Ear acupuncture could significantly aid weight loss, a Japanese study has suggested.
Researchers said the method could stimulate nerves and organs that regulate appetite, satiety and hunger, helping to control food cravings.
The study involved 81 Japanese obese men between 21 and 78 who were given a type of ear acupuncture that attaches tiny metal beads to six points on the outer ear.
All were given advice on diet during hospital visits and asked to keep a diet diary, while reducing their total food intake by half during three months of treatment.
The study found that on average, participants lost 4in (10.4 per cent) and four per cent of body fat, while Body Mass Index (BMI) decreased by almost three points.
'Positive effect by curbing cravings'
Dr Takahiro Fujimoto, a researcher from Clinic F, Tokyo, said: “Our findings suggest that acupuncture on the ear may aid weight loss when paired with diet and exercise.
“It’s likely that acupuncture has a positive effect by curbing cravings and appetite, improving digestion, and boosting metabolism.”
However, other obesity experts questioned whether the findings really showed the power of acupuncture - saying that medical advice to lose weight, keeping food diaries, and hospital supervision may have been the real spur to success.
The authors said the study had several limitations - including that it was observational over a short time period. The findings are to be presented at the European Congress on Obesity in Dublin.
A simple method of acupuncture stimulation with beads - rather than the traditional use of intradermal needles which requires expert acupuncturists - was used.
Dr Fujimoto said: “Since these tiny metal beads are attached to six points on the outer ear that stimulate nerves and organs which regulate appetite, satiety and hunger, this type of acupuncture does not require complex knowledge or skill.
“In Japan, this method to aid weight loss has been used for over 30 years.”
In traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture is based on the understanding that health depends on the flow of qi (energy) in your body.
This energy is thought to travel along invisible pathways, known as meridians, that are found throughout the body - including the ears.
As a result, a blocked or disrupted flow of qi can have a negative effect on physical and mental health.
Thin needles or beads are therefore placed on certain points, usually along meridian lines, to restore the flow of qi by resolving any blockages or disruption.
While the mechanism is unclear, studies suggest that ear acupuncture may help to regulate the endocrine system, modulate metabolism, promote digestion, and lessen oxidative stress.
This new study builds on previous research in Japanese women who were overweight or obese. It found that those treated with ear acupuncture with beads lost significantly more weight than those who were untreated, with weight loss maintained for six months after the end of treatment.
Prof Jason Halford, president of the European Association for the Study of Obesity, said: “There is no control group here receiving everything but the acupuncture. So, it could be other elements of the intervention driving this - including the act of keeping a food diary increasing awareness of diet.
“A randomised controlled trial would be the next step.”
Tam Fry, from the National Obesity Forum, said: “This treatment for losing weight is almost as old as the hills.
“There was some hype about it when first launched back in the early 1990s but, like fad diets, it failed to do what it said on the tin. Whatever weight was lost was soon put back on and anyway was minimal.
“Also consider this: if you were asked today to cut your food intake by 50 per cent, there's a good chance of being much slimmer by August.”