Food cravings arise to satisfy emotional needs. There is a deep emotional link between addictive food intake and weight gain. People who suffer from food cravings typically reach for foods which are sweet, salty or fatty in nature. The craving for unhealthy food is triggered by the release of hormones adrenaline and cortisol as a result of stress.
These hormones initiate a physiological reaction to rapidly mobilise energy production from high calorie foods, in preparation to ‘fight-off’ or ‘flee’ from the stressful situation. After the initial rush, the stress response switches to an energy storage phase, where cortisol in the blood stream stimulates appetites and de-sensitise the ‘feeling full’ receptor. At this stage the body starts to refuel with calorie-densed foods and store the energy as fat, in anticipation for another crisis.
Chinese Medicine uses a holistic approach to diagnose food cravings
The factors that guides a Chinese Medicine diagnosis for food cravings in order to arrive at a pattern of disharmony includes a client’s mental-emotional state and physiological conditions. The linkage between these factors to abnormal eating behaviour is examined. The areas where a client stores excessive fat provides clues to the underlying pattern of disharmony.
Stress disrupts the physiology of the digestion system
People who suffers from food cravings very often feel stressed and are subject to a lot of pressure. Their cravings are mostly for sweet food and most of them have a problem with excessive abdominal fat.
A common Chinese Medicine pattern that explains this scenario is ‘Disharmony between Liver and Spleen with accumulation of phlegm-damp’. The Liver in Chinese Medicine regulates the smooth flow of qi to facilitate mental-emotional and physiological functioning. The Spleen in Chinese Medicine is an organ responsible for transforming ingested food and drinks into nutrients and qi, and further transporting these essences to support mental-emotional and physiological functiong.
Excessive stress overwhelms the Liver and causes a stagnated energy flow. In this case the digestion function is not well regulated, and the Spleen produces phlegm-damp, a form of digestive waste which exacerbates the stagnation of Liver qi. Abdominal fat is essentially phlegm-damp which accumulates in a common area traversed by the Liver and Spleen meridians.
Chronic stress and food craving is a self-perpetuating vicious cycle
From a Chinese Medicine perspective, cravings for and overeating of sweet, salty and fatty food under the influence of stress hormones overwhelms the already disrupted Spleen function. More phlegm-damp is created and worsens the stagnation of Liver qi, to the extend that the person affected becomes increasingly intolerant and incapable in handling stress at all. Hence the beginning of uncontrollable food cravings and excessive weight gain.
Acupuncture Breaks the Link between Emotional Stress and Food Cravings
Acupuncture suppresses appetite to stop food cravings
Acupuncture has been proven to curb cravings for addictive substances, such as alcohol, tobacco and drugs. Various studies confirmed acupuncture’s effectiveness in suppressing appetite, hence assisting in weight loss programs.
Acupuncture depresses the appetite by activating the satiety center in the hypothalamus and increasing sympathetic activity through an increase in the concentration of serotonin in the central nervous system. Application of acupuncture at ear points stimulates the auricular branch of the vagal nerve, and has been shown to increase tone in the smooth muscle of the stomach, thus suppressing appetite. Acupuncture also relieve stress and depression via promoting the release of endorphin and dopamine. The increase of plasma levels of endorphin naturally occuring after acupuncture can contribute to weight loss.
Acupuncture treatment program for food cravings
From our clinical experience, a combined effort between the client and the practitioner is important in achieving sustainable results in the treatment of food cravings. The client need to remove themselves, as much as possible, from stressful stimuli and unhealthy foods.
In the clinic, we focus on balancing the hormones, strengthening the will power, at the same time realign the body and mind to the optimum condition to overcome stress, digest better and burn fat efficiently.
Free the psyche and unblock energy flow
If the root of the food craving condition is deeply entrenched in mental-emotional issues, initial emphasis will be placed on treating the psyche. A few finer energy rebalancing sessions are necessary. Specific acupuncture point patterns will be chosen to free the energy centres from blockages, as well as infusing positive energy and self-healing capacity to the mind and body.
Reduce stress hormones
To help clients cope better and be less affected by stressful situations in their daily life, acupuncture points along the Liver and associated meridians are needled.
This approach creates the combined effect of reducing the physiological surge of stress hormones, at the same time stimulating the natural ‘feel good’ hormone endorphin to release emotional tension and calm anxiety. Coupled with points which strengthen the will power, the client will be less likely to succumb to food cravings as the treatment program progresses.
Ear acupuncture modulates the nervous system
In every treatment session, auricular or ear acupuncture will be used in addition to the body points. Ear acupuncture patterns are empirically proven to be effective and used to curb cravings, suppress hunger and control appetite. The ear points achieve their functions via regulating the hormones, and modulating the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
Effective ear acupuncture points for control of food cravings are:
- Hungry point: increases the feeling of fullness and represses the hunger feeling.
- Shenmen (neurogate) point: regulates cerebral cortex function and has a sedative effect.
- Stomach point: stimulates the auricular branch of the vagal nerve to suppress appetite.
1. Cobyoglu MT, Ergene N, Tan U. ‘The treatment of obesity by acupuncture’. Int J Neuroscience 2006 Feb; 116(2):165-75.
2. Cho SH, Lee JS, Thabane L, Lee J. ‘Acupuncture for obesity: a systematic review and meta-analysis’. Int J Obes (Lond). 2009 33(2):183-96.
3. Richards D, Marley J. ‘Stimulation of auricular acupuncture points in weight loss’. Australian Family Physician. 1998 27 Suppl 2:S73-7.