Jillian L. Capodice, LAc discusses four studies on acupuncture and complimentary/alternative medicine for weight loss.

by  Jillian L. Capodice, LAc

Obesity in the United States is a great concern and the most recent study shows an increase in the percentage of obese adults from 31.1% to 33.3% in men and 33.2% to 35.3%, in women (from 2002-2003 to 2004-2005) 1. Moreover, obesity increases risk for a variety of medical conditions and disease such as:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Diabetes Mellitus (DM Type 2)
  • High cholesterol
  • Certain cancers  (eg: endometrial, breast, and colon)
  • Stroke
  • Liver and Gallbladder diseases
  • Sleep apnea and respiratory problems
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Gynecological problems (e.g: abnormal menses, infertility)
  • Erectile dysfunction

Acupuncture, electro acupuncture and auricualr acupuncture have recently been in the news and reporters have been discussing recent studies and its potential to aid weight loss.  Some examples of traditional medicine-based treatment principles for weight loss include nourishing/draining the spleen (pi)/stomach (wei) and supporting central qi, regulating digestion, and eliminating stagnation of qi in the meridians which assists in increasing metabolism.  A few hypotheses on physiologic mechanisms of action of acupuncture for weight loss include release of endorphins and subsequent modulation of immune and endocrine fucntions, activation/deactivation of central mechanisms (e.g: hypothalamus, brain stem) that contribute to feelings of satiety and hunger, and elevation of mood by endorphins/enkalphins and other neuropeptide release. 

 Below, I outline four recent studies.  Two randomized clinical trials performed by Cabioglu et al, one epidemiological study on adult use of  CAM practices for weight loss and a literature review (not systematic) of many of the acupuncture clinical trials.

It is important to take a look at these studies as other health professionals and patients may ask what is going on in the research world when considering using acupuncture treatment to assist in weight reduction. Also for clinicians, analysis of the selection of acupuncture points (in red) used is interesting and may be useful to add to  individualized point prescriptions.  Finally while I only highlight studies on acupuncture for weight loss bear in mind that there is also a lot of research being done on TCM herbs and other modalities including moxibustion, qi gong and other eastern-based martial arts. 

Four recent studies

1. The efficacy of electroacupuncture therapy for weight loss changes plasma lipoprotein a, apolipoprotein a and apolipoprotein B levels in obese women. Cabioglu MT, et al..Am J Chin Med. 2008;36(6):1029-39.

Objective:        To investigate the effects of electroacupuncture (EA) treatment on lipoprotein A, apolipoprotein A and  apolipoprotein B levels in obese subjects (n=58)

Trial design:    Randomized, placebo controlled clinical trial.  Electroactupuncture (EA), diet only, placebo EA


  • Electro acupuncture (EA) (2hz), Daily treatment, 30 minutes over 20 consecutive days
  • Points: Hunger, Shen Men, Stomach- Auricular
  • Hegu (LI 4), Quchi (LI 11), Tianshu (St 25), Zusanli (St 36), Neiting (St 44) and Taichong (Liv 3)
  • Diet program for all groups


·         4.7% (p < 0.001) versus  2.9% (p < 0.001) weight reduction in EA group vs control (weight reduction group)

·         Decreases in apolipoprotein A (Apo) and apolipoprotein B (p < 0.05) in EA vs control

Conclusion:     EA may help to reduce weight loss and lower ApoA/B in obese women.  Further studies are warranted.

2. Serum IgG, IgA, IgM, and IgE levels after electroacupuncture and diet therapy in obese women. Cabioglu MT et al.. Am J Chin Med. 2007;35(6):955-65. 

Objective:        To investigate the effect of acupuncture therapy on obese women’s body weight and peripheral                            blood levels of serum immunoglobulin G (IgG), immunoglobulin A (IgA), immunoglobulin M                              (IgM), and immunoglobulin E (IgE) (n=63)

Trial design:    Randomized, controlled placebo clinical trial.  Electroactupuncture (EA), diet only, placebo EA

Intervention:   Electro acupuncture (EA) (2hz), Daily treatment, 30 minutes over 20 consecutive days

Points: Hunger, shen men- Auricular

Hegu (LI 4), Quchi (LI 11), Zusanli (St 36), Neiting (St 44) and R6

Ear needles placed in hunger point daily after treatment

Diet program for all groups




Diet only

Placebo EA

P value

Weight loss (%)





–          IgG levels significantly lower in EA vs diet and placebo respectively

–          IgA, IgM, IgE unchanged

Conclusion:     EA coupled with calorie restricted diet in obese women appeared to demonstrate a greater effect on weight reduction than diet alone.  IgG levels were modulated by EA. 

3.  Use of complementary and alternative medicine for weight control in the United States. Sharpe PA et al. J Altern Complement Med. 2007 Mar;13(2):217-22.

Objectives:      Examine the prevalence and correlates of CAM use for weight control by adults

Trial design:    List-assisted random-digit-dialed telephone survey of adults (n=11,211)

Population:      Non-institutionalized US adult population

Results:           Analyses focused on 372 people who had used CAM within the previous 12 months

                        Of those, 3.3% (n = 372) had used a CAM therapy in the previous 12 months

Higher adjusted odds ratios (age, race, gender, education, and city size) for CAM use were found among those who were:

                                    – exercising for weight control

                                    – using a lower carbohydrate, higher protein diet

                                    – using a nonprescription weight-loss product(s)

                                    – were overweight

                                    – were physically active

                                    – were not satisfied with one’s body

Self rated health of poor (on a scale of excellent to poor) and having a diagnosis of heart disease, diabetes, or hypertension was not significantly associate with CAM use.

 The most often used therapies were:

o   yoga (57.4%)

o   meditation (8.2%)

o   acupuncture (7.7%)

o   massage (7.5%)

o   Eastern martial arts (5.9%)

o   Other therapies:  hypnosis, subliminal message, prayer, pilates, guided imagery, chiropractic, light therapy, colon cleansing, energy healing

 Users used CAM:

                        – on their own (62.6%)

                        – in a group setting (26.8%)

                        – with a CAM practitioner (10.6%)


Conclusions:    Use of CAM for weight loss other than supplements is lower.  The most popular therapy was yoga and the majority of users performed/used practices on their own.  Persons who had previously used other weight loss methods were more likely to use CAM.

4. Acupuncture for the treatment of obesity: a review of the evidence. Lacey JM, et al. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2003 Apr;27(4):419-27.

Uncontrolled trials-synopsis

  • Poor reporting
  • Reports from China appear to be positive with regard to acupuncture and weight loss, cardiovascular risk factors and carbohydrate metabolism
  • US reports begin in the 1970s and there are a number of auricular acupuncture clinical trials with treatment periods that range from 4-8weeks
  • More recent studies 2 examined auricular acupuncture w/ diet and aerobic exercise and body weight and fate were reduced by at least 2kg and 1% respectively

Controlled trials-synopsis

Adapted from:  Acupuncture for the treatment of obesity: a review of the evidence.  Lacey JM, et al. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2003 Apr;27(4):419-27.



Treatment description 

Point placement 





Post-treatment outcomes 











Bahadori et al 


Tested effect of diet/AP combination

Not specified

Not specified

8 wks

Not reported





Two interventions









(i) hypocaloric diet and AP;





(i) -7.7 4.4 kg

(i) Sig. imp. in eating behavior



(ii) hypocaloric diet only





(ii) -3.6 2.2 kg


Mazzoni et al 

40 (7 M 17.5%)

Compared (A) AP with moxibustion to (B) placebo controls

(A) somatic and auricular AP pts

1 /wk

12 wks

A:36 6 kg/m2 

AP-induced wt. loss not clin. sig.; No sig. in BMI in either grp.

Sig. in BES, BDI, and STAI-1 in (A), not (B)




(B) minimal somatic AP pts. (superficial and lateral to treatment points in A)



B:33 4 kg/m2 



Shafshak 1995


Compared 1000 kcal diet and electro AP treatment at one of three auricular points

Three groups (St) stomach, (H) hunger, (PL) placebo

25 min, 5 /wk for 3 wks

8 wks

75–99 kg

(St) -1 to -4 kg (H) -1.5 to -3.5 kg (PL) -1 and -3 kg (n=2)c; Both (St) and (H) sig. Diff. from (P), but not w/in (St) and (H)

(St) and (H) 75% able to adhere to 3 wk diet, compared to only 20% in grp (PL)

Sun andXu

161 AP: 110; CTR: 51 (2 M, 1.24%)

(AP) Auricular pellet pressure/body acupuncture treatment combination compared to controls given herbal supplement

Auricular: Mouth, Stomach, Esophagus, Abdomen, Hunger, Lung, Shenmen, Endocrine. Body: St 25, St 36, St 40, P 6, Sp 6

AP: auricle 3 /day and body 1 / 3–5 day; CTR: supplement taken b.i.d.

12 wks

AP: 68.8 6.9 kg CTR: 67 8.6 kg

AP: -5.04 kg; CTR: -2.08 kg. sig. greater in AP

AP: appetite reported by 61% of patients

Steiner et al 


Subjects randomly assigned to one of four treatment groups: (I) Sham AP, (II) Real AP incl. auricotherapy, (III) behavior modification only, and (IV) wait listed controls

(I) Body AP: insertion location w/in, but not on, general area of pts used in (II); (II) Body AP: Li 4, St 45, Sp 5, Gb 34A and Auricular AP: Lung, Stomach, Hunger, Mouth, Internal secretions, and Shenmen

Groups (I) and (II): 20 min., 1 /wk; (III): 1 session/wk

8 wks

89.7 kg

(I) -1.2 kg (II) -2.7 kg (III) -4.3 kg (IV) +0.5 kg (II) and (III) sig. greater than (IV); not sig btw (II) and (III)

Appetite reported in 100% of (II) and (III), compared to 50% in (I), and 25% in (IV)

Mok et al 

24 (1 M, 4%)

Compared three combinations of auricular AP point stimulation including two active and one placebo locus using a 3 3 factorial design

(A) unilateral pts. mouth and stomach; (B) bilateral mouth and stomach pts; (C) ankle and shoulder (placebo)

Several min, 30 min prior to eating;

9 wks; 3 wks per locus

Not reported

No sig. in weight in any group

No significant reports

Giller 1975


Auricular AP using press needles at four different points

Auricular points: (I)Lung, (II) Stomach, (III) Hunger, (IV) Placebo

2–3 min as needed to hunger or desire to eat

6 wks

Not specified

Not assessed

70% of those treated at Hunger point reported wt loss and hunger compared to 20% of those treated at other points

  =decrease, AP=acupuncture, BDI=Beck’s Depression Inventory, BES=Binge Eating Scale, b.i.d.=twice a day, btw=between, clin=clinically, CTR=control, diff=different, Gb=gall bladder, Grp=group, H=hunger, imp=improvement, Li=liver, M=male, P=pancreas, PL=placebo, pts=points, sig=significant, Sp=spleen, St=stomach, STAI-1=state and anxiety inventory, State (1) score, Wk=week.

Conclusions:    Acupuncture may be effective for weight loss but based on the available evidence, there is no clear consensus.  More studies are needed.


1.  Centers for disease control.  Viewed at http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/obesity/. Wednesday, December 10, 2008

2.  Huang MH, Yang RC, Hu SH. Preliminary results of triple therapy for obesity. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 1996; 20: 830–836

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