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Battling the Bulge with Chinese Medicine

Now that the holidays are over and the long nights of eating and merry-making are behind us, we can start worrying about all the weight we probably gained.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 97.1 million adults are overweight, and 39.8 million of those people also meet the criteria for obesity. America seems to suffer from this disorder more acutely than other countries.

Even more disturbing is the fact that approximately 280,000 deaths and 39.3 million missed workdays are attributable to obesity each year. Health conditions such as high cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis, gallstones and more accompany obesity. America needs to find an effective solution to this troubling health issue.

Fortunately, the health community has recognized that weight control and healthy living are important issues that require immediate attention. Un fortunately, the result has been an excess of solutions. The number of diets on record has grown to such staggering proportions that people no longer know which ones are healthy and actually work.

The Atkins diet? High carbs, low fat? Calorie counting? Jenny Craig? Slim Fast? The grapefruit diet? Metabolife? Lists like these present people with impossible choices that promise even more impossible solutions.

While Americans spend $33 billion annually on weight-loss products and services, the prevalence of obesity ( America only) increased 61 percent between 1991 and 2000, according to a 2001 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Western medical treatment for obesity is also unpredictable. Surgery has become a well publicized option, but the side effects are more than some people want to endure-dramatically reduced portion size, painful gas and too rapid weight loss among them.

Those seeking an alternative to these fads and painful solutions are turning to lifestyle changes that often include the use of acupuncture .

Acupuncture consists of the gentle insertion and stimulation of thin, disposable sterile needles at strategic points near the surface of the body. Over 2,000 acupuncture points on the human body connect with 14 major pathways, called meridians. Chinese medicine practitioners believe that these meridians conduct qi , or energy, between the surface of the body and internal organs. It is qi that regulates spiritual, emotional, mental and physical balance. When the flow of qi is disrupted through poor health habits or other circumstances, pain and/or disease can result. The 3,000-year-old practice of acupuncture helps to keep the normal flow of this energy unblocked.

Chinese medical treatment for obesity uses acupuncture for a variety of reasons. Acupuncture works to control weight gain on several levels. When attempting to diet, many people experience withdrawal, or cravings, because of a lack of endorphins. (It is this same imbalance of hormone levels that causes women to crave chocolate just prior to beginning menstruation.) The need to eat is often so strong that dieters binge on food. This is one reason why diets often cause people to gain more weight rather than lose it.

Acupuncture counterbalances these cravings by releasing endorphins in the brain, which actually alleviate the withdrawal symptoms many dieters experience and eventually succumb to.

Weight gain can also be caused by stress, which increases cortizol levels in the body. This increase in cortizol, which is often referred to as the "stress hormone," can alter metabolism, thus causing stressed people to gain weight. As with cravings, the endorphins released by acupuncture also help reduce stress, which can reduce the need to overeat.

According to Marly Wexler, a licensed acupuncturist and faculty member at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine , acupuncture can also help weight loss by regulating the body's metabolism.

"The reason I like using acupuncture [ weight loss treatment] is because it really does help the body become more efficient in the digestive process," Wexler said.

Wexler said that when people try to diet, metabolism becomes less efficient - yet another reason why many diets prove to be ineffective. Irregular food intake also weakens digestion, which often results in weight gain .

"People cut back on food or calories, but what that does is make the body store up on fat and diminish 'digestive fire,' which translates in Western medicine to metabolism," Wexler said.

By stimulating the hyopthalamus, acupuncture regulates the body's thyroid and hormone levels, which in turn regulate metabolism.

One patient who wrote about her experiences with acupuncture on acupuncture .com said that she had been suffering from weight fluctuation because of fad diets before she tried acupuncture. Weight loss was becoming a frustrating battle.

" I went to an acupuncturist in l984 in Boston because I was experiencing rapid weight gain and was dieting often to lose it," she said. "I went up and down from 110 pounds to 160 pounds several times. After two months of acupuncture treatments, I began to stabilize at 127 pounds and have remained at that weight ever since (except when pregnant). This stays stable no matter how much I exercise or whatever I eat."

Auricular, or ear, acupuncture is especially popular as a medical treatment for obesity . The vagus motor nerve, which drives the internal organs, has one sensory branch in the ear, as well as fibers that connect to taste buds and the saliva glands in the jaw. By applying pressure to the sensory branch of the vagus nerve, the stomach and taste systems are "calmed" so that they do not crave food after treatment with acupuncture. Weight loss is aided by this decrease in cravings.

In 1995, the American Journal of Acupuncture announced that "70 percent of the patients treated with ear acupuncture reported hunger abatement and demonstrated weight loss for a minimum of four weeks."

David Johnston received ear acupuncture at a clinic in Texas . He said, "[Before I went to an acupuncture clinic,] my weight was 250 pounds. I have been at this weight for three years. Since [receiving acupuncture ] treatment, I have lost 16 pounds."

Johnston said the most noticeable benefit from the acupuncture treatments was a decrease in cravings.

"I used to eat so much more - this treatment has curbed my appetite a lot," Johnston said. "I'm not gaining weight now. I'm very happy with the acupuncture ."

Receiving regular acupuncture treatments can also help patients manage weight because of the nutritional information acupuncturists have to share.

"You read so many different things in magazines and online," Wexler said. "That's why acupuncture is so great - you have someone who knows about nutrition telling you how to eat for your body type."

Several case studies verify that acupuncture is an effective way to control weight. In a study of 10,000 cases conducted by the Washington Acupuncture Centre over a period of three years, acupuncture was 66 percent effective for cases of obesity .

In another study reported by the British Medical Acupuncture Society, 54 patients were given acupuncture sessions at 15-20 day intervals. After four sessions, a reduction in overeating was reported by 81.1 percent of the patients. After six months, 88.9 percent of the patients reported weight loss .

In addition to being an effective alternative to dieting , acupuncture has few or no side effects when performed by a licensed acupuncturist. In 1993, the National Institutes of Health Consensus Conference on Acupuncture stated, "The data in support of acupuncture are as strong as those for many accepted Western medical therapies. One of the advantages of acupuncture is that the incidence of adverse side effects is substantially lower than that of many drugs or other medical procedures used for the same conditions."

One of the most appealing aspects of using acupuncture weight loss treatment for weight management is that it treats every patient as an individual.

According to licensed acupuncturist and Pacific College of Oriental Medicine faculty member Erin Raskin, weight gain can be caused by many different factors. Because every patients' internal system is different, acupuncture looks at every patient as an individual to locate the true source of the problem and thus acts as a more effective treatment.

Wexler said, "My favorite quote about this is by William Osler: 'It's more important to know the person who has the disease than the disease itself.' It's really what [ acupuncture ] is about."

Being treated as an individual is one of the aspects of acupuncture that Stephen and Sandi Kaufman liked about their treatments. Sandi said, "[The acupuncturist] took our extensive medical histories and we all decided on treatment plans that we would try."

Sandi said that in addition to being a more personalized weight loss solution, the acupuncture was remarkably effective.

"My husband and I have both been diagnosed as 'morbidly obese.' Together we were in excess of 575 pounds," Sandi said. "Stephen was extremely skeptical of acupuncture and very afraid. After only one session, we both felt much better. Stephen has lost over 35 pounds and two sizes, and I have lost almost 30 pounds and two dress sizes, in addition to one shoe size."

A licensed acupuncturist since 1988, Wexler said patients come in seeking help for weight loss every year.

"Patients are routinely asked about everything from work and play habits to diet, stress levels, exercise, sleep quality and digestion," Raskin said.

Some of the first things Raskin checks in each of her patients are thyroid and stress levels, which can both play an important role in weight gain .

Acupuncture has been cited by the World Health Organization to treat over 43 conditions, including stress and thyroid problems, as well as appetite suppression.

" Acupuncture can regulate many things, even if Western science can't explain exactly how it works," Raskin said.

However, Raskin is careful to warn that acupuncture works congruently and in conjunction with other modalities to effectively cause weight loss ; it is not a magic bullet for dieters.

"[ Acupuncture ] doesn't work that way," Raskin said. "It's about changing your lifestyle and adopting healthy habits that keep you in balance. Acupuncture is just one branch of that."

Wexler adds that acupuncture does have one added benefit that other lifestyle changes lack, which makes it a key component to weight loss .

"With acupuncture , you have the additional help of actively influencing the functioning of the organ systems," Wexler said. "With other [ weight loss ] methods, you don't have that."

Another branch of Oriental medicine that can aid the weight loss process is Tai Chi . Developed more than six centuries ago by Taoist monks, Tai Chi consists of a series of gentle moves carried out in a slow, continuous manner that allows every part of the body to exercise. Suitable for individuals in varying degrees of health, Tai Chi requires no special equipment and takes only 8-20 minutes to do.

Much like acupuncture , Tai Chi releases blocks in the body's energy channels. The rhythmic movements of the muscles, spine and joints remove the tense state of muscles, allowing qi and blood to circulate freely throughout the body.

Tai Chi is believed to: boost the immune system; slow the aging process; lower blood pressure; reduce the incidence of anxiety, depression, fatigue and overall mood disturbances; minimize the effects of chronic conditions such as allergies and asthma; and improve breathing capacity.

Tai Chi also provides the benefits of exercise by building strength, restoring balance, increasing flexibility and reducing stress. Tai Chi 's gentle movements and low physical impact make it a great activity for aging bodies, those recovering from injury, or people looking to change up their exercise routine.

With Americans' weight reaching staggering proportions, it is becoming increasingly important to find weight loss solutions that are safe and effective. Too often when Western medicine is used on its own, patients develop eating disorders or regain their old weight and then some. Oriental medicine provides a practical solution to the weight problem facing our country.

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