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Is Losing Weight a Struggle? Here’s How TCM Can Help

Traditional Chinese Medicine’s (TCM) views on losing weight go beyond calories and crash diets. Learn how to drop the excess weight the TCM way.

A woman in a gym pinches the excess fat in her midsection with both hands

Losing weight remains an elusive goal for many. A study from Universiti Malaya found that over 30% of Malaysian adults are overweight, while another nearly 20% are obese. With excess fat, the risk of developing potentially life-threatening conditions like diabetes and heart disease also increases. 

In 2012, researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong reported that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) was effective in helping their study subjects lose weight. They found that acupuncture helped the participants lose an average of 4.1kg. Meanwhile, herbal therapy led to losing an average of 5.8kg. What’s equally important in the findings is that it shows TCM works just as well as Western medicine, but with fewer side effects. 

How does TCM view weight loss, and how can you incorporate a TCM regimen into your journey to better health?  

Why We Have Trouble Losing Weight According to TCM

TCM believes that the overaccumulation of fat stems from a compromised functioning of the different organ systems, specifically the Spleen and stomach. 

“Excess phlegm and Dampness tend to impede the Spleen and stomach’s functions, resulting in poor digestion. A weakened Spleen would also result in slower transport of body fluids, which leads to more accumulation of phlegm and Dampness in the long term.”

CM physician Wong Si

A weak Spleen and stomach lead to disruption of the metabolism of food and waste and as a result, excess weight piles on. This TCM perspective echoes how critical our endocrine (hormonal) system is to proper fuel metabolism.

Researchers at the University of Utah found that overweight people tend to build resistance against leptin, the hormone that tells us we already have enough fat. 

How to Lose Weight With TCM

Consider acupuncture, as it can help you shed excess pounds. “Acupuncture is used to promote digestion, suppress appetite and stimulate metabolism in the body for healthy weight loss,” says Physician Wong.  

She adds, “Customised herbal medication can be prescribed based on an individual’s body constitution and condition. This supports the healthy functioning of the Spleen and stomach and reduces phlegm and Dampness in the body.” 

As always, remember thatTCM is most effective and safe under the guidance and supervision of a trained practitioner. 

Herbal medicine

Poria cocos, ancient Chinese medicine books and herbs on the table.
Fu ling (茯苓) or poria is a common TCM herb used in Dampness-combating formulas to help lose weight.

Your TCM physician will determine which herbs to prescribe once they’ve had a chance to evaluate your specific constitution and imbalances. Poria mushroom (fu ling, 茯) is used for Dampness accumulation, while Heat-Dampness can be treated with coix barley (yi yi ren, 薏苡仁). Meanwhile, Qi (vital life force) and Blood Stagnation respond well to sun-dried mandarin orange peel (chen pi, 陈皮) and hawthorn berries (shan zha, 山楂).

Note, however, that TCM doesn’t operate in a vacuum. “The most effective method for weight loss would be through lifestyle management such as getting enough exercise and sleep and reducing stress. TCM methods are used to improve general health and well-being by strengthening the Spleen and stomach functions or removing any excess phlegm-Dampness in the body. It would only be able to aid in more effective weight loss if other lifestyle factors are also addressed,” explains Physician Wong

A Journal of Obesity systematic review found that combining TCM herbs with lifestyle interventions led to lower body weight and BMI (body-mass index) in the participants. Chinese herbs used by 3,415 overweight or obese participants were effective in helping with weight loss. But there were no significant therapeutic effects when the herbs were used as a single therapy. 

Acupuncture and acupressure 

A large meta-analysis published in 2018 looked at 21 randomised clinical trials involving 1,389 obese patients and the use of acupuncture. The study found that acupuncture was effective in reducing body weight and BMI.

The researchers believed that acupuncture helps modulate the satiety centre in the brain to prevent overeating. Acupuncture was also found to rebalance gastrointestinal flora, leading to a balance in the brain-gut-bacteria axis. Previous studies also showed that acupuncture was able to remodel white adipose tissue (fat for energy storage) to brown adipose tissue (fat for energy expenditure). 

While not as effective as acupuncture, Physician Wong says self-administered acupressure can help get things going. Below is a list of acupoints that help remove phlegm and Dampness. 

  • Xue hai (SP10, 血海): Nourishes blood and regulates circulation.  
  • Zu sanli (ST36, 足三里): Helps strengthen Spleen qi to dispel Dampness and phlegm. 
  • Feng long (ST40, 丰隆): Stimulates Spleen qi to remove Dampness, phlegm, and stagnant fluids; strengthens stomach function. 
  • San yin jiao (SP6, 三阴交): Revitalises the functions of the Spleen, Liver, and Kidneys. 
  • Zhong wan (CVRN12, 中脘): Improves qi and blood circulation in the upper abdomen and revitalises Spleen function.

Once you use acupuncture for weight loss, keep in mind that seeing results may take some time. “The speed of weight loss would depend on an individual’s body constitution and receptiveness towards acupuncture and herbal medication,” says Physician Wong.

If you wish to lose fat in specific areas like your tummy, thighs, or arms, TCM may not be for you. “Herbal medication and acupuncture treatment are mainly for an overall body weight loss rather than at targeted areas,” she adds. 

TCM can help you in your weight loss journey only if it’s part of an overall change in lifestyle management. Physician Wong recommends maintaining a healthy and balanced diet and getting enough exercise and rest. “When the body’s energies are in balance, our organs would be able to function more efficiently,” she says.

References

  1. Universiti Malaya Faculty of Medicine. 2021. Obesity in Malaysia is a ticking time bomb. [online] Available at: <https://spm.um.edu.my/2021/03/05/obesity-in-malaysia-is-a-ticking-time-bomb/?cn-reloaded=1> [Accessed 23 November 2022].
  2. University of Utah Health. 2021. Why Is It So Hard to Lose Weight. [online] Available at: <https://healthcare.utah.edu/weight-management/why-hard-to-lose-weight.php> [Accessed 23 November 2022].
  3. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2018. Acupuncture on Obesity: Clinical Evidence and Possible Neuroendocrine Mechanisms. [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6022277/?report=classic> [Accessed 23 November 2022].
  4. South China Morning Post. 2021. Flab-fighting, Chinese style. [online] Available at: <https://www.scmp.com/article/1006376/flab-fighting-chinese-style> [Accessed 23 November 2022].
  5. Pacific College of Health and Science. 2019. Acupuncture Can Help with Weight Loss. [online] Available at: <https://www.pacificcollege.edu/news/blog/2014/11/05/acupuncture-can-help-weight-loss> [Accessed 23 November 2022].
  6. Journal of Obesity. 2021. Chinese Herbal Medicine for Weight Management: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analyses of Randomised Controlled Trials. [online] Available at: <https://www.hindawi.com/journals/jobe/2021/3250723/> [Accessed 23 November 2022].

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