Last updated on 8 May 2020.
Dr. Neal Malik of Optimal Health Daily answers your questions on alternative therapies and their effectiveness.
Read the whole blog post or jump to the section that's most relevant to you:
1. Alternative Therapies and Weight Management
2. Alternative Therapies and Autoimmune Diseases
3. Alternative Therapies and Chronic Pain
1. Do Alternative Therapies Work with Weight Management?
I know that losing the weight initially isn’t always the biggest challenge — keeping it off is often what gives us trouble. Do you want to know whether alternative therapies like acupuncture, Reiki and hypnosis have been shown to help folks keep those pounds from creeping back on?
Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 865 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.
Can Acupuncture Help You to Lose Weight?
I’ll start with acupuncture. Acupuncture has been around for a long, long time. The practice of acupuncture involves the insertion of needles at specific points on the body with goal of promoting optimal health. Acupuncture can be a helpful treatment for many conditions and has actually been studied really thoroughly for a number of different illnesses.
Some of these published studies did look at the relationship between acupuncture and weight loss. I found a meta-analysis published last year. I like looking at meta-analyses because these types of studies basically collect a bunch of other published research and looks at them as whole. We often hear how one study found a particular treatment might be helpful, then another one says the complete opposite.
Meta-analyses can help us make sense of these conflicting results. A meta-analysis (when performed well) is considered one of the best ways to evaluate research. The authors of this meta-analysis found that acupuncture alone was not all that helpful for weight management. They did acknowledge studying whether acupuncture is effective for managing overweight and obesity is challenging. This is because there are different ways acupuncture is practiced. This makes it challenging to make definitive conclusions.
Some studies are finding that acupuncture when used with other lifestyle interventions like watching calories and regular exercise may help. But here again, we still don’t really know if it’s the acupuncture that’s helping or watching calories and exercising regularly are most helpful.
How Do I Find a Reputable Acupuncturist?
If receiving acupuncture isn’t causing you any harm, then feel free to try it out. If you like it, and again, it’s not causing you any harm and helps you feel better, stick with it. Just be sure to find a reputable acupuncturist. Acupuncturist licensure is regulated at the state level.
In the state of California, where I am, we have a State of California Acupuncture Board. You would want to make sure that your acupuncturist is licensed within your state. Also, some health insurance plans will cover all or some of the costs of seeing an acupuncturist. Definitely call their office in advance to see which insurance plans they take, if any, and what your out-of-pocket costs might be.
Does Reiki Work for Weight Loss?
Next up: Reiki and hypnosis. I’ll start with Reiki. Reiki is often associated with Eastern traditions and has been used for over 2,000 years to treat various conditions. The person practicing Reiki usually has the client lie down in front of them. Using a very soft touch or no touch at all (with the hands held just above the body), the practitioner uses vibrational energy to help relieve the patient’s symptoms or heal them completely. Reiki has been studied as a treatment for anxiety, depression, and pain relief. I actually couldn’t find studies examining whether it helps with weight management.
Does Hypnosis Work for Weight Loss?
This was the same issue with hypnosis. Hypnosis usually involves a practitioner guiding the patient into a state of relaxation or highly focused attention or concentration. By doing this, the goal is to have the patient reach a trance-like state so that all of the person’s attention is focused on a specific task — like reducing smoking or overeating behaviors. The problem is that I could only find 1 or 2 studies that were published over 20 years ago looking at whether hypnosis was helpful for managing body weight.
Here's the deal: I am willing to be more lenient here because both Reiki and hypnosis are unlikely to cause harm. Why am I okay with recommending things that haven’t been studied, you may ask? In other episodes, I’ve been much more of a stickler about having well-designed studies to back-up my recommendations, so what gives?
Well, in this case, when there is a very low risk for harm, I can be more lenient. However, if you listen to an episode where I talk about something like working out on an empty stomach, I talk about how we don’t have quality research to support this behavior. This is because the consequences of working out an empty stomach can be pretty severe. Someone could develop low blood sugar and pass out during their workout. That’s pretty serious, indeed!
But with alternative therapies like Reiki or hypnosis, because they’re highly unlikely to cause any harm, I can be more flexible.
2. Do Alternative Therapies Work with Autoimmune Diseases?
Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 165 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.
Before we continue…
What Is an Autoimmune Disease?
For those that aren’t aware of what we mean by autoimmune disease, basically we’re talking about conditions where, for some reason, the body chooses to attack its own healthy cells. There are a number of autoimmune diseases and they can affect any part of the body:
- the skin
- the brain
- nerves and muscles
- your airway
- the pancreas
- the GI tract, and on and on
One of the problems with many autoimmune diseases is that we often don’t know where they come from–whether it’s caused by the environment (like pollution, our food, or water supply), the genes we inherit from our parents, or a combination of the two. And many of these autoimmune diseases have no cure. Usually what happens is for some reason, the person goes through a period where the condition “flares-up”– basically, symptoms start to appear. Then, the flare-up goes away (what’s often called, into “remission”). A person may go into remission spontaneously, or because the doctor prescribed medication, or maybe the individual changed their lifestyle in some way–sometimes a combination of all of that.
But some practitioners do recommend alternative therapies like acupuncture, Reiki, and therapeutic massage to help reduce some of the symptoms or even help the disease go into remission.
Reiki for Autoimmune Disease
Unfortunately, there aren’t any studies that I know of that looked at whether Reiki was helpful with autoimmune disease. But what I can say is that Reiki can be beneficial for those suffering from anxiety, depression, or for those with chronic pain. The evidence isn’t very strong, but I am willing to be more lenient with the data here because Reiki is unlikely to cause harm. While it hasn’t been studied for those with an autoimmune disease, I say it’s worth a shot.
Personally, during one of my flare-ups, my aunt performed Reiki on me and I know it relieved a lot of pain. Placebo effect? Very possibly. But I knew there really was no downside because Reiki is very, very unlikely to cause any harm.
With regards to acupuncture, again, the majority of the research looks at whether acupuncture can help reduce chronic pain. There are a small number of studies on specific autoimmune diseases, like Rheumatoid Arthritis, and they are inconclusive. This means that we don’t know if acupuncture will help or not. What’s really odd about these studies is that they didn’t measure any side effects of acupuncture therapy. Without knowing the common side effects and how often they occur, it’s hard to say whether I would recommend acupuncture.
Does Acupuncture Work to Balance Energy to Stay Healthy?
Acupuncture has been around for a long time. It’s unfortunate that it’s taken so long for western societies to adopt it. Acupuncture can be a helpful treatment for many conditions and has actually been studied really thoroughly for a number of different illnesses. But there’s not a whole lot of research out there on energy balance and maintaining your health. This is another great example of one of those cases where, if it’s not doing any harm and makes you feel better, stick with it.
Just so I don’t leave you hanging, here's a list of some conditions that acupuncture has been used to treat and has actually improved people’s health:
- Facial pain
- Hypertension (aka high blood pressure)
- Hypotension (aka low blood pressure)
- Inducing labor in pregnant women
- Knee pain
- Low back pain
- Morning sickness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Neck pain
- Dental pain
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Tennis elbow
- Abdominal pain
- Type 2 diabetes
- Eye pain
- Premenstrual syndrome (aka PMS)
- Recurrent lower urinary-tract infection
- Sore throat (including tonsillitis)
- Stiff neck
- Tourette syndrome
- Ulcerative colitis
(Source: http://cim.ucsd.edu/clinical-care/acupuncture.shtml. Accessed July 6, 2016.)
As far as massage therapy, there is very little evidence as it relates to autoimmune disease. Massage is a bit trickier, especially when it comes to some of the more “fancy” massages like lymph drainage treatments and deep tissue massage. There have been cases where deep tissue or lymph drainage massages can actually cause a flare-up. Why might this be? Have you ever had a massage and then after, the therapist says to you, “Ok, I want you to take it easy afterwards –it’s normal to feel like you’re coming down with something afterwards so hydrate and rest”? This is because the body’s immune system may begin to wake up. For those with autoimmune disease, we don’t want this to happen; so I would be very cautious here when it comes to using massage as a potential treatment for autoimmune disease. When it comes to other lifestyle choices, here are the ones that are supported by quite a bit of well-designed studies:
The Best Lifestyle Choices for Autoimmune Disease
Moderate intensity cardiovascular activity (like walking at a moderate pace for 30-60 minutes at a time) most days of the week has been shown to help reduce inflammation in the body and may prevent a flare-up. If you want to incorporate weight-bearing exercises, like weight lifting, just try not to overdo it. This is because if you begin to experience muscle soreness, the immune system will wake up to heal those muscles. Again, waking up the immune system is not what we want in this situation. I’m not saying you should never perform weight-bearing exercises, just no need to overdo it.
There are a number of foods that have been shown to be beneficial for those with an autoimmune disease. Believe it or not, there are a number of well-designed studies that have found whole grains to have anti-inflammatory properties. But, of course, if you realize that whole grains tend to cause you to flare up, then stay away. Other helpful foods include beans and lentils, green leafy vegetables (spinach and kale), omega-3 fatty acids (marine sources tend to be the best for helping with autoimmune disease, so fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, trout, herring, and halibut are great), and foods that contain turmeric.
There have actually been a number of studies on the effects of turmeric and its role in preventing systemic inflammation and helping those with autoimmune disease achieve remission. Turmeric is that bright yellow spice that it’s often used in eastern dishes. You can actually supplement with this as well. Just be sure you do your research before buying a specific product.
3. Do Alternative Therapies Work with Chronic Pain?
If you're reading this looking for answers for yourself, I am sorry to hear that you are experiencing chronic inflammation. I can relate somewhat — a family member of mine has an autoimmune condition that leads to chronic pain — this is something that hits close to home with me.
Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 475 and Episode 995 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.
Chronic pain and systemic inflammation can significantly impact a person’s quality of life. What often happens is that for some reason, the pain will come and go or “flare up.” Sometimes the cause is known, but often, it’s a complete mystery. It’s the latter that can make it so maddening. Sometimes the pain seems to be triggered for no reason at all. Maybe it’s caused by the environment (like pollution, our food, or water supply), our lifestyle (diet and exercise), the genes we inherit from our parents, or a combination all of those things.
Besides taking pain medications, there are very few long-lasting treatments. But some practitioners do recommend alternative therapies like Reiki, acupuncture, and therapeutic massage to help reduce some of the pain.
Reiki for Pain Relief
At the time of this update, some health services in the U.S. are reopening (while some are still under quarantine).
A close friend of mine is a massage therapist and her office is beginning to see clients again. The great thing about Reiki is that can actually be practiced without physical touch.
I’ll explain. But remember, some forms of Reiki would still violate social distancing policies, so be careful out there.
When it comes to studying Reiki, it gets tricky because how do you know it’s really the Reiki that’s helping or whether it’s just a placebo effect? Meaning, if people believed that receiving Reiki would help them feel better, that belief alone could automatically help the pain go away. That’s an example of the placebo effect.
Effectiveness of Reiki for Pain Relief
Luckily, I found some published studies that looked at this. I found a meta-analysis that looked at Reiki for pain relief specifically. Remember, a meta-analysis is when researchers take a bunch of already published studies and then perform their own, separate analysis on them. This kind of research, when it’s conducted properly, is actually considered the “gold standard.”
This one found that Reiki was in fact effective at reducing pain and even anxiety. Another meta-analysis found that Reiki was better than a placebo at reducing pain and anxiety. Direct-touch massage has also been studied and found to be very helpful for relieving pain specifically. I should mention that many of these studies were performed on individuals that had been diagnosed with cancer or were near the end stages of their lives.
So, here’s the deal: the effectiveness of Reiki and massage have only been studied in specific groups of people. This makes it hard to know whether it would be beneficial for everyone. But, in this case, if it’s not causing harm and can only help, I am willing to be more lenient.
My important disclaimer here is that, during times of social distancing, be careful and protect yourself before receiving Reiki or massage therapy.
Acupuncture as a Treatment for Chronic Pain
With regards to acupuncture, luckily the majority of the research looks at whether acupuncture can help reduce chronic pain specifically.
Acupuncture is the insertion of needles at specific points on the body to promote optimal health.
A meta-analysis was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and found that acupuncture was an effective treatment for chronic pain. As mentioned earlier, meta-analyses can help us make sense of conflicting results.
Sure enough, it was discovered that acupuncture can help relieve chronic pain. The authors even went so far as to say that this was NOT due to a placebo effect!
Massage Therapy for Chronic Pain Relief
Some meta-analyses have been published for massage therapy and its effectiveness for chronic pain as well. Since there are different forms of massage, like deep tissue, Swedish, lymph drainage, and so on, it can be bit trickier to determine which is truly most effective.
There have been cases where deep tissue or lymph drainage massages can actually cause more pain. Why might this be? Have you ever had a massage and then after, the therapist says to you, “Ok, I want you to take it easy afterwards — it’s normal to feel like you’re coming down with something afterwards so hydrate and rest”?
This is because the body’s immune system may begin to wake up after the message. If the immune system wakes up, it may lead to more inflammation and increase pain. So it may be worthwhile to consider getting “relaxation” massages, as opposed to deep tissue or lymph drainage.
Other Lifestyle Choices to Reduce Chronic Inflammation
When it comes to other lifestyle choices, here are the ones that are supported by quite a bit of well-designed studies:
Moderate intensity cardiovascular activity (like walking at a moderate pace for 30-60 minutes at a time) most days of the week has been shown to help reduce inflammation in the body and therefore help reduce chronic pain.
If you want to incorporate weight-bearing exercises, like weight lifting, just try not to overdo it. This is because if you begin to experience muscle soreness, that will lead to more pain. Plus the immune system will wake up to heal those muscles. Again, waking up the immune system is not what we want in this situation.
I’m not saying you should never perform weight-bearing exercises, just no need to overdo it.
There are a number of foods that have been shown to reduce chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation may be a trigger for chronic pain.
Believe it or not, there are a number of well-designed studies that have found whole grains to have anti-inflammatory properties.
Other foods include:
- beans and lentils
- green leafy vegetables (spinach and kale)
- omega-3 fatty acids (marine sources tend to be the best for helping with autoimmune disease, so fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, trout, herring, and halibut are great)
- foods that contain turmeric
There have actually been a number of studies on the effects of turmeric and its role in preventing systemic inflammation. Turmeric is that bright yellow spice that it’s often used in eastern dishes. You can actually supplement with this as well, but be sure to do your research before buying a specific product.
Luckily, there are a number of options to help reduce health conditions like weight loss management and chronic pain. Just know that alternative therapies like Reiki, acupuncture, and massage should be considered complementary therapies. You should still follow your doctor’s orders, take your prescribed medications, etc. But, adding one or more of these modalities to your care plan may help you feel even better.