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Weight Loss From the Perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine

One of the most common questions I am asked is “Does acupuncture work for weight loss?” The answer to this question is yes, but does require further explanation.

First, acupuncture is part of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). In my practice, I use both herbs and acupuncture to help my patients. These two tools complement each other very nicely. The acupuncture works more from the “outside-in” while the herbal formulas work from the “inside-out.” Use both for weight loss to maximize the effects of the treatment.

Second, there are appropriate and inappropriate uses of Chinese Medicine (particularly herbs) in dealing with weight loss.

TCM is based on a framework within which a patient’s pattern of disharmony is defined. The treatment is designed within the same framework to restore harmony and balance to the individual. This pattern discrimination and corresponding treatment is the essence of TCM.

Inappropriate Approaches

There are herbal weight loss “cocktails,” which contain Chinese herbs. Unfortunately, these are marketed with a “one size fits all” mentality disharmony. As a professional herbalist and TCM practitioner, I consider this an EXTREME ABUSE of herbal products.

Not only is this dangerous for the person taking the formula, but it also gives TCM a “black eye” as the public (and FDA as well) view Chinese herbs synonymous with TCM. These herbal cocktails typically contain herbs that will do one or a combination of the following three things.

  • “Purgatives,” which attack and downwardly drain the food we eat, causing a loss of essential nutrients.
  • “Diuretics,” which cause seepage of fluids and can lead to electrolyte imbalance and ultimately kidney problems.
  • “Diaphoretics,” which cause sweating. In TCM, they will “release of the exterior” and cause Yang Qi to rise. Prolonged use leads to Yin damage.

Each of these strategies is appropriate for specific imbalances: purgatives for certain types of food stagnation, diuretics for certain patterns of fluid retention, and diaphoretics for “wind-cold” types of the common cold. But when applied in combination to someone without the appropriate pattern, these strategies can do permanent damage.

Appropriate Approaches

If prescribed and used properly, Chinese herbal formulas should be harmonious within themselves, creating no side effects or long term damage. An effective formula that produces no side effects is the reflection of a skilled practitioner.

Appropriate TCM approaches to weight loss focus on the pattern of disharmony underlying the weight gain. Treatment should include modification of diet and activity as warranted, as well as acupuncture and herbs. All should be tailored to address the disharmony.

General TCM Dietary Recommendations

There typically are four primary and three secondary patterns of disharmony associated with excessive body weight. There is a unifying feature of these patterns in that they all involve the spleen. In TCM, the spleen is the “transformer and transporter” of the Qi energy that comes from the food we eat. In all cases, the spleen is deficient in some fashion.

So the spleen becomes the center of the treatment. I use the following dietary recommendations for anyone with spleen qi vacuity. The goal is to maximize warming foods and minimize cold foods. (The temperature of food refers to their internal effect on the human body, not to their temperature as we would normally think about it, although their physical temperature does play a role).

  1. Eat frequent, small meals
  2. Cooked food is preferable to uncooked food – Eat plenty of vegetables, rice, noodles, soups, and stews. Eat small amounts of chicken or turkey, especially in soups. Grains should be thoroughly cooked for easier digestion. Vegetables should be lightly cooked as excessive cooking results in loss of nutrients. Drink the water from cooked vegetables as a broth.
  3. Drink warm water, soup, broth, or herbal tea with your meals.
  4. Snacks can include sunflower nuts or walnuts (most other nuts are less desirable).
  5. Use warming spices such as pepper (black or white), cardamom, ginger (fresh or powder), cloves, nutmeg, orange peel and fennel in food preparation (usually recommended, but may need to be modified if you have mixed heat and cold in your pattern of disharmony).
  6. Foods with a cold nature damage the spleen and should be avoided/minimized. Avoid/minimize raw foods, such as salads, fruits, and vegetables. Avoid/minimize fruit juices. Avoid/minimize chilled or frozen beverages, treats, etc. (these are especially bad with meals).
  7. Avoid/minimize sugars & sweets.
  8. Avoid/minimize dairy products.
  9. Avoid/minimize beer (Hops are very cold in nature.)
  10. Be cautious with Echinacea, Goldenseal and mega doses of Vitamin C (all are believed to be cold)

Comprehensive treatment would involve a combination of dietary therapy, exercise, herbal medicine, and acupuncture. Weight loss, according to TCM, is not easy, no healthy weight loss program is. If you are frustrated with your weight loss efforts and wish to try something different, consider learning more about using TCM to assist you in your process.

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