Limited studies suggest acupuncture may be an effective complementary treatment for overweight and obesity. This may be due to its ability to modulate metabolism, as well as other benefits.

The World Health Organization (WHO) considers overweight and obesity a worldwide epidemic due to their contribution to chronic health conditions, such as stroke and heart disease.

From 2013 to 2016, nearly half of the adults in the United States tried to lose weight. Aside from conventional weight loss treatments such as diet and exercise, some are willing to explore safe and effective alternative therapies for weight loss, like acupuncture.

Not many studies support acupuncture’s effectiveness on weight loss, but this article explores what the existing research says.

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Obesity occurs because of problems in energy metabolism and appetite regulation. While the mechanism is unclear, clinical studies, published in 2019, suggest that acupuncture may help to:

  • regulate the endocrine system
  • modulate metabolism
  • promote digestion
  • attenuate oxidative stress

A 2021 study concluded that acupuncture therapy for obesity involves targeting the neural circuits of the hypothalamus, the region that controls the body’s energy homeostasis and appetite.

Some studies show that acupuncture may help with weight loss.

A small 2015 study studied the effects of massage and manual acupuncture on 50 participants and found that both manual acupuncture and massage can reduce body weight and body mass index (BMI) significantly.

Another small 2015 study from Japan found that acupuncture on the ear area effectively caused changes in active levels of ghrelin, a hormone produced in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract that can increase hunger levels. Study participants in the acupuncture group experienced a reduction in body weight compared to the control group.

A 2019 review and meta-analysis on acupuncture for weight loss in Asians found that acupuncture effectively reduced waist circumference and BMI, but only reduced weight when combined with diet and exercise.

Additionally, a 2020 review comparing the effects of acupuncture with so-called “sham acupuncture” for simple obesity showed that acupuncture significantly reduced body weight and BMI compared to sham acupuncture. This appears to counter claims that the effects of acupuncture are merely a placebo effect.

A 2016 study demonstrated that acupuncture combined with metformin — a prescription medication that treats high blood pressure caused by type 2 diabetes — was more effective than metformin alone on weight loss and insulin sensitivity in people with diabetes.

Another 2017 meta-analysis reported that acupuncture, whether alone or with lifestyle interventions, significantly reduced BMI.

Acupuncture practitioners and advocates believe that acupuncture can help regulate the flow of energy that proponents call “qi” — which people pronounce and sometimes spell as “chi.” Advocates of acupuncture believe that this helps a person regain balance and reverse the biological mechanisms that lead to obesity.

Acupuncture uses thin needles that the practitioner inserts at specific sites on the body to stimulate nerves and organs that regulate energy and metabolism, including the endocrine system and thyroid glands. This may affect a person’s weight and aid weight loss.

Traditionally, people have used acupuncture widely to treat many other health problems besides body pain. Evidence also shows its effect on the nervous system and connective tissues.

Acupuncture is generally safe when a qualified and licensed practitioner performs it. People may prefer it because they experience fewer side effects than they do taking medication.

Some mild, short-term side effects that acupuncture commonly causes include:

  • needle site pain or tenderness
  • needle site bruising or bleeding
  • feeling dizzy
  • fainting
  • drowsiness

Serious side effects are uncommon in acupuncture. Below are rare complications associated with the treatment:

To ensure safety, a person should research and look for a trained practitioner who has a license to practice in their state.

Most practitioners do not recommend people undergo acupuncture if they have:

Like other weight loss methods, a person typically needs several sessions to see changes. To eliminate 10–15 pounds, one would need frequent treatments over an extended period of time — up to 8 weeks with multiple visits per week.

The program largely depends on the acupuncturist, but most will taper off visits as the program progresses.

A person may want to talk with their doctor if lifestyle changes, exercise, and diet do not work in reaching their weight loss goals. Their doctor may recommend medicines that can help.

In some cases, a doctor may also recommend bariatric surgery. The qualifications for bariatric surgery include:

  • having a BMI over 35
  • having a BMI over 30 for people with type 2 diabetes
  • having a BMI of between 30–34.9 for those who do not find substantial weight loss or comorbidity improvement using nonsurgical methods

It is also essential to talk with a doctor before trying alternative and nonconventional treatments for weight loss.

Doctors may also be able to recommend an acupuncturist on the nationally certified board.

Acupuncture is a type of complementary treatment that some people use to lose weight.

Research suggests that acupuncture can help to reduce BMI and body weight. It does this by reversing mechanisms that link to appetite and energy metabolism.

Acupuncture is generally safe, but it is essential to find a licensed practitioner to ensure safety. A person may need multiple sessions to see results and the cost depends on the program.