Acupuncture and Herbs for Weight Management

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There are a ton of diets out there, from low carb to high-carb, low fat food to the high fat Paleo diet, high protein to food combining or dissociated. No matter which diet you choose, the three ‘highs’ (high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high cholesterol) aren’t getting any lower.

In Western medicine, being overweight is perceived as a result of overindulgence in food, poor eating habits, and inadequate exercise. However, I often see clients who say they eat little and exercise daily, but are still unable to lose weight. So how can we attain weight loss in a more holistic way?

Traditional Chinese Medicine is one approach. TCM doesn’t look at how many calories someone ingests, but rather the person’s unique constitution, the condition of the organs, and their mental condition. The causes of weight gain, according to TCM, are linked to the Spleen, the Kidneys, and the Liver. The concepts are as follows:

1) THE SPLEEN: The spleen is responsible for proper transformation of food and is in charge of nourishing the muscles and limbs. The Chinese concept of the Spleen corresponds to the digestive system, which differs from the spleen organ of Western medicine. According to TCM theory, the spleen, together with the stomach, digests and absorbs nutrients. When the spleen functions well, nutrients are well digested, organs are well nourished, muscles are well rounded, the limbs remain strong, and wastes and toxins are properly eliminated from the body. When the spleen’s functions are impaired, excessive mucous and body fluids (called ‘dampness’ in TCM) are produced which then collect in the body and turn into fat. The limbs may feel heavy and puffy and exhibit the dreaded cellulite. Symptoms associated with a weak spleen include weight gain around the waist, heavy limbs with poor muscle tone, and chronic digestive symptoms such as bloating, loose stools, fatigue after meals, cloudy thinking, and poor concentration (especially upon rising in the morning). To make things worse, people with weak spleens often crave sweets which further aggravate their conditions and create additional digestive issues and weight gain.

Chinese medicine practitioners always look at the patient’s tongue; that is how we assess the body and organ imbalances. When a spleen is deficient, the tongue  appears more swollen, with teeth marks visible on each side of the edge of the tongue. If your digestive system is not functioning well, it does not matter how much exercise you do, it will be difficult to keep the weight off and feel energized.

The function of the spleen declines as we age, which is why middle-aged and older people often find themselves gaining weight more easily, and need to adapt their diet to their constitution. I often see female clients who exercise a lot and eat plenty of raw vegetables and drink vegetable and fruit juices on a daily basis. Yet this is exactly what I ask them to avoid – raw, cold food and salads! I often get a strong reaction when I tell them this as they don’t understand why they should avoid eating food high in vitamins.

Chinese medicine is not the only holistic medicine that believes the digestive system needs sufficient ‘heat’ in order to process food properly. Ayurvedic medicine also believes that the food we eat needs to be converted into a suitable form so as to help the body absorb it. This conversion is brought about by Agni – also known as ‘fire’, which makes all metabolic functions possible. The problem with raw foods is that they are difficult to digest, and can create bloating and loose stools in people with weak digestive ‘fire’. There is no point in eating healthy foods if you cannot absorb them. In fact, some foods are actually more nutritious, and the nutrients better absorbed, when cooked. This is the case for kale, the iron content of which is more easily absorbed in its cooked form.

2) THE KIDNEYS: The TCM concept of the kidneys is very broad. The kidneys perform many functions – growth, longevity, reproduction, elimination, hormonal balance, libido, blood formation, and strong teeth and bones. Chinese medicine considers the kidney the most vital organ as it stores essence, the foundation for life. As we age, our kidney energy weakens. Kidneys can also be weakened by leading a hectic lifestyle (ie. excessive behaviours which can include poor sleeping habits, too much sex, excessive work or weight lifting, burning the candle at both ends, or too many pregnancies or hormonal treatments). The kidneys are also responsible for our metabolism and water elimination, both of which have an impact on our weight.

When the kidneys don’t function properly, the limbs begin to retain water, especially the knees and ankles. When the kidney has a deficiency of yang energy (lack of heat), people often complain of exhaustion, coldness (especially in the lower back, but also all over the body), as well as weak libido, weak knees, and pain in the lower back.

With weak kidney energy, the metabolism is slowed down and there is not enough ‘heat’ in the body to burn off calories. A western diagnosis of hypothyroidism can correspond to a yang deficiency of the kidneys.
In Chinese medicine, food is considered the path to healing within the body, which is why TCM practitioners often recommend dietary changes to their clients. A consultation with a TCM practitioner aims to determine which organs are imbalanced. Acupuncture treatments and customized herbal formulas aim to rebalance the body by tonifying the spleen, the kidneys, and the digestive system.

TCM Health Tips

1. Treat your body as your temple

2. Eat meals at regular times; never skip meals

3. Refrain from snacking too often; the digestive system needs a break

4. Don’t eat late at night

5. Go for a walk after eating, and walk at least 30 minutes a day

6. Don’t nap after eating

7. Eat slowly

8. Ensure that you are eating enough protein, and no sweets

9. Eat food that is easy on the spleen such as rice, cooked vegetables, warm and aromatic spices such as ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and fennel

10. Avoid eating cheese, bread, ice cream, and milkshakes as they are very damaging to the digestive system.

Together with appropriate food choices, herbal formulas can promote urination and rid the body of excess fluids (with herbs like fu ling or yi yi ren – also called Job’s tears), promote digestion (with aromatic herbs like sha ren/cardamom or chen pi/dried tangerine peels), boost the metabolism, warming the digestive system (with herbs like ginger root, cinnamon, etc), and regulate bowel movements.

3) THE LIVER: Stress can cause weight gain. Chinese medicine considers that long-term pressure from work, family, friends, chronic frustration, and hidden or unexpressed anger can cause imbalances in the liver. Since Chinese medicine believes the liver is one of the vital organs that dominates emotional aspects of the body; if there is too much stress or pressure, dysfunction of the liver can occur. The liver is responsible for proper circulation of the blood and qi (energy) in the body.

People with liver stagnation will suffer from symptoms that are amplified under stress, including. headaches, heartburn, diarrhea, emotional instability, anxiety, irritability, insomnia, stiff shoulders and neck, irregular bowel movements (IBS), PMS, and irregular or painful menstruation. Since the liver is one of the organs involved in digestion, it will affect the body’s metabolism. Thus people who suffer from liver stagnation will also eliminate poorly and accumulate toxins, causing slow but steady weight gain.

Acupuncture is very efficient for soothing anxiety and irritability, and for calming people (even people who have fear of needles report positive results and a sense of wellbeing after acupuncture treatment). I have a regular client that I treat with massage and herbs because she is too afraid of needles. Last week, I could see how restless she was on my massage table; she was unable to relax. We agreed to use one single needle on a strategic point on the forehead called Yintang that every acupuncturist uses to calm the emotions. After five minutes with a needle at Yintang, her eyes started to close and she told me,“It’s unbelievable; I stopped thinking!”

People who suffer from liver qi stagnation  are advised to cool down with peppermint tea, or green tea and a slice of lemon, but mostly they need to learn to relax, meditate, and ‘let it go.’ Often they don’t know how it feels to be relaxed, and acupuncture treatments give them a glimpse of a nirvana state. We encourage patients to walk slowly (not racing), to rent a movie, to cry or laugh when frustrated, to take a long bath, and to just let themselves breathe. Chinese herbal formulas will also help to relieve specific symptoms such as insomnia, IBS, etc.

As you can see, there is no one treatment, one diet, or one ‘catch-all’ pill to resolve the body’s problems. The beauty in using the Chinese medicine approach is that it is always geared to the individual’s unique constitution. If there’s one thing I have learned, however, from practising Chinese medicine, it is to always, always treat your body like your temple!



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  1. A
    July 02, 15:12 Amy

    Hello Anne,
    Do you think you could help me with which foods are best for me? I have hypothyroidism, crohns disease, autoimmune hepatitis, slso I am puffy, tired, por concentracion, with a lot of emotional stress.

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