Man getting acupuncture on shoulder

Can Acupuncture Help With Weight Loss?

On its own, not so much. But alongside other efforts, yes.

Inserting needles into pressure points on your body may sound a little woo-woo, but acupuncture delivers legit health benefits. It can help regulate hormones, reduce stress levels, and even improve digestion (1). But when it comes to whether acupuncture can help with weight loss, the science is a bit murky.

Acupuncture won’t prompt weight loss on its own, but experts (and research) suggest it can help as a supplemental therapy.

“People expecting to just use acupuncture alone for weight loss will likely be disappointed,” says licensed acupuncturist, Theodore Levarda. “However, acupuncture can help support weight loss by helping you feel better so that you can do the things needed to lose weight—eating healthy [foods], exercising, and sleeping better.”

The ancient practice may also help balance some hormones related to hunger, says naturopathic doctor and licensed acupuncturist Jannine Krause, N.D. This can help signal your body that you’re full, curb stress eating, and quell obsessive thoughts about food that drive cravings.

Here’s a look at how acupuncture might give you a bit more fuel on your weight loss journey, and boost your overall health along the way.

About the Experts

Jannine Krause, N.D., L.Ac, is a licensed acupuncturist who holds a doctorate in naturopathic medicine, and hosts the podcast The Health Fix. Her practice in Tacoma, Washington, focuses on hormone balance, metabolism, athletic performance, and emotional wellness.

Theodore Levarda, L.Ac, is a licensed acupuncturist and certified myofascial trigger point therapist at Morningside Acupuncture in New York City. His practice specializes in pain reduction and addressing stress-related disorders, with a focus on calming the nervous system to restore balance between the mind and body.

Tom Ingegno, D.A.C.M., L.Ac, holds a doctorate in acupuncture and Chinese medicine, with a specialty in integrative health, focusing on reducing inflammation and improving circulation. He is the current chair of the Maryland Board of Acupuncture, co-host of the Irreverent Health podcast, and practices at Charm City Integrative Health in Baltimore.

What Is Acupuncture?

Before delving into the science of acupuncture for weight loss, it’s helpful to understand the practice itself. Acupuncture is a core part of traditional Chinese medicine that’s been used for centuries to treat and prevent illness (1).

Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners believe that energy, called Qi, flows throughout the body along specific channels called meridians, similar to the way blood vessels and nerves carry electrical signals and blood. When there’s a blockage in your Qi, or it’s not flowing as well as it could be, thin, flexible needles are placed at points that are meant to restore that flow (2).

The needles are thin and flexible, about the size of a strand of hair, unlike the type of hypodermic needles used to draw blood or deliver medicine, which are thicker and inflexible. Unlike acupressure, which can be performed using specialized pressure on the skin, acupuncture involves needles entering acupoints beneath the skin, and is administered by a licensed practitioner.

Acupuncture for Weight Loss

Anyone who’s tried to lose weight knows, it’s not as simple as “calories in, calories out.” Inflammation, hormone imbalances, chronic stress, and poor sleep can contribute to weight gain—and make it harder to drop pounds, says Krause.

Acupuncture helps address those factors so you’re in a better place—physically and mentally—to lose weight.

Benefits of Acupuncture

Reduces inflammation

Research on rodents has shown that stimulation of specific acupoints may produce an anti-inflammatory effect (3). Weight gain is associated with an increase in inflammation, and acupuncture may just help bring that inflammation down.

A study on acupuncture and people with obesity found that an inflammatory marker called C-reactive protein increased alongside the number on the scale (4). Researchers suggested that the metabolic and hormonal shifts prompted by excess weight could kick off this inflammatory process. But, acupuncture combined with dietary changes tended to be effective in bringing inflammation back down and subsequently, aided weight loss.

Improves central nervous system function

“Acupuncture helps to regulate the nervous system,” Levarda says. She adds that when the nervous system is regulated, it can help alleviate anxiety, boost energy levels, reduce pain, support digestion, and even improve sleep (5).

Poor sleep and weight gain often go hand-in-hand. One study shows that sleep restriction can increase inflammation, decrease levels of leptin (the hormone associated with satiety), and elevate hunger levels (6).

An out-of-whack nervous system may also directly contribute to weight gain, according to research in Frontiers in Physiology. The researchers found that when people are stressed, the sympathetic nervous system gets stuck in the overactive “fight or flight” state, which reduces the body’s capacity to burn excess calories (7).

An overactive sympathetic response cues your body to deal with threats (think: defense mode), which usually means holding onto energy stores (so that you’re prepared for battle) rather than using those calories at a steady rate (7).

Regulates weight-related hormones

When hormones related to satiety—like leptin, ghrelin, and insulin—aren’t balanced, hunger signals can surge even after you’ve had a satisfying meal. Hormones related to thyroid function and stress (cortisol) can also drive weight gain.

Acupuncture has been shown to help regulate these hormones, supporting weight management, according to Tom Ingegno, a doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine.

For example, a research review found in Acupuncture in Medicine suggests acupuncture seems to affect leptin and ghrelin as well as lipid metabolism when combined with dietary changes (8). The review indicates that acupuncture can help balance ghrelin levels and regulate leptin receptors, which may ultimately help you reach your weight loss goals.

“Modern society has us stuck in the sympathetic, high-stress state,” he says. “In this state, our cortisol levels are higher, and thyroid function can be disrupted.

Improves mood

“The emotional component of weight loss is often overlooked,”Ingegno says. “This is part of the reason so many fail when dieting. Acupuncture has been shown to improve both anxiety and depression, which are underlying issues when people stress eat.”

Acupuncture has been shown to help regulate neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and anandamide, he adds. These are “feel-good” chemicals that help with emotional regulation (9).

For example, one recent review revealed that stress, depression, and anxiety can lead to using food as a coping mechanism (10). Addressing that root cause of mood issues can help break that cycle, Ingegno says.

Acupuncture Side Effects

Acupuncture is a treatment, so there can be side effects. In most cases, they tend to be mild, such as discomfort at a needle insertion point.

A research review in Chinese Medicine found sleepiness, dizziness, and digestive symptoms like nausea, dry mouth, and heartburn can also crop up after treatment (11).

When to Expect Results

No matter your reasoning for going to acupuncture, it can take some time to notice any changes in your body, from a mental and physical perspective.

“Most people will feel more relaxed during that first session, which shows its ability to help reduce stress,” he says. “For more severe stress, it will take some time to see changes.” Talk to an acupuncturist to see when you can expect to start feeling changes, as it depends on what’s getting treated. Often, people will feel a boost in energy and their mood after just four treatments.

However, the time frame will also depend on other factors like your overall health, the severity of your condition, and whether you have multiple medical conditions that may need to be addressed.

If you decide to work with a health professional to see if prescription weight loss medications are right for you, acupuncture can be used as an adjunct therapy to further help regulate hunger hormones.

The Bottom Line

Acupuncture won’t magically whisk fat cells away, but the practice offers other benefits that can help lay the groundwork for weight loss. Not only can it support your emotional health and nervous system regulation, but acupuncture can aid in hormonal balance, too.