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Massage Today
January, 2005, Vol. 05, Issue 01

A Survey of CAM Approaches to Obesity

By Karen Stretch, assistant editor

Obesity is fast becoming an epidemic of outrageous proportions in the United States. The numbers are staggering: about two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese. And a host of recent reports indicate that it isn't getting any better.

A December 15 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) indicated that immigrants who had lived in the U.S. for at least 10 years were more likely to be obese. Other significant report findings have indicated that almost 30 percent of the U.S. workforce is obese and that obesity may account for up to 20 percent of all cancer related deaths.

But it's not just adults that are putting on the extra pounds. According to the Fall 2004 newsletter from the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), about 16 percent of children and adolescents are overweight. In addition to cancer, all of this extra weight is causing a myriad of health problems - type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke are just the tip of the iceberg.

The economic costs of treating the conditions brought on as a result of being overweight were approximately $117 billion in 2000. Doctor visits, medicine, hospital stays, lost wages from illness and disability, and loss of future earnings from early death were all factors which contributed to the astronomical amount spent on treatments for obesity and related conditions.

The causes of obesity can be attributed to many factors, including behavioral - consuming excessive numbers of calories and not getting enough exercise; environmental - living in areas that are not conducive to outdoor activities; and genetics.

New programs and initiatives have recently been put in place by the federal government to address obesity and the diseases that stem from it, and research is being done to figure out more effective ways to help treat and manage the problem.

The NCCAM, which is an active participant in this research through its participation in the NIH Obesity Research Task Force, is exploring ways in which complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) might help treat obesity-related conditions. Part of this includes supporting studies that examine the safety and effectiveness of several weight-loss plans, including Atkins, Zone, and Ornish. Researchers are also looking at practices from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as potential approaches to the obesity crisis, including:

  • A meditation-based treatment for binge-eating disorders in obese women by researchers at Duke University's Center for Integrative Medicine, Indiana State University, and the University of Pennsylvania;
  • Qi gong and acupressure for their effectiveness in maintaining weight loss by a team from the Center for Health Research in Portland, Ore., since many people regain the weight they have lost within one year of losing it; and
  • A counseling and diet program to help survivors of breast cancer make the necessary lifestyle changes in order to lose weight at Wayne State University.

Can Massage Help?

Because massage therapy stimulates blood circulation, helps the lymphatic system eliminate toxic waste, and increases the production of gastric juices and saliva, which are both important digestion aids, it may be one of several approaches to helping people regain control and adjusting their lifestyles to facilitate weight loss and healthy living. Additionally, the relaxation and stress-reduction properties of massage may help people deal with some of the emotional issues that contribute to overeating and weight gain.

Ayurvedic is one form of massage that may help aid in the treatment of obesity, as well as the conditions that are caused by obesity, by stimulating the body's circulatory systems. Udvathanam is a typical Ayurvedic massage that involves using herbal powders for 30-minute periods a day for 14-28 days. In addition to treating obesity, Udvathanam is used to treat hemophilia, paralysis, and rheumatic ailments.

Abhyangam is another type of Ayurvedic massage that uses oil and strokes, which are given according to the diseases for 45 minutes a day for 14 days. This treatment is thought to be quite useful in treating obesity, especially for diabetic gangrene, a condition that is caused by a lack of blood circulation in the extremities.

Other CAM Approaches to Obesity

Certain herbs are also used in the treatment of obesity. Herbs typically act as metabolism boosters, laxatives, diuretics, and appetite suppressants. When using herbs, patients should first consult with a physician since certain herbs can have serious interactions with prescription drugs (especially antidepressants that contain MAO inhibitors) and foods. The following list includes just a few of the many herbs that aid in weight loss:

  • Aloe Vera juice improves digestion and cleanses the digestive tract.
  • Astragalus increases energy and improves nutrient absorption but should not be used in the presence of a fever.
  • Bee pollen stimulates the metabolism and helps to suppress appetite.
  • Bladderwrack contains iodine, which helps to enhance thyroid function. People with thyroid disorders, high blood pressure, or heart problems should not take this herb.
  • Brewer's yeast helps to reduce various cravings for food and drink.
  • Coconut oil is a rich source for medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are special types of saturated fats separated out of coconut oil. Unlike regular fats, MCTs actually promote weight loss.
  • Licorice root satisfies cravings for sweets and prevents habitual snacking without adding calories.

Acupuncture can aid weight loss by releasing endorphins that help to calm and relax the body, thereby making it easier to deal with stress and anxiety that can result in binge eating. Endorphins also affect the digestive and hormonal systems that may be running too rapidly or too slowly, including metabolism.

A consultation with an acupuncturist before undergoing treatment for weight loss is helpful in order to establish an individual's pattern of overeating. The acupuncturist will check the pulse to assess the state of a person's energy and more specifically, to measure the health of stomach energy: The practitioner will also check the tongue for any cracks, peeling or swelling on the stomach area. A yellow or white coating may be an indicator of heat or coldness in the stomach that may provide answers as to why the person is gaining weight.

Look for updates on CAM approaches to obesity, as well as the latest news and information related to the obesity epidemic in future issues of Massage Today.

For more information on the NCCAM research studies, visit

Editor's note: Before beginning any weight loss program or undergoing treatments, always consult your physician, and encourage your clients to do so, as well.


  1. Newsletter from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Fall 2004, Vol. 11 Number 4.
  2. Bowman, L. "U.S. living seems to increase obesity rates among immigrants."
  3. Nearly 30 percent of U.S. workforce is obese. Newswise. Dec 10, 2004.
  4. Obesity hikes risk for nine types of cancers. Aug. 23, 2004.


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