Obesity has more than doubled worldwide since 1980, and more than 1.9 billion adults were overweight or obese in 2014, according to the World Health Organization.

Prevention of obesity is still the best approach to this problem, but researchers around the world have been scrambling to find ways to help people lose weight and improve their overall health. Many believe that acupuncture is one way to do so.

Acupuncture has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine to treat many conditions. In traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is believed to help regulate qi (pronounced “chee”), or life force energy, as well as alter the absorption, excretion, metabolism, and distribution of substances throughout the body. It’s also believed to influence the function of specific organs and balance the body’s energy.

In Western medicine, acupuncture has been widely accepted to help adjust the body’s hormone levels, immune system, and neurotransmitters. It’s been shown to decrease pain and alter moods, according to the Harvard Medical School. However, researchers are only beginning to uncover how acupuncture works and its potential impact on various health conditions, including obesity and weight gain. The World Health Organization has stated that acupuncture is effective in the treatment of many diseases.

Acupuncture and weight loss

The use of acupuncture for weight loss is not as widely debated in the medical community. Multiple studies have been done to assess its potential to increase and maintain weigh loss. However, the results are contradictory. While many studies have linked acupuncture, electroacupuncture, and acupressure to improved weight loss or decreased body mass, many others have shown that acupuncture does not influence weight loss or appetite.

Recently there have been promising findings. A study from 2015 found that acupuncture combined with diet restrictions aided weight loss and reduced inflammatory reactions throughout the body more so than diet alone.

Acupuncture may also improve metabolism, the functioning of the intestines, and cholesterol levels. It may restore the balance of bacteria in the gut by adjusting the immune system, according to a study in Acupuncture in Medicine. 

It also appears to help improve mood and decrease stress and depression by increasing the release of specific neurotransmitters. Acupuncture may also suppress appetite and help people feel full, according to a study in The Scientific World Journal.

Acupuncture appears to be the most effective at aiding weight loss and reducing body mass when combined with exercise and dieting, says a recent study. Studies suggest that acupuncture’s impact on hormones, like insulin and cortisol, as well as its impact on digestive function, may be what aids weight loss.

Acupuncture has also been shown to improve complications associated with excess weight or obesity, like raised cholesterol and diabetes. A 2013 study showed that electroacupuncture might help treat insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.

How it works

The acupuncturist inserts extremely thin needles at strategic points on the body to target pressure points or other areas believed to be involved. After the needles are placed at various depths, they are sometimes stimulated with electricity or gently moved. Acupuncture is usually painless when performed by an experienced acupuncturist.

In addition to traditional dry needle acupuncture, some practitioners may add electrical current to the needles to further stimulate the insertion points and underlying structures. Studies show that electroacupuncture may impact the body differently than just the needles alone, but it’s not widely understood why.

Who should try acupuncture

Acupuncture is extremely safe when performed by an experienced practitioner, according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services. It may cause mild bruising or soreness. In rare, extreme cases, incorrectly performed acupuncture can cause organ injury or infections.

While acupuncture is safe for most people, you should avoid it if you have a bleeding disorder, according to the Mayo Clinic. People with a pacemaker should stay away from electroacupuncture as the electric activity may interact with the pacemaker.

It’s highly recommended that you talk to your doctor before beginning acupuncture treatment, especially if you are pregnant or have an ongoing health condition.

Before you go

Be sure to look for a certified practitioner. If you live in a state that doesn’t require acupuncturists to be certified or licensed, look for certifications from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.

It’s also important to ask how many treatments you will likely need and how much your treatment will cost before you begin. Many insurance companies are beginning to cover the cost of acupuncture treatment.

The bottom line

While the jury is still out on the exact impact of acupuncture on weight loss, most doctors and researchers are in agreement: Acupuncture is worth adding to what else you are doing to lose weight. It has extremely low risks, and its effects can be individualized. Acupuncture may be another great tool to help you lose weight and keep it off!

However, don’t forget diet and exercise. Researchers recommend pairing acupuncture treatments with other healthy lifestyle choices like portion control, healthy foods, and regular physical activity.