Traditional Chinese Medicine and Weight Loss

Both Chinese and Western medicine agree that living an unhealthy lifestyle—which includes eating to much fat, salt and sugar, an excess of calories, and a lack of regular physical activity—results in poor health.
health and weight

Over the past few decades, Western medicine has been faced with finding effective means to combat the growing rate of overweight and obesity. The Western approach has been focused on making lifestyle changes like eating fewer calories and increasing levels of exercise. This approach has been shown to be effective.1

Because excess weight is a relatively new phenomenon in China, there hasn’t been a lot of research on effective treatments. Traditional Chinese medicine works off the concept that living an unhealthy lifestyle leads to spleen damage. When harmed, the spleen’s ability to regulate body fluids is reduced. If left untreated, the fluids gel into fat. As a result, virtually all of the weight-loss studies that have been published in the medical journals of China have focused on treatments aimed at fixing the damaged spleen without any attention being given to altering lifestyle.

In traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is a cornerstone of weight-loss therapy. It has been reported that acupuncture can reduce appetite, enhance gastrointestinal function, increase the metabolic rate, and improve emotional well-being.2 Several individual studies comparing a variety of acupuncture sites have reported positive results.3 4 However, a comprehensive evaluation of the pool of scientific evidence on the topic concluded that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that acupuncture is an effective weight-loss treatment. 5

Herbs and Dietary Supplements
Herbs are another popular treatment for excess weight in traditional Chinese medicine. The herbs used tend to work in one of three ways—purging the intestines, functioning as a diuretic, or stimulating the nervous system. The biologic function of various herbs used in weight-loss recipes is just beginning to be explored.6 Like acupuncture, a review of the studies that have been done thus far have found that, with the exception of ephedrine-containing herbs such as ma huang, there is not convincing evidence that herbal remedies are effective weight-loss agents. While ephedrine-containing compounds are effective, they have also been linked to serious side effects, including death.5

Linking East and West
The Western approach of lifestyle modification is a proven method of weight loss. Chinese approaches have not been studied as extensively and more research is needed. Looking ahead, it is likely that a combination of both approaches, often called Integrative Chinese Western Medicine, may be helpful in the treatment of excess weight. This approach has been shown to be effective for conditions such as male fertility7 and stroke.8

This content is reviewed regularly. Last updated December 17, 2011.

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1 Heshka, S., Greenway, F., Anderson, J., Atkinson, R., Greenway, F., Hill, J, Phinney, S, Kolotkin, R., Miller-Kovach, K., Pi-Sunyer, X. Weight Loss with Self-help Compared with a Structured Commercial Program: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA 2003 Apr;289 (14): 1792-1798.

2 Cabýoglu MT, Ergene N, Tan U. The treatment of obesity by acupuncture. Int J Neurosci. 2006 Feb;116(2):165-75.

3 Bu TW, Tian XL, Wang SJ, Liu W, Li XL, Tan YH. Comparison and analysis of therapeutic effects of different therapies on simple obesity. [Article in Chinese] Zhongguo Zhen Jiu. 2007 May;27(5):337-40.

4 Qunli W, Zhicheng L. Acupuncture treatment of simple obesity. J Tradit Chin Med. 2005 Jun;25(2):90-4.

5 Pittler MH, Ernst E. Complementary therapies for reducing body weight: a systematic review. Int J Obes (Lond). 2005 Sep;29(9):1030-8.

6 Tian WX, Li LC, Wu XD, Chen CC. Weight reduction by Chinese medicinal herbs may be related to inhibition of fatty acid synthase. Life Sci. 2004 Mar 26;74(19):2389-99.

7 Yu AL, Zhang FZ, Zhang FX. Clinical observation on effect of combination of zhuanyindan and hormone in treating male infertility with positive antisperm antibody
[Article in Chinese] Zhongguo Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Za Zhi. 2004 Mar;24(3):223-6.

8 Cai YF, Fu Y, Guo JW, You JS, Wang LX, Liang WX, Huang Y, Huang PX. Randomized multicenter control clinical study on acute ischemic stroke treatment with traditional Chinese medicine. [Article in Chinese] Zhong Yao Cai. 2007 Sep;30(9):1192-5.