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The Hypothalamus, Menopause, Weight Gain and Acupuncture

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How important a health problem is excessive weight gain in America?  It is so important that First Lady Michelle Obama has made it her number one goal to end childhood obesity in one generation.  One third of all American children and adolescents are obese.One third of all American adults are also obese, weighing 25% more than their ideal weight, while two thirds are overweight.  It is clear that excessive weight gain has become  America’s new epidemic. 

A behavior similar to taking drugs, smoking tobacco, or drinking alcohol, excessive eating is an addictive behavior that shortens life spans and is difficult to stop by force of will.  Obesity increases a person's risk of developing several serious health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, thyroid disease, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and diabetes.Every extra pound over your ideal weight may take time from your life. 

Why do people tend to overeat even if they know all about the harmful effects of being overweight?

The hypothalamus contains several groups of nerve cells, which have the  ability to impact emotions, regulate body temperature, and control thirst, along with the feeling of fullness and salt cravings. Body weight is controlled by the hypothalamus through modifying  metabolism. The activities of the hypothalamus are influenced by stress, light, steroids, insulin, pleasant food smells, and invading microorganisms. This explains why we tend to overeat when we are stressed out because the hypothalamus produces more hormones to stimulate the pituitary to produce more cortisol-releasing hormones. The sharp increase in cortisol stimulates the appetite, especially for junk food.  Further when  daylight time becomes shortened in the winter and when we smell something good, the hypothalamus changes its activity, so our appetite also changes.

When menopause comes, the imbalance of estrogen, progesterone, GABA, serotonin and dopamine profoundly influences the neuronal activity of the hypothalamus, which can cause women to be more emotional, to crave sweets and salty food, and to have insomnia, hot flushes and night sweats. Many women tell me that they cannot stop eating even though they know they are not supposed to eat too much of a certain kind of food. In this scenario, if they eat the wrong kind of food such as cookies or ice cream, or drink too much coffee, their stomachs will not receive a signal for fullness. They can keep eating until they damage the majority of their nerves and blood vessels. We have trillions of neurons and blood vessels; if we destroy 60% of them, our body can still compensate. Once the majority of the nerves and blood vessels are damaged, it is too late to change. When we consume sugary foods , our reward center lights up, our body releases dopamine and we feel happier for a moment. The problem is that our body's function is not improved by eating junk food. We have to continue eating those rewarding foods to maintain our happiness. If we instead exercise, take herbs or have acupuncture treatments to produce more dopamine, we can reap the benefits but not pay the cost. On the other hand, if we just put a piece of chocolate into our mouth, we will do damage to our nerves and blood vessels. Simple sugar is even worse than alcohol or tobacco because you can eat sugar any time in any amount without getting drunk or being punished. On the other hand you can only drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes at certain times and places.  On the positive side, when people eat sugary foods, they become friendlier and more sociable during that moment. Most men eat one piece of chocolate, then stop, while women have to eat ten pieces, because women's estrogen levels fluctuate each month from 10 to 100 while men do not have these big hormone changes unless they are alcoholics or drug addicts. Furthermore, women have a very sensitive rewarding center, and they can have sudden increased levels of dopamine, while men receive a much less extreme response from eating rewarding food.

How we can control our appetite by optimizing the activity of hypothalamus?

Q. Wei et al.’s research on obese rats found that tryptophan and serotonin levels were decreased in certain areas of the brains in the obese group as compared to the control. Acupuncture could produce weight reduction by optimizing the serotonin (5-HT) level.  Serotonin not only makes people relax and feel good, but also enhances intestinal motility to help discharge toxic materials that could produce food stagnation and internal heat. Internal heat, from a Chinese medical perspective, leads to increased appetite and more craving for food. In Western medicine, if food cannot be properly absorbed and converted into blood sugar to provide energy, it will be stored instead as fat in the body. Then, the person feels hungry all the time and must eat constantly to maintain his or her blood sugar level. It can quickly become a vicious cycle.

Acupuncture, herbs, meditation, Tai Ji, Qi Gong and other relaxing treatments help redirect energy and blood flow to the hypothalamus, pituitary, ovaries and adrenal gland, so the above glands can produce balanced hormones. On the other hand, acupuncture can reduce stress instantly. By reducing stress, acupuncture improves your entire body function. The balance of all the relaxing and stimulating hormones is the key factor for keeping healthy weight and eating habits. When you have balanced hormones, you do not crave sweets or other junk foods.

Li Zhengisa licensed acupuncturist and herbalist, a graduate of the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine with 11 years of formal training including 6 years of residency, a Ph.D. degree holder in medical sciences from the US, an author of two books (Acupuncture and Hormone Balance and Chinese Acupuncture and Herbs for Common Diseases), a Harvard Medical School trained researcher and a professor at the New England School of Acupuncture. Her website is and her clinic is located at 475 Hillside Avenue, Needham, MA 02494.

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