysis published in 2009 by Cho et al., it appears as though modest weight loss does occur from acupuncture.  Cho et al. analyzed 31 randomized controlled trials with a total of 3013 participants and discovered that the average amount of weight lost from acupuncture was ~3.44 lbs.

Despite the statistical significance of the ~3.44 lb. weight loss, most would consider this to be a very unsubstantial weight loss.  It is also necessary to highlight the fact that 20 of the trials included in the systematic review by Cho et al. were of “poor” methodological quality.  Knowing that many of the trials were of poor methodological quality, it remains unclear as to whether acupuncture conclusively causes weight loss.

A randomized controlled trial by Abdi et al. (2012) documented that acupuncture induced significant weight loss when used as an adjunct to a low calorie diet – over 6 weeks.  Another randomized controlled trial by Darbandi et al. (2014) noted that both electro and auricular acupuncture subtypes effectively reduced body weight when used as adjuncts to a low calorie diet.  Overall, there’s currently more evidence supporting the efficacy of acupuncture for weight loss than evidence against it – especially as an adjunct to caloric restriction.

How much weight will you lose with acupuncture?

Everyone wants to know an exact answer regarding how much weight they’ll lose from acupuncture.  As was already discussed, there are numerous variables and individual factors that may affect the amount of weight that you lose with acupuncture.  Some individuals may lose zero pounds after months of acupuncture stimulation, whereas others may claim to have lost 10 lbs.

Outrageous claims such as losing hundreds of pounds with acupuncture are unverified and not supported by the literature.  The maximum amount of weight loss from acupuncture reported in a 1-month study was 5.73 lbs.; this occurred in just 1 participant and didn’t reflect the average.  Evidence indicates that after 4 to 6 weeks of acupuncture, average weight loss is between 3 lbs. and 4 lbs.

Will everyone lose weight from acupuncture?

No. It is important to emphasize that acupuncture is certainly not a universally effective weight loss intervention.  Some individuals will experience no change in body weight following weeks of regular acupuncture stimulation.  Additionally, certain people could end up gaining weight after receiving acupuncture, and if this occurred, it wouldn’t be clear as to whether the gain resulted from the acupuncture itself or a synergism of various confounds.

A small-scale RCT by Nourshahi et al. (2009) with 27 obese women discovered that, after 8 weeks, body weight reduction occurred as a result of dietary and exercise interventions.  However, no significant weight loss occurred as a result of acupuncture as an adjunct to a restricted diet and exercise.  Based on this finding, we can infer that not everyone is likely to experience marked weight reductions following acupuncture or certain types of acupuncture.

Have you tried acupuncture for weight loss?

If you’ve tried using acupuncture for weight loss, feel free to share your experience in the comments section below.  To help others get a better understanding of your situation, provide some details including: pre-acupuncture body weight, post-acupuncture body weight, number of acupuncture sessions you received, type of stimulation (e.g. laser), as well as the duration of each acupuncture session.  Also note the frequency of your acupuncture therapy (e.g. 2 times per week) and cumulative term over which you received the therapy (e.g. 3 months).

Did you utilize acupuncture as a standalone weight loss intervention? Or were you using it as an adjunct to a barrage of other interventions such as: dietary modifications, exercise, medication, and/or CBT?  If you were using it as an adjunct, can you be sure that the weight loss you experienced was actually from the acupuncture and not the other interventions you received?

In your personal opinion, do you think that acupuncture legitimately helps with weight loss? (If so, explain why).  Would you recommend using acupuncture for weight loss to a friend and/or family member who was overweight?  Overall, while acupuncture remains an intriguing, and relatively appealing solution among those hoping to lose weight without much effort, the amount of weight to be lost from acupuncture is miniscule (at best).  Overweight individuals should be recommended to pursue conventional, scientifically-supported strategies.

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  • Joanna August 16, 2016, 1:40 pm

    Acupuncture does work for weight loss effectively; I have witnessed my patients feel better, weigh less and feel healthier than ever before. Sometimes dietary modifications also help more combined with acupuncture, but that depends on no. of sessions a patient is willing to attend.

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