One of the main arguments that has been hitherto used to dismiss acupuncture as just placebo is based on studies that found that ‘true’ acupuncture (a.k.a. ‘doing it properly’) is not much better than ‘sham’ acupuncture (a.k.a. ‘doing it almost properly’ – with the needles inserted into the body slightly away from actual acupuncture points). Both the true and the sham acupuncture in these trials tended to be effective, which leads professional sceptics to shout loud from the rooftops that ‘it doesn’t matter where you put the needle’. However, a meta-analysis by an excellent team of UK-based researchers, involving 29 good quality trials and tens of thousands of acupuncture treatments has shown that acupuncture is significantly superior to the controls with which it is typically compared – irrespective of the type used. This analysis included patients with headache and migraine, osteoarthritis and back, neck and shoulder pain. The controls with which ‘true’ acupuncture was compared included ‘sham’ needles (as described above), non-penetrating sham (i.e. ‘false-dagger’ type) needles, and routine care. Acupuncture was found to be significantly superior to all of these controls. True to form, where penetrating needles were used as a sham control, true acupuncture was found to have smaller effect sizes. Larger effect sizes were found where acupuncture was compared with routine care.

The take home message here? There are a few. Firstly, acupuncture is effective for illnesses involving pain. Secondly, there is no such thing as ‘sham’ acupuncture; wherever you insert a needle into the body it produces important therapeutic physiological activity. And finally, it’s back to the drawing board with for many acupuncture researchers, as many of the trials conducted up to this point really aren’t fit for purpose as evidence.


imagesObesity is in the press again. Shockingly, over a quarter of UK adults are clinically obese, and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) are reminding the public that even ‘modest’ weight-loss can have significant health benefits. Over the years I have received many enquiries about and treated many patients for weight loss – some with success, some with failure. In my experience there tend to be two kinds of patients that successfully lose weight with acupuncture treatment. The first kind – and the great majority of people fit into this category in my opinion – are those who comfort-eat in order to switch off uncomfortable feelings. These people could just as easily be smoking, taking drugs (legal or otherwise), drinking or obsessively exercising to escape from their uncomfortable internal worlds – they just happen to have chosen the heavy, sweet sedation of carbohydrates as their self-medication. Acupuncture in such cases can be very helpful, but only if the weight problem is put into the context of the whole person. In Chinese medicine, emotions are seen to be a manifestation of the movement of qi, and because acupuncture moves and regulates qi – working at the ‘hinge’ of the mind and the body – it can help a person engage with and transform their difficult internal states. The second group of patients – and the great minority in my experience – are those with a defined metabolic problem that makes the excess weight stick. In such cases if the practitioner gets the correct diagnosis and treatment, Chinese medicine will ‘do what it says on the tin’ – the person’s metabolism will normalise and the weight will drop off.

With all of that said, there is of course no substitute to proper eating and exercising, and adjustments in this regard almost always need to be made. Such changes can be difficult for those who are governed by suppressed emotional pain, however, and for many this means a vicious cycle of yo-yo dieting and self-condemnation. Some patients seem to look to acupuncture and Chinese medicine as a magic oriental panacea that will make them slim without disturbing the status quo in terms of their dysfunctional diet and lifestyle.

Despite all of the above, and to my surprise, some recent research has shown that a simple acupuncture protocol can indeed make you lose weight. This Austrian study randomly assigned 56 obese female patients to receive either ear acupuncture with electrical stimulation, or placebo electrical stimulation. The acupuncture points used were the ‘hunger’ point and points for the stomach and colon. Treatment was once a week for six weeks, after which the body weight of the acupuncture group was found to be significantly less than the placebo group. In addition the treatment group experienced a significant reduction in BMI compared to the placebo group. So, sometimes it really is as simple as the  judicious insertion of a few needles …  but not every time I wouldn’t bet …


UnknownSo, Tamiflu doesn’t work. If you are surprised, perhaps you have not kept abreast of the steady media drip-feed that has reported on the murky, avaricious practices of Big Pharma. There is now incontrovertible evidence that the hallowed ‘Evidence-Based Medicine’ that forms the blueprint of virtually all modern biomedical interventions is fundamentally corrupt. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the recently published Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime: How Big Pharma has Corrupted Healthcare by Peter Gotzche. Be sure to note that this text is not been written by some flakey  ‘alternative medicine’ agitator – the author is co-founder (and current director) of the Cochrane Collaboration itself, the organisation that currently represents the undisputed pinnacle of evidence-based scientific medicine. The Tamiflu debacle clearly shows that Big Pharma cherry-picks the best research to publish (which goes to inform the ‘evidence-based’ treatments provided by the NHS) … and hides the rest. Looking beyond the fury that such corruption incites – and the associated damage and suffering inflicted on an unsuspecting public – it seems absolutely clear that it is high time we levelled the playing field on which the power/money/corruption of Big Pharma has an unfair – and undeserved -advantage over those of us practising other kinds of intelligent, effective – and in most cases morally decent – medicine (in my case acupuncture and Chinese medicine). Don’t get me wrong: this does not damn all biomedical treatment, or medical doctors for that matter (many of whom have clearly been deceived and manipulated themselves). But it does mean that any individual who becomes ill may need to think beyond their innocent trust in the treatment provided by this evidence-based system … because in some – perhaps many – cases the treatment will be based on shaky and corrupt evidence.


A 2012 meta-analysis by a team of exceptionally skilled researchers, led by Andrew Vickers of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre (New York) and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, looked at 29 randomised controlled trials (of ‘only high quality’ according to the research team), involving 17,922 patients treated with acupuncture for chronic pain (that’s a lot of people, a lot of pain and a lot of needles). To cut a long story short, the researchers found that acupuncture was 15 to 20 per cent more effective than placebo. This is significant – to give you an idea, this is an effect of a similar order to commonly prescribed drugs such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs, which are recommended by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence [NICE]). The authors concluded that ‘Acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic pain and is therefore a reasonable referral option.’

The take-home message? If you have a problem that involves ongoing chronic pain – go and get some acupuncture. (See the original paper here



With the annual choc-fest-cum-pagan-fertility-festival-with-a-thin-veneer-of-Christian-piety-on-top, Easter, impending, I thought I would share my thoughts on the current public-enemy-number one – sugar. You may have read the recent calls from a group of high profile scientists and doctors (organised as the Action on Sugar campaign) to cut the amount of sugar in food and drink by 30 per cent in order to stem the obesity and diabetes epidemic. But perceptually this is a tricky area – after all, virtually all of us alive today grew up gorging on the stuff, and many of us are still in reasonable health – so where’s the problem? Modern nutritional and naturopathic approaches to medicine tend to strongly emphasise the negative effects of sugar, perhaps reflecting the extreme effects of excess sugar consumption on greedy and sedentary affluent Western populations. Paul Pitchford, the author of the seminal Healing with Whole Foods states that sugar subjects humans to just about every chronic disease state available, as well as making them anxious, unhappy, negative, irritable and lazy.

Perhaps predictably, given my profession as a Chinese medicine physician, my basic position on this matter is that sugar (i.e. the refined white stuff, sucrose, Tate & Lyle and all that) is more usefully viewed not as a food, but as a drug. Human beings are simply not designed to run on refined sugar. Of course, the equation that ‘sugar=bad’ is facile and overly simplistic. Like oxygen, sugar is needed by every cell of the body. Indeed, the Chinese character for qi is primarily composed of a picture representing a carbohydrate – a ‘grain’ or ‘rice’. Eating plenty of sugar provides plenty of energy in the form of calories (and the increase in its availability was widely agreed to have facilitated the industrial revolution). However, if this energy is not used, it will be stored as fat, and its effect on the human body tends to cause chaos in the endocrine and metabolic systems.

To understand the effects of refined sugar it is useful to look at it from the perspective of Chinese medicine. Sugar is actually part of the Chinese herbal medicine pharmacopeia. The famous 16th century Chinese physician Li Shizhen described the effects of ‘sha tang’ (brown sugar) in fairly positive terms – he stated that it harmonises qi, strengthens the digestion and calms the Liver, moistens Lung qi, strengthens the major internal organs and produces body fluids. The sweet taste in Chinese medicine is said to slow things down, build and strengthen the body, and harmonise physiological process. These are all good things to happen in the human body, but dosage and context are all important – too much ‘building’ or ‘slowing’ in the wrong person at the wrong time will simply create obstruction (imagine building and slowing happening in Piccadilly Circus – no good). The harmonising effect of the sweet taste (in its intended format – i.e. as it appears in nature) can make us feel pleasantly calm, whereas in the wrong format (the ‘crack-cocaine’ sweetness of refined sugar) tends to make the body’s energy stagnant and disorderly.

From the perspective of Chinese medicine, the result of excess sweetness inhibits the digestive system and contributes to the formation of gunky ‘phlegm-dampness’, which makes the human system heavy, sluggish and poorly functioning. The damage to the digestive system also puts in motion a pathological cycle of the body craving more of the same taste to kick start it into action. In affluent societies there is an enormous supply of food and a tendency to over-consume calories in the form of sugar. Whereas in the past our work lives would involve a lot of activity, many of us now sit at a desk prodding a computer. This means the muscles don’t move to transform and move such phlegm-dampness. In addition, the obstruction caused by the phlegm-damp causes the production of heat due to the energy being unable to flow freely. This combination of phlegm-damp and heat constitutes the heady cocktail that is the source of many chronic modern diseases.

With all of this said, the notion that refined sugar is essentially a drug does not preclude its occasional use in the name of pleasure. Save it for your celebrations and enjoy it. Have a ball. Get high. (And then check in with your acupuncturist and check you haven’t knackered your digestive system!) The human body is generally hardy enough (if you look after it) to indulge now and again. Unfortunately many humans seem to act like laboratory monkeys hooked on cocaine, and keep hitting the ‘NEXT CHOGLID’ button for their next fix until their poor metabolism collapses in on itself. The key, as in all things, is balance. The addiction aspects of sugar consumption – physical and mental/emotional –  is a subject in itself, which I may cover in a future post. In the meantime, keep things sweet (but not too sweet)!


child hand palpationHere’s an interesting piece of research.A group of researchers at an inner-city hospital in Boston (Massachusetts) have explored how acupressure (acupuncture without needles) can benefit the health of babies born to women suffering from drug addiction. Such babies experience ‘Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome’ – basically drug withdrawal – involving symptoms such as high-pitched prolonged crying, inability to be soothed, poor feeding habits, pain and gastrointestinal disturbance. The researchers used a ‘Teishin’ – a small spring-loaded probe used by Japanese acupuncturists – to stimulate seven acupuncture points chosen to help with the withdrawal process (for the benefit of other acupuncturists the points were Baihui DU-20, Yintang, Hegu L.I.-4, Neiguan P-6, Zusanli ST-36, Sanyinjiao SP-6 and Yongquan KID-1). There were three significant outcomes: the babies tended to fall deeply asleep during or after treatment, with deep, slow and peaceful breathing. Restless and agitated babies became relaxed, and babies with digestion problems started to feed better in the days after treatment. I find this study interesting, not because it is a wonder of rigorous large-scale research – it isn’t. However, the fact that non-specific placebo effects are unlikely to have played a significant part (the babies had little idea or expectation about what was happening to them), and the non-invasive, gentle nature of the treatment given (I tend to use acupuncture on babies), provides food for thought. Although the study was reasonably small and has its share of limitations as evidence, the response of these babies tallies with my own clinical experience of treating babies and children. I would therefore urge parents with babies or children with health problems to consider acupressure/acupuncture as a potential treatment (from a properly trained and experienced practitioner, obviously). If you catch health problems early it can change the course of a person’s health through their whole life … [Read the research here: Non-Insertive Acupuncture and Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome: A Case Series from an Inner City Safety Net Hospital. Glob Adv Health Med. 2012 Sep;1(4):48-52]


MoreBurnLessTimeAnd so Fitness First play their part in the epidemic of stress, speed and resulting sickness that is blighting modern society, particularly in the big cities. This billboard greets travellers leaving Paddington station as they emerge through the acrid fog of tobacco smoke that shrouds the main exit of the station. ‘MORE BURN, LESS TIME’. It is this kind of nonsense that is filling our acupuncture clinics with injured, burned-out, prematurely ageing, unhappy people. The mantra ‘more burn less time’ promises … what exactly? It promises ‘burning energy, calories, or fat’. Who needs to burn energy, calories and fat? Those who have overindulged in excess food or the wrong foods, usually against the background of an overly sedentary daily life. And this workout method means you’ll ‘be back in the office before anyone notices you’ve gone’. OK so one might implicate a punitive employment culture and economy in this, where miserable office drones live in perpetual fear of taking a lunch-break lest they attract the searchlight of bosses looking to make cuts. Nevertheless there are big problems with this approach to ‘health’. What happens to the lunch-break with this exercise routine? The person’s Stomach is treated to a cold sandwich shoved down while they work. And so the vicious cycle of high stress, poor digestion, imbalanced metabolism, weight gain and subsequent depression continues. Add to this the inevitable injuries caused by rushing from a desk chair to a high impact workout with insufficient warm-up and warm-down, and you have the perfect storm for slowly and insidiously tearing the body and mind apart. Of course, the younger gym bunnies will be fine … for a while. But those in their 30s and 40s working long hours and feeling the need for health and wellbeing should avoid this kind of approach to training. The people attracted to the offer by Fitness First are exactly the kind of people who would benefit from an hour doing, well basically nothing. Just breathing, relaxing, letting their nerves unwind, their muscles soften and lengthen, their minds slow down and become calm. I can see the billboard now – LESS BURN, MORE TIME.