Can Acupuncture Really Help You Lose Weight? Here’s What You Should Know

The ancient practice can help relieve pain, but its ability to help you shed pounds isn't quite as clear

Danielle Zickl |

Unless you’re freaked out by needles, you might have considered acupuncture as an alternative pain relief treatment. This traditional form of Chinese medicine dates back thousands of years and is based on targeting specific trigger points in your body using small, thin needles. Research finds that it may help alleviate some health issues, like back pain, sports injuries, or even anxiety.

Related: 8 Weird But Completely Effective Weight Loss Tips

Modern acupuncture is mostly used to stimulate your nerves, muscles, and blood flow. And in the past few years, there’s been some buzz surrounding acupuncture’s ability to help you shed kilos, too. In a study published in the British Medical Journal, Korean researchers randomly assigned 91 overweight people to a group receiving treatment at five ear acupuncture points, one ear acupuncture point, or a sham control group. They found that those receiving acupuncture saw their body mass index (BMI)—a marker of their weight—decrease by roughly six percent after eight weeks.

But can simply sticking a few needles in your body really help you shed kilos?

The science behind it isn’t quite clear yet. There’s a theory that putting these needles on the outer part of your ear stimulates various trigger points that may play a role in your appetite and metabolism, explains Sharon Zarabi, R.D., who works as the bariatric program director at Lenox Hill Hospital, where she counsels patients on nutrition and weight loss.

Related: Here’s Why You Should Reprogram Your Metabolism–And How To Do It

However, the association between acupuncture and weight loss isn’t that cut and dry, says Tim Rhudy, M.S., L.Ac., an acupuncturist at Delmar Wellness Centre in New York.

The reason? When you’re feeling stressed, your autonomic nervous system gives you a burst of adrenaline and floods your body with the hormone cortisol. This increases your appetite, potentially causing you to overeat. With acupuncture, the needles—which are very small and flexible and not at all like the ones you see in your doctor’s office—work to release the tension in your muscles by releasing feel-good endorphins, which helps put you in a calmer state. Relieving this underlying stress, in theory, would help calm your appetite.

Related: 11 Ways You Can Conquer Your Junk Food Cravings When You’re Stressed

“Acupuncture is like a reset button for the autonomic nervous system,” says Rhudy.

However, he is quick to point out that this stress-reducing effect doesn’t translate directly to weight loss. “If you don’t want to diet or exercise, all the acupuncture in the world won’t make you lose weight,” Rhudy says.

Related: Reduce Stress On Your Lower Back In Just 10 Minutes

While you’ll feel relaxed on the acupuncture table, and maybe even not as hungry, snacking on a donut later in your day still means you’re taking in empty calories. Zarabi backs this up. “Acupuncture doesn’t cause weight loss directly,” she says.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t give acupuncture a try if you’re curious about it. If performed by a professional using sterile needles, you probably won’t experience any side effects, she says. However, you should let your acupuncturist know if you wear a pacemaker, as the needles may interfere with its operation, or if you’re on any medications like blood thinners, since your chances of bleeding or bruising may increase, according to the Mayo Clinic.

A typical session lasts about 15 to 20 minutes, and an average of 30 needles are placed wherever your tightest muscles are, says Rhudy. While you won’t be two pounds lighter when you leave, you’ll likely feel as though the weight of the world was just lifted off your shoulders.

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