Acupuncture May Be Promising Weight Loss Strategy, Not Everyone Convinced

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Acupuncture is one of the oldest healing practices in the world. It has been practiced in China and other Asian countries for thousands of years, often for chronic pain. But scientists are studying a wider range of uses for the therapy, including the possibility that it can help with weight loss.

The term “acupuncture” describes a procedure that involves the stimulation of anatomical points on the body using a variety of techniques, but most often thin, solid metallic needles. It is based on the idea that stimulating certain “acupoints” promotes healing and enhances the body’s ability to function properly.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the body contains two opposing forces: yin and yang. When these are in balance, the body is healthy because energy – qi – constantly flows without being disrupted. A disruption can lead to illness. Westerners view the practice differently, but with the same ultimate outcome. Practitioners believe that acupuncture works by stimulating the central nervous system (the brain and the spinal cord) to release chemicals such as neurotransmitters and hormones which dull pain, boost the immune system and regulate various body functions.

Researchers in Korea have studied a particular form of acupuncture (ear acupuncture or auricular acupuncture) and how it might help reduce abdominal fat. The theory is that the outer ear represents all parts of the body. Two hundred points line the ears and each point is connected to a specific area.

Ear acupuncture was first used in France in 1956 after Dr. Paul Nogier noticed that a patient’s back-ache was relieved after sustaining a burn on the ear. Since, therapists have used auricular acupuncture to treat drug addiction and to help people give up smoking, in addition to promoting weight loss.

The team for this small study compared acupuncture of five points on the outer ear with a “sham” treatment on 91 overweight adults with a BMI of 23 or more. A BMI of 25 or greater is considered overweight. The participants followed a restrictive diet during the eight-week study, but did not participate in an exercise program. Thirty-one were assigned to the five-point treatment, thirty received acupuncture using only one point (a point that is thought to affect hunger), and the remaining thirty were given a similar treatment that was considered “sham” or not the proper practice.

Those who remained in the study (a substantial twenty-four dropped out) found that the active five-point treatment showed a 6.1% reduction in BMI. Those with the one-point therapy had a 5.7% drop. Those receiving the “sham” treatment experienced no significant weight loss.

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"If the trend we found is supported by other studies, the hunger acupuncture point is a good choice in terms of convenience. However, for patients suffering from central obesity, continuous stimulation of five acupuncture points should be used," said lead researcher Sabina Lim, from the department of meridian and acupuncture in the Graduate College of Basic Korean Medical Science at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, South Korea.

According to the Acupuncturecost.org, treatments range in cost from $75 to $125 and are covered by some, but not all insurance companies.

Some experts believe that while acupuncture is considered relatively safe when performed by a qualified practitioner, it is still a waste of money when used for the purposes of weight loss.

"It is hard to think of a treatment that is less plausible than ear acupuncture," said Edzard Ernst, a professor of complementary medicine at Britain's University of Exeter.

"While it's good to see attempts to evaluate so-called alternative treatments using the same approach as is used for more conventional treatments, this study has several features that complicate the picture," adds Kevin McConway, a professor of applied statistics at Open University. He comments on the fact that nearly a third of the study participants did not complete the course and that the study lasted only weight weeks.

"Collectively, these limitations render the findings far too unreliable for issuing recommendations about the use of ear acupuncture," he concludes.

Journal Reference:
S. Yeo, K. S. Kim, S. Lim. Randomised clinical trial of five ear acupuncture points for the treatment of overweight people. Acupuncture in Medicine, 2013; DOI:10.1136/acupmed-2013-010435

Additional Resources:
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM)
Discovery Fit and Health: Acupuncture Overview

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