Chinese Medicine and Weight Loss

Chinese medicine, including acupuncture, herbal, and food therapy, can help with several aspects that are important to successful weight loss.  Acupuncture will not melt off fat and in many cases will have little to no effect if other factors, particularly stress and diet, are not also addressed.  Any acupuncturist, or really anyone else for that matter, that tells you can eat your fast food and lose weight is terribly misinformed.  

There are, at least in my own personal experience and clinical way of thinking, four broad types of weight loss patients.  The first type are stress eaters- who eat reasonable well but then splurge too often in response to stress.  The second group are those who eat poorly.  The third are the type of people with either neurological or hormonal disorders that make it difficult, if not impossible to lose weight even if the diet is spot on perfect.  I also consider people with weak stomach and/or spleen function (in the context of TCM) part of this group.  And the fourth type is some combination of the first three.

For stress eaters acupuncture can help reduce stress and to specifically reduce the cravings to eat when stressed.  The focus of treatment is explicitly not on weight loss but rather on helping the brain and the body chemistry to change so that the automatic response to stress is not to crave food.  In my clinical experience cravings can be reduced pretty quickly and ultimately eliminated all together for most people.  It is important to recognize that the patient plays a role as well.  The more strict they are with themselves initially the quicker the behavioral changes will become easier to implement and the quicker the cravings will become less frequent and/or intense.

For patients who simply eat poorly, acupuncture alone is pretty much useless for helping with weight loss.  Without making sometimes significant dietary changes, [natural] weight loss is pretty much going to be impossible.  Acupuncture can’t superboost your metabolism or drastically improve your body’s ability to burn through fats or carbs or sugars.  Or somehow convince your body that donut you just ate was actually just a funny looking vegetable.  Most of the time people in this group have some various other digestive issues, whether it is bloating, cramping, constipation, excess gas, reflux etc.  And most of the time these symptoms are directly caused by the foods they eat.  Acupuncture can help improve digestive functioning, improve the bowels, and help with pretty much any other digestive related symptoms.  This helps to prime the body to be able to lose weight in the first place but again is not by itself a strong enough result that the diet can be ignored.  So in my own practice my focus is on explaining appropriate dietary choices and using acupuncture to help alleviate what are mostly side effects of nutritionally poor food choices.   

For people with disorders such as PCOS or hypothyroidism, weight loss can be significantly harder, if not almost impossible, to achieve by dietary changes alone.  For these types of patients weight loss itself is really not the focus.  The focus is using acupuncture to help balance and restore the hormones and biochemistry of the body.  This in turn helps the body to be able to lose weight again.  Diet is still important, but until the body is rebalanced a good diet in these cases is mostly a non factor because even if they are eating as good as the possibly can the weight won’t come off.  Diet is important however to prevent more weight gain in the first place of course.

Most people end up in the fourth category – a combination of poor diet and weakness or inability of the body to lose weight effectively.  Each treatment is customized to each patient each time they are seen.  Even many of the dietary recommendations I make are customized and specific for each patient.  There really is no cookie cutter approach to weight loss (or any other condition for that matter).  

There are no magic Chinese herbs or formulas that burn off fat.  Chinese herbal therapy can be helpful for treating the various underlying causes of weight gain but do not specifically create weight loss by themselves.  Some formulas help strengthen the function of the spleen/stomach with the intent to help minimize the amount of damp that is generated.  Some formulas might help the liver to more effectively metabolize fats.  Some can help if water retention is part of the weight they might focus on aspects of the kidney system.  Some formulas can help reduce stress and anxiety which in turn helps reduce stress eating.  But no formula by itself will actually force the body to lose weight by burning off fat.

While exercise has basically no role in weight loss (according to multiple studies and my own personal and clinical experience) I still recommend people engage in regular activity as it does help to improve mental and emotional health as well as improving other aspects such as blood pressure, heart rate, sugar levels, etc.  If patients ask me what kind of exercise they should be doing I always recommend either yoga or tai chi as they both offer health benefits above and beyond what you can achieve from going to a gym.  

In summary, Chinese medicine can be a very powerful tool in helping people to achieve weight loss.  Most people will need to be willing to make some dietary changes as well.  


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  1. “While exercise has basically no role in weight loss (according to multiple studies and my own personal and clinical experience)”

    Hi I really like this point of view on weight loss, I was wondering if you’d be able to provide some of the studies that say that exercise has no role in weight loss?

    From what I’ve learned, it helps with the “calories in vs calories out” equation, helps with stress which decreases production of cortisol, etc. I know you said that you still recommend it, but I’m just curious to see the studies or abstracts to see how they came to these findings and why.

  2. So this study, this study, and this study is a start. Also I wouldn’t place that much emphasis, if any at all, on calories. As a simple explanation someone eating 1200 calories of leafy greens a day vs someone eating 1200 calories of candy bars are going to have vastly different long term effects on weight. I cannot over emphasize the importance of the quality of food and how calories are only a small part of the larger picture.

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