Needling issue of weight loss


About 80 per cent of Chinese people use acupuncture to treat obesity, writes SYLVIA THOMPSON

ACUPUNCTURE HAS a well-established reputation for helping people with various problems from giving up smoking to dealing with chronic pain. However, helping people lose weight is not something we associate with the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practice.

Last week, doctors from China came to Dublin to give a seminar on using acupuncture in the treatment of obesity. Dr Chen Xi from the Shanghai 6th People’s Hospital in Shanghai, China, explained that acupuncture is the treatment of choice for many obese people in China.

“About 80 per cent of Chinese people use acupuncture to treat obesity,” she says. “People would use other methods as well like changing their diet and exercising more but white collar workers in particular prefer to use acupuncture than pills if they are overweight.”

In TCM, the metabolism of each patient is analysed before specific acupuncture points are chosen to work on. “The key to correct treatment is selecting the correct acupuncture points, manipulating the needles when they are in place and making sure that the cause of obesity is fully understood,” explains Xi.

Electrical stimulation is sometimes also applied to the needles and the session is ended with five minutes of the TCM practice of cupping (warmed cups applied directly to specific acupuncture points).

The approach Xi uses in the Shanghai 6th People’s Hospital has been researched to find the optimal schedule of acupuncture sessions. “In China, many people choose to have 30 minutes of acupuncture once a day for 10 days, then take a three- to five-day rest, then have 10 more daily sessions, followed by rest, followed by 10 more sessions,” she explains.

“However, our research shows that it is better to have three sessions a week over a three-month period.

“It’s important to decrease the body weight by 10 per cent over three months [with a weight loss of 260g after each acupuncture session] and then see if you can maintain that lower body weight for another three months. That way, the body can establish a new balance,” she explains.

If more treatment is required, it can be started six months after the initial treatment began. “Some Chinese people over 50 also have weekly sessions of acupuncture to keep their body weight under control,” she adds.

Xi is keen to point out that obesity which originated in adulthood is easier to treat than obesity that originated in childhood. She concurs with Western medical doctors when she says, “the period of time when the mother is 30 weeks pregnant up to when the child is 18 months old is a sensitive period. If the child has too much energy intake [food] during that period, the number of fat cells in the body will increase sharply.”

The big question is whether overweight people in Ireland would sign up for acupuncture between three and seven times a week. In China, hospitals are set up to accommodate six to eight people having acupuncture at the same time in a ward with minimal privacy.

Here, most acupuncturists treat patients individually although it is not unheard of to have three to four people undergoing acupuncture treatment at the same time, albeit in private clinics.

The other big issue is cost. In China, a session of acupuncture costs about €2 (most of which is covered by health insurance) for 20 minutes whereas in Ireland, a session of acupuncture costs €60-€65 for 45-60 minutes.

If an Irish person opted for this approach to treating obesity, it would cost at least €1,800.

Some acupuncturists working here have treated clients for obesity with fewer sessions of acupuncture than suggested by Xi.

Generally speaking, a practitioner would put a programme together combining acupuncture with Chinese herbs, both of which would be used to regulate appetite, help the body digest food better and lift the spirits so as the client could deal with food better.

“In TCM, the aim is to ‘tone up’ the digestive system. A lot of attention is also placed on how you eat your food as well as what you eat. Many obese people have very poor eating habits,” says Amanda Hughes, TCM practitioner who has treated many people for obesity.

“People definitely lose weight with TCM – the big challenge is whether they can keep it off. I usually recommend my clients also go to a naturopath who will look closely at dietary and lifestyle factors.”

Dr Donal O’Shea, a consultant endocrinologist, treats many obese people at his clinic in the James Connolly Memorial Hospital in Blanchardstown, Dublin.

“Acupuncture clearly has a role in mainstream medicine but its effectiveness in treating obesity is unproven,” he says.

“At best, studies have found a 3kg weight loss but the average weight loss found is about 1.5kgs following a course of treatment,” he adds.

O’Shea is concerned that people will try anything to lose weight. “My clinic is full of people who have paid large amounts of money to help them lose weight.

“[In my view], the benefit of acupuncture is a reflection of the patient’s intent and the trouble is that their motivation will drop once the acupuncture sessions have finished.

“Perhaps, it has a role in helping people’s mental attitude to losing weight – in conjunction with dietary, physical activity and other approaches but [as of now] it hasn’t been studied in this way.”

And finally, as a visitor to Ireland, Xi says she has the impression that there is less social pressure on Irish people to keep a normal body weight.

“Obesity is a big problem everywhere with over 100 diseases associated with it.

“It seems to me that in China, there is more social pressure on people not to be obese whereas it looks like it is more acceptable here – which is not good for people’s health.”