Does acupuncture help you lose weight?
July 5, 2011 6:37 AM   Subscribe

Does acupuncture help weight loss? If so, how does it work?

Acupuncture always seems to be prescribed with a healthy dose of exercise and a strict diet regime. So how much of a role does the
acupuncture itself play in weight loss?
posted by mordecai to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
posted by 256 at 6:48 AM on July 5, 2011 [5 favorites]

The answer to "does sticking pointy things into my skin help?" is going to be "no".
With some exceptions like vaccinations, probes, tattoos and "it just feels good".
posted by HFSH at 6:54 AM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

1) Anecdotes suggest that it can, though there hasn't been any rigorous study showing any firm statistical correlation of which I'm aware.

2) No one has any freaking clue.

Acupuncture is one of those things that allopathic medicine has started to recognize actually does something, but though it's not clear what, and it's not clear how, it is pretty clear that most practitioners' more dramatic claims are unfounded. It has been recognized as an effective treatment for certain kinds of pain and nausea--two things that allopathic medicine isn't very good at treating, especially when their causes aren't biological--but other effects have yet to be reliably demonstrated. But they have been unreliably demonstrated, so hey, go nuts. Worst that happens is you're that much poorer.

As far as what's going on though, not even practitioners tend to claim any kind of rigorous theory.
posted by valkyryn at 6:56 AM on July 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

There's a chapter in Trick or Treatment on acupuncture, and, as noted above, the answer is "no".

I suppose there might be some effect of psychologically tricking the dieter into greater efforts: all that ceremony around sticking pointy needles into the skin just has to do something. But, really, there's no demonstrated physiological effect. If something does happen, then it's almost certainly psychological. Possibly, the dieter can find a similarly effective psychological trick that's cheaper, and less pointy.
posted by chengjih at 7:12 AM on July 5, 2011

Worst that happens is you're that much poorer.

Worst that happens is that you don't seek an effective treatment for your condition, because you think that the "alternative" treatment just needs a few more weeks to kick in and start working.

Do the diet and exercise. If that doesn't work, try a different diet and exercise, and stick rigorously to it. Don't bother with the needles.
posted by schmod at 7:19 AM on July 5, 2011

Well, you probably aren't eating while they are doing it, but nope.
posted by meepmeow at 7:25 AM on July 5, 2011

Worst that happens is you're that much poorer.

Another thing that can happen is adverse events directly related to the acupuncture therapy. quick search of pubmed (search term: acupuncture therapy/*ae to search for adverse effects) finds 650ish publications about side effects. Many are single case studies (which will be necessarily scarier, because they were deemed rare and out-there enough to be published as a case report), although there are many reviews covering adverse events in multiple studies and large populations. Rate of AEs look to be reasonably low, with the expected most common ones: subcutaneous hematoma, needle site pain etc.

Anyway, had to mention that because people tend to write off acupuncture therapy as a no-risk thing - it might not work but it won't hurt - when that's not the case. Adverse effects may be rare, and for the most part minor, but they still occur.
posted by gaspode at 7:55 AM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

A dear friend of mine is an acupuncturist -- sometimes I'll go visit and she'll do stuff to me, and only later will I get around to asking her what she did/what specific needle X or Y was meant for... I've had amazingly good results with my drugs-just-don't-work migraines and other problems that she's fixed or improved over the years. Her needles + TENS machine got me 15 extra degrees of motion in the elbow a surgeon completely fucked up (and that he couldn't fix with extra surgeries AND a year of physical therapy). Sounds small but is a massive amount of extra motion when it comes to a major body part like that.

There is a specific point on the ears where you can place a small metal bead (it's usually held in place by tape) OR a needle that will help you not feel quite so hungry. She did it to me without my knowing what it was "supposed" to be, and I will say that I felt remarkably un-hungry until it came off.

Worst case scenario? You have a pressure point to fiddle with to distract yourself away from casual/nonessential eating. Best case scenario? Something we don't quite understand fully IS working, and hey, every little bit helps.

Also, no good acupuncturist will be able to help you until you help yourself -- that's where the diet and exercise comes in. My friend is actually an infertility specialist, and here in the land of the Almighty Cleveland Clinic, she has managed to get more women pregnant after infertility specialists have failed than you could BELIEVE. Why? Because she makes them change their damn diets. All the IVF rounds in the world won't help or change the fact someone is eating garbage every day.

Make of that what you will ("oh, it was just the diet, the needles didn't do anything,") but I've seen her get all kinds of good results with patients regular doctors have more or less written off.
posted by at 9:46 AM on July 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Here's the 'cold equation' on weight gain/loss:
weight change = [calories in - calories used] + [water in -water out]
In words: People lose weight by eating less, exercising more, and/or tweaking their metabolism.

(The bit about water is there because water weighs a lot and you can gain or lose 5 or 10 pounds of water weight in a day or two without doing much of anything different (for example, same number of calories but more or less sodium). )

Acupuncture always seems to be prescribed with a healthy dose of exercise and a strict diet regime.

That is because unless you are sick, you are not going to lose weight without doing those things.

Needles won't make calories dissappear, so if it does anything it all, it's changing your metabolism. Is that the claim? Ask the accupuncturist how it does this. Ask yourself why you'd want to mess with your body's equilibrium when you could just eat less and exercise more -- like every other successful weight loser.

So unless you've got, say, a thyroid issue, we're talking about changing behaviour. Maybe needles can help with that -- no one knows for sure. [BREAKING: Bitter-girl says it does.] Doesn't seem like a lot to go on to me. Some people use hypnosis or 'fat camps'. YMMV.

For for long-lasting results, the exercise is by far the more important. If you are a couch potato you will be on a starvation diet forever to keep it off, needles or not. An inactive adult burns maybe 1600 calories per day. Some people take in that much at lunch.

If you want to eat food again, you'll have to get out and shake your booty on a regular basis. Forever.
posted by Herodios at 10:18 AM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

From the International Journal of Neuroscience: The treatment of obesity by acupuncture.
posted by Wordwoman at 11:27 AM on July 5, 2011

Oh and also, from the International Journal of Obesity: Acupuncture for obesity: a systematic review and meta-analysis.
posted by Wordwoman at 11:35 AM on July 5, 2011

Also, one of my "I Am Not A Doctor, But I've Read A Lot of Stuff On The Topic Of Weight Loss" working theories is that even if acupuncture doesn't *directly* affect the weight loss, it definitely DOES help with stress, and so might assist with the cortisol/stress/weight gain connection.
posted by at 11:52 AM on July 5, 2011

I'm general proponent of acupuncture, though, I would not recommend it for weight loss. Usually you'd be also getting herbs, and to be honest, traditional chinese medicine for weight loss usually includes ephedra in the plant-stick form, which, hey, "natural", but also illegal in the US and not all that great for your heart or as a long term treatment choice.

TCM theory about weight is that it is "dampness" condition, produced by too much sugars/sweets (surprise), not enough movement (surprise), and a collection of cooling foods (which includes alcohol, fruit juices, tofu, and actual cold things, like ice cream, salads and ice water).

In the end, for weight loss, diet plus exercise is the way to go - acupuncture's effects are minimal in that area.
posted by yeloson at 4:44 PM on July 5, 2011

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