In traditional Chinese medicine, excess weight is often viewed as “dampness.” When an individual consumes too much food, the excess food can accumulate as dampness, placing a strain on the body’s digestion, absorption, and transportation of nutrients.
Acupuncture and Chinese herbs are two therapies utilized to eliminate that accumulated dampness. Chinese medicine may target the physical mechanisms involved in weight loss and the mental involvement, such as the urge to overeat, or both. But we can all understand that there are a host of factors involved in an individual’s weight.
An individual measuring their weight
Acupuncture for Weight Loss
A meta-analysis in 2019 evaluated acupuncture for weight loss in 1,151 subjects from 12 randomized controlled trials. The analysis included trials that evaluated acupuncture against sham acupuncture, no intervention, acupuncture plus diet and exercise, and/or only diet & exercise.
The main measurements included body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference. The analysis found that significant reductions in BMI occurred in the group receiving acupuncture in comparison to the sham acupuncture as well as in comparison to the group without intervention.
Therefore, the researchers concluded acupuncture to be an effective intervention for weight loss. This short-term study recommended that longer-term studies be conducted to evaluate the longevity of these effects on BMI and waist circumference.
An earlier meta-analysis in 2017 found 11 randomized controlled studies with 338 participants who received acupuncture and 305 participants who received sham acupuncture.
The analysis found acupuncture to significantly reduce BMI in obese patients in comparison to sham acupuncture. The researchers also found significant reductions in waist circumference and hip circumference.
A similar meta-analysis in 2012 found supportive results. This study interestingly concluded that Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture were more effective on bodyweight reduction than both placebo and lifestyle modification. And the efficacy was similar to that of conventional prescriptions. The study was limited to small sample sizes and therefore, further studies are necessary to generalize these findings.
Many of these acupuncture studies were notably conducted on obese patients. Therefore, in order to determine if acupuncture is effective for weight loss in non-obese individuals, further studies with other patient populations are necessary.
Many individuals who are obese and experience type 2 diabetes are prescribed the medication metformin. Metformin on average reduces weight in individuals by 5%. While the weight loss can be therapeutic, it typically is not significant enough to result in clinical weight control.
Acupuncture With Medications for Weight Loss
A randomized controlled trial in 2016 evaluated acupuncture with metformin in comparison to metformin alone to consider whether acupuncture could be an adjunct therapy to increase weight loss.
The results found that the acupuncture addition led to a significant improvement in body weight and body mass index along with fasting blood sugar, fasting insulin, free fatty acids, LDL cholesterol, and more.
These indicators suggested improved insulin sensitization and lipid metabolism in these patients receiving acupuncture. The study concluded that acupuncture may be a beneficial therapy in weight control for type 2 diabetic and obese patients.
A randomized crossover study in 2005 compared the therapeutic effect of acupuncture against sit-up exercises for weight loss. Fifty-four obese women were randomized to either receive electroacupuncture or perform sit-up exercises for 6 weeks. After the intervention and a 7-day washout period, the groups switched to the opposite intervention.
All of the participants had not received any other weight control interventions within the last 3 months prior to the study. This exclusion eliminated potential factors where previous weight-loss strategies could have altered the data.
The electroacupuncture produced significant reductions in body weight, BMI, and waist circumference compared with the sit-up exercises. Therefore, the study found electroacupuncture to be an effective therapy for reducing weight in obese women.
A double-blind randomized crossover study in 2016 assessed laser acupuncture in comparison to sham acupuncture as therapeutic interventions on anthropometric measurements and appetite sensations. The study randomly assigned 52 obese subjects to either receive laser acupuncture or sham acupuncture for 8 weeks, followed by a two-week washout period and then 8 weeks in the opposite group.
The laser acupuncture intervention significantly decreased patient BMI, body fat percentage, waist-to-hip ratio, waist circumference, and hip circumference. The data found no decreases in these measurements in the sham acupuncture group.
Additionally, laser acupuncture significantly improved ratings on fullness, hunger, satiety, and desire to eat in comparison to baseline. Therefore, acupuncture may hold the potential to produce body weight changes in addition to hunger cravings.
A reduction in hunger cravings may help increase the longevity of a weight loss intervention since most weight-loss interventions struggle with the maintenance of that weight loss.
Chinese Herbs Targeting Weight Loss
Chinese herbs commonly recommended for weight loss target a variety of metabolism mechanisms in the body. Many of these herbs focus on lipid metabolism through cholesterol reductions or the enzyme that produces new fat in the body, fatty acid synthase.
Research on Chinese herbs
The following studies highlight five different targets of Chinese traditional herbs.
Chinese Herbs and Fatty Acid Synthase Activity
A study in 2004 evaluated 31 traditional Chinese medicinal herbs utilized for weight reduction. Seventeen of these herbs inhibited fatty acid synthase (FAS) activity and 9 of those herbs were highly potent FAS inhibitors.
FAS inhibition is a possible mechanism behind the efficacy of traditional Chinese herbs for weight loss. FAS is an enzyme responsible for synthesizing fatty acids in the human body.
These active herb components included tuber fleeceflower, parasitic loranthus, green tea leaf, and ginkgo leaf.
Ginseng and Lipid Metabolism
A clinical trial published in 2003 examined the effects of Panax ginseng extract on lipid metabolism in humans. To evaluate the lipid metabolism in an individual, the data collected included serum total cholesterol, triglyceride, low-density lipoprotein, and plasma malondialdehyde (MDA) levels.
The participants received Panax ginseng extract for 8 weeks. The study found the herb to reduce the previously mentioned lipid biomarkers, suggesting Panax ginseng as a lipid-lowering (hypolipidemic) therapy option.
A follow-up study is necessary to evaluate whether these effects on serum measurements could produce significant weight loss.
Weight management patients
Similarly, Korean red ginseng is reported to have anti-hyperlipidemic effects. A study in 2010 extracted red ginseng acidic polysaccharides from Korean red ginseng. The study gave oral administration of the extract to rats.
The researchers found Panax red ginseng to enhance the activity of lipoprotein lipase in a dose-dependent manner. Lipoprotein lipase is an enzyme involved in breaking down the circulating lipids in the bloodstream. And this breakdown is involved in weight loss.
While this study was limited to animals, it supports the continuation of this research in a human clinical trial.
Lastly, a systemic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials published in 2021 in the Journal of Obesity concluded Chinese herbal medicine to be a promising adjunctive therapy to weight management.
Unlike conventional pharmaceuticals, Chinese herbs produced minimal to no reported side effects in these trials. Further ongoing studies will add to the support of Chinese herbs for healthier weight management as a promising therapy.