Acupuncture to lose weight or stop smoking

by Bart Walton, M.Ac, L.Ac.

This article was originally published in January 2003

Bart Walton

(January 2003) — While acupuncture itself is more than 2,000 years old, the use of acupuncture to reduce physical cravings is a fairly recent development. In the early 1970s, Dr. H. L. Wen, a neurosurgeon in Hong Kong, was studying the effects of acupuncture on post-surgical pain. Coincidentally, he found that stimulation of certain points on the ear dramatically relieved withdrawal symptoms in one of his patients who was a long-term heroin user.

After learning about Dr. Wen’s discovery, the Lincoln Center in the South Bronx and the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic in San Francisco began using acupuncture as part of their standard treatment for addiction.

Following the success of these two treatment facilities, the technique was further developed and eventually became known as the “Five Needle Protocol,” referring to the five main points used in the ear. In 1985, Michael O. Smith, M.D., founded the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) in order to promote the use of this protocol as a cost effective treatment for drug and alcohol users.

More recently, acupuncturists in clinical settings have been using the same protocol to treat a wider variety of addictive behaviors. Whether the addiction is of a physical or so-called psychological nature, there are certain common behavioral and biological mechanisms at work.

For patients who are otherwise healthy, but want to stop smoking or lose weight, the Five Needle Protocol works equally well to stop the cravings and reduce the symptoms of withdrawal.

Exactly how acupuncture works to reduce cravings is still under study. But it appears that stimulation of certain points in the ear has a direct influence on the brain to calm the nervous system and break the neuro-biological connections between the substance and the behavior. The result is like pushing the restart button on a computer. The person gets a break from the constant craving and experiences greater freedom to establish a new behavior pattern.

In the Five Needle Protocol, the five basic points are used with other key points to direct the emphasis of the treatment. For example, for appetite control or food cravings, there is a special point that dramatically stops the craving for oral sensation, which helps to make the treatment more profound and longer lasting. Likewise, for smoking cessation, there is a special point that reduces the craving for sensations in the lungs and nasal cavity.

In clinical practice, I have seen the Five Needle Protocol work on hundreds of patients. From my experience, the key to dealing with an addiction, or any negative habit pattern, is to use two or three supporting therapies simultaneously.

To stop smoking, I suggest a gradual reduction method combined with acupuncture and licorice root, both of which help reduce the cravings. Likewise, most weight loss cases respond very well to a course of acupuncture combined with appropriate exercise and a proven, gradual weight loss program such as Weight Watchers.

Acupuncture for addiction is not a magic bullet. Several follow-up treatments may be required during the withdrawal period. It is not a substitute for the desire and focus needed to change a well-established habit pattern. Nevertheless, over the course of several months, acupuncture can provide the extra support people often need to make important and life-saving changes in their lives.

If you have a serious addiction or simply want to curb your appetite or stop smoking, acupuncture can reduce the cravings and provide an important support to your new goals.

Precautionary note
Licorice root can cause fluid retention and elevated blood pressure. The deglycyrrhizinated form of licorice usually will not cause these problems. In case of edema or high blood pressure or where estrogen is contraindicated, you should consult with your healthcare provider before using licorice.

Bart Walton, M.Ac., is a Washington State licensed acupuncturist with a private practice in the Green Lake area of Seattle. Bart has a Master of Acupuncture degree from Northwest Institute of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine and specializes in Japanese Acupuncture and Moxibustion. Over the last 20 years, Bart has also traveled extensively in Asia, studying the use of herbs, diet and lifestyle in traditional medicine. Bart may be contacted at 206-527-9672 or

  1. H. L. Wen, S. Y. C. Cheung, “Treatment of Drug Addiction by Acupuncture,” Asian Journal of Medicine, 1973; 9: 138-141
  2. John Kolenda, L.Ac, “A Brief History of Acupuncture for Detoxification in the U.S.,” “Acupuncture Today”, September, 2000

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