A record number of Americans are obese. A recent report conducted by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, titled The Annual State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America indicates that obesity continues to be a problem across the United States, with several states showing increases in the prevalence of adult obesity and related conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular problems.

The report, which used data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) show that states with high adult obesity rates are increasing with no less than one in five adults having obesity in every state. Adult obesity rates are at or above 35 percent in seven states. As recently as 2012, no state had an adult obesity rate over 35 percent.

Obesity continues to be an epidemic in the U.S., and in a quest to drop the pounds, Americans spend over $60 billion annually – this includes gym memberships, weight loss programs, supplements, according to Marketdata LLC, a market research firm that tracks the U.S. weight loss market.

Eating healthy and trying to shed weight can be difficult, and it’s said that 95% of diets fail. What makes it even more challenging is that in the U.S., there are large quantities of cheap, highly processed foods that are easily accessible and can be found everywhere and at any time.

Here’s How Acupuncture Can Get You Eating Healthier

Studies have shown that acupuncture for weight loss can be effective when combined with traditional methods of weight loss. Acupuncture has shown to affect appetite and cravings, improve intestinal motility and metabolism, as well as emotional factors such as stress.

A study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience  revealed that acupuncture application to obese people increases excitability of the satiety center in the ventromedial nuclei of the hypothalamus. Acupuncture stimulates the auricular branch of the vagal nerve and raises serotonin levels. Both of these activities have been shown to increase tone in the smooth muscle of the stomach, thus suppressing appetite. Among other things, serotonin enhances intestinal motility. It also controls stress and depression via endorphin and dopamine production. In addition to these effects, it is thought that the increase in plasma levels of beta endorphin after acupuncture application can contribute to the body weight loss in obese people by mobilizing the body energy depots through lipolithic effect.

“Acupuncture is a regulatory therapy – the type of therapy that helps balance all the systems in the body so when all of our organ systems work properly, then we have more of a chance to regulate other things like our weight,” said Pam Milask, L.Ac., L.OM., Dipl.Ac., adjunct professor of Oriental Nutritional Therapy at the Won Institute of Graduate Studies.

“As acupuncturists, we know it is vital to focus on digestion as it is the basis for good health. We work to improve the processing of the food and drink that we take into our bodies in terms of the proper breakdown, absorption, assimilation, and elimination, When these processes are functioning efficiently, it increases the ability of achieving and maintaining our normal weight and getting a handle on cravings,” said Milask.

In Chinese medicine, the cravings for extreme substances, such as refined sugar or for excess intake of the sweet flavor in general, for example can be pointing to some kind of imbalance in the stomach and spleen.

“White refined sugar has been proven to be 300 times more addictive than cocaine. Excessive or inappropriate consumption of sweets can stress the spleen function which then negatively affects our digestion and weight,” said Milask. “While one piece of candy may be fine for some, once eaten, its addictive quality can trigger an imperative and cause a loss of control for more and more. If someone is consuming lots of sugar, then the organ system is out of balance. In Chinese medicine theory, food/diet is the third spoke on the wheel of health and we can try to minimize or eliminate damaging substances by supporting the body with acupuncture,” she added.

Targeting the points to stop the cravings

Ear acupuncture therapy is based on the theory that the outer ear contains access points for the entire body. Specific acupoints on the ear are stimulated to control appetite and cravings that inevitably lead to weight loss. There is a point in front of the lower middle of the ear lobe where the ear meets the face, called the “discourage hunger” point that Milask stimulates. She also uses points on the ear that correlate with organs including the liver, spleen, kidney, stomach and heart, and other specific points, such as the bowel point (to encourage a letting go) and Shen Men (Divine Gate) point to help calm the nervous system. If someone is anxiety ridden about the dietary changes, Milask will use points in the ear that correlates with the heart, as well as the sympathetic point, which also helps soothe the central nervous system.

Regarding acupuncture for weight loss, someone will come in typically two to three times a week. After a session, Milask might put ear seeds in someone’s ear. Ear seeds or “auriculotherapy” is like having continuous acupuncture and prolong the effects of treatment. These are small black seeds from the Vaccaria plant that are secured in the ear with a piece of adhesive tape over specific acupuncture points. Ear seeds are typically used for weight loss, addictions and stress-related conditions.

Milask may also use acupuncture tacks, which are tiny metallic coil which ends in an even smaller needle point attached to a small piece of flesh colored tape to various points that correspond to the areas of treatment.

“Ear seeds are good because it’s a constant stimulus to calm down, or it’s great for strengthening an organ like the spleen,” said Milask.

When clients come back for another session, Milask will either remove or add more ear seeds.

A three-tier strategy

If someone is looking to lose weight, acupuncturists will use a triple prong approach – this includes acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine and/or supplements, as well as food journaling where food intake/diet is described each day.

In the case of someone who has sugar cravings, acupuncturists may use other tools along with needling to control the sweet tooth. Milask, for example educates her clients about eating quality whole foods to nourish the body and stop the cravings. She gives them her own recipe for a drink called “sweet drink,” which is a mixture of all organic squash, carrots, cabbage, and onions that are simmered – the concoction creates a sweet flavor. When a 3 p.m. craving hits and you want to reach for that donut in the break room, or the chocolate bar in the vending machine, sipping on this cocktail throughout the day will positively nourish the need for sugar. By refusing refined sugar, the spleen is being balanced to function better and the appetite for harmful sweets is diminished.  

Over time, as someone is able to minimize or eliminate the consumption of processed and sugary foods from the body and replaces it with more quality, nourishing whole foods, the cravings can be suppressed and the person begins to feel better.

“If you can get someone off the sugar for at least two weeks by giving them other tools to cope, they can get a taste of what it’s like to be free of the substance.” They then have the freedom to choose if they want to stay this way,” said Milask.

However, as humans, it’s not uncommon to fall off the wagon – that piece of cake you had at your child’s birthday party has now got you jonesing for more sweets, but it’s not the end of the world.

Milask recalls a female client who was 30 to 40 pounds overweight and had a severe addiction to sugar. It took a while to get her off sugar and Milask supported her through acupuncture and other techniques like the sweet drink recipe and other healthier eating options. Eventually, the woman was able to eliminate the sugar from her diet completely. On a recent appointment to Milask’s office, the woman returned and said she was feeling so sluggish because she slipped and ate something she shouldn’t have.  

“Because she had the awareness of how bad she felt, it was her choice to get back on the wagon again. It’s doable to change behavior and help someone by supporting them with acupuncture, better food options and herbs to suppress the appetite and cravings,” said Milask.  

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