Although most of my patients come to me initially for another ailment, I am surprised how often I get the secondary question, “Can acupuncture help me lose weight?”
This is a great question, actually.
Acupuncture can, in fact, help correct the underlying imbalances that show up in weight gain, and usually the underlying imbalance is something called Spleen Qi deficiency. Think of it in three parts:
- Deficiency means, in simple terms, that there is not enough of something;
- Qi is the energy or life force that can’t be seen or touched; and the
- Spleen, commonly thought of as an organ that has some role in blood and some role in immunity (and if you get mono you have to watch out not to rupture it), in Chinese medicine is a much bigger player. It is the underlying force behind obtaining actual nourishment for your body from the food you eat.
When it is not healthy, the spleen does not have enough Qi (or energy) to do its job. This is when food intolerances begin to show up, as well as these other symptoms:
- heaviness/tiredness in the limbs,
- weight gain
- abdominal bloating/distention
- diarrhea/loose stools
- lack of appetite
Most people have at least some form of spleen Qi deficiency--not surprising, since some of the primary causes are overwork (mental and physical), worry, and diet.
How do we keep the spleen happy? Well, the spleen likes warm and sweet foods, and being fed with regularity. Who doesn’t like all those things? Let’s take a closer look at these things, one by one.
This brings me to the biggest misconception with weight loss that I see in my clinic. When someone is trying to lose weight, what do they start eating? It is almost always raw foods, particularly salads.
As mentioned above, the spleen likes WARM. Warm foods, such as cooked vegetables and soups, will help the spleen do its job best. Have you ever noticed severe bloating, gas, and in some cases diarrhea after you eat ice cream, smoothies, raw fruits/vegetables, or even ice-cold beverages? Most people attribute uncomfortable digestive symptoms to the TYPE of food they are eating. But the discomfort could be from spleen Qi deficiency, caused by introducing cold foods into a warm digestive system.
This misconception can reach as far as mistaken food intolerances. For instance, I commonly hear people say that lactose bothers them. Fair enough--lactose bothers many people. But as one of my favorite and most knowledgeable teachers says: “If you have a healthy spleen, you can eat anything and not have digestive problems.” A spleen that is injured by cold has to work twice as hard to digest and therefore may develop things such as food intolerances and allergies. With this in mind, it may actually be the temperature of the food that is giving you the problem rather than the food itself. If you have any sort of digestive symptom or a weak digestive system in general, this should be your first and most important change you make in your diet.
Simple ways to give your spleen warm foods:
- Sautee your vegetables instead of putting them into salads.
- Incorporate mildly warming spices in your cooking. I emphasize mildly here because you don’t want to go too far in the other direction and, say, add hot sauce to everything because this will damage the stomach. Some good spices to add are: ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, and small amounts of black pepper.
- If you MUST eat cold foods (smoothies, salads, etc.), follow them up directly with hot tea or lemon water.
- Drink lots of warm-to-hot liquids throughout the day. Your best options are herbal teas (caution with peppermint--it’s cooling) and lemon water. Drink all your beverages room temperature or warmer.
You may have been reading this thinking, “Yes! I can have my sweets!” Unfortunately, you can but you can’t. You can have whole foods that are sweet in nature. Actually, a common sign that your spleen is suffering is that you are craving sweets; lots of women experience this around their menstrual cycles.
GOOD sweet foods to incorporate into your diet:
- Root vegetables. I cannot say this enough. Please see this post for a really simple recipe idea to make my favorite dish, roasted rooties.
- Bake up a couple of sweet potatoes at the beginning of the week and top them with coconut oil, cinnamon, and nutmeg and you have an extremely spleen healthy meal that only takes a couple of minutes to heat up after a long work day.
Eating at regular mealtimes will help your spleen get on the right track and heal as well. I know everyone has busy schedules, but try to come up with a system that works and stick to it. My optimal meal schedule is below. It is brief and I promise to detail some healthy options for meals in a later post, but for now, this is just what I have found to be best for me. You may have to experiment a little and see how you feel best.
- Warm protein- and veggie-rich meal for breakfast, around 7 AM - my “go-to” is sauteed vegetables in bone broth, with eggs
- Some sort of snack - vegetables, yogurt, or fruit (if raw, I always eat alongside some ginger tea). Good ideas for cooked fruits are poached pears/apples or homemade apple sauce. Side note: it will help a little to eat these things at room temperature, but whenever I eat something not cooked I ALWAYS also drink tea (luckily, I love tea)
- Big lunch around 1pm, once again protein and veggie rich- usually some sort of meal I’ve prepared in my crock pot, such as chicken with veggies
- Another snack/light meal around 4, and one at 7pm
I tend to eat my heartiest meals in the morning/afternoon and have things like soup or nuts in the afternoon. Whatever you decide, try not to skip meals, and try to space out your food throughout the day.
These are 3 extremely simple ways to start building your spleen health right away. With a healthy spleen you will see many great benefits such as improved energy, better muscle tone, less spider veins, less bloating, less gas and diarrhea, more calm and focus, better appetite, appropriate weight loss, and fewer cravings--to name just a few! Try it for yourself. This may be a huge change for some and more subtle for others, but I guarantee that if you stick to it, you’ll start feeling better soon and you’ll jumpstart your natural ability to get at your optimal weight.
Here’s to happy spleens and happy lives,
PS: With weight loss, as with ANYTHING you might seek treatment for, it is necessary to put in a little bit of your own work at home in order to see the changes you’re hoping for. Think of it this way: You have one treatment maybe once a week, and some of you only once a month. The rest of the days are up to you. What sort of foods do you put into your body? How do you choose to spend your time--exercising, or sitting on the couch watching the entire new season of House of Cards? Health requires commitment and discipline. A healthy spleen will give you a leg up, but then you gotta move the rest of your body, too!