19 August 2008

Slimming herbs dissected

In an effort to find out if herbal slimming products live up to their claims, DietDoc dissects one such product - and finds that we're probably all taken for a ride.

We all know that obesity is on the increase and that there are thousands of South Africans who are looking for a quick fix to lose weight. Among the most popular weight-loss remedies are the many different herbal slimming pills and drops that are freely available for over-the-counter purchase.

You may be wondering whether these herbal products are safe to use and whether they can cause negative side effects. In order to answer these questions, I've researched the herbal components of one such product.

Keep in mind that there are hundreds of herbal products, which may contain additional herbal extracts not listed here. These extracts may also cause negative side effects or fail to promote weight loss.

The product in question is intended to assist weight loss in men. It contains 12 different herbal extracts, namely:

Agathosma (Barosma) betulina (Buchu)
A stimulant and a strong diuretic. Its use in slimming products is probably to combat water retention, but users should be aware that it can deplete the body's potassium stores (Ageless, 2008).

Also remember that loss of water through diuretics will make you weigh less, but it won't affect fat loss.

Berberis vulgaris cortex rad (Berberry)
A powerful antiseptic and immune booster, but no slimming properties are mentioned.

Warning: Should be used in consultation with a medical doctor. Excessive intake can cause nausea, vomiting, convulsions, low blood pressure, slow heartbeats and depressed breathing.

It should not be taken by men suffering from infertility, because it contains palmitine hydroxide that could interfere with sperm cell maturation and promote sterility. (Ageless, 2008)

Capsicum fructescens fruct (Cayenne pepper, Tabasco, hot pepper, chilli)
Contains capsaicin and vitamin C and is used to improve circulation, dyspepsia and winds, but no mention is made of slimming properties.

Warning: Irritant, avoid excessive intakes (Ageless, 2008).

Carduus marianus (Silybum) fruct (Milk thistle)
Used to treat liver and gallbladder disease. It also stimulates the regeneration of liver cells. Useful in decreasing the side effects of chemotherapy. No mention is made of slimming properties.

Warning: Mild laxative (Ageless, 2008).

Eleuthrococcus senticosus radix (Siberian ginseng)
Boosts immunity, regulates blood pressure, lowers blood sugar and reduces inflammation. Can counteract fatigue, increase endurance and has been used to improve sporting performance. Because this herb may improve sporting performance, it could improve weight loss by sustaining exercise.

Warning: Should not be taken for longer than 8 weeks at a time and not together with caffeine. Patients with hypertension should avoid its use (Ageless, 2008).

Garcinia cambogia 60% extract fruct (Hydroxy citric acid - HCA)
Suppresses appetite and may be useful as a slimming aid if used at a dose of about 1500mg per day (Puritan, 2008).

A scientific study conducted by Heymsfield and co-workers in 1998, showed that Garcinia cambogia failed to produce significant weight loss and fat mass loss in obese human subjects who took 1500mg HCA per day.

Until further studies are carried out, we don’t yet know if Garcinia can improve weight loss and we also don’t know what dose is required.

Gentiana lutea radix (Gentian root, bitterwort)
Used as a liver tonic to treat loss of appetite, winds and promote saliva production, especially in anorexia. No slimming properties are mentioned.

Warning: Should not be used if patients have gastric or duodenal ulcers (Ageless, 2008).

Guggul resina (Myrrh)
Used to treat wounds, tooth ache and throat inflammations. Increases bowel movements, which may cause diarrhoea if taken in excess. No slimming properties mentioned.

Warning: Should be avoided during pregnancy and not used for children (Answers, 2008).

Paullinia sorbilis (Guarana)
Guarana is identical to caffeine and is used as a narcotic stimulant and an aphrodisiac. It's also a strong diuretic. It's used in many slimming preparations and sports products for its stimulant properties.

Loss of water with diuretics will make you weigh less, but not affect fat loss. Excessive loss of water and important electrolytes can be dangerous to your health.

Warning: Excessive use can lead to dehydration and depletion of potassium. Patients with heart problems and high blood pressure should avoid its use (Botanical, 2008).

Rhamnus purshiana (Cascara, Bearberry)
Strong laxative, which can cause severe diarrhoea and vomiting.

Warning: Harsh laxatives should be avoided because they can disrupt normal bowel movements and the severe diarrhoea can cause dehydration and loss of vital minerals (Ageless, 2008).

Sutherlandia frutescens (Cancer bush)
Widely used for the treatment of cancer, HIV/AIDS, TB and chronic fatigue syndrome, despite the fact that many scientists warn that it can do more harm than good. No slimming properties are mentioned.

Warning: May cause significant drug interactions with antiretrovirals used to treat HIV/AIDS (Mills et al, 2005). The herb should not be used unless well-designed scientific studies prove that it's not harmful (see The Great Sutherlandia Debate).

Taraxacum officinale (Dandelion, wild endive, pu gong ying)
Has diuretic and laxative effects and stimulates liver function and digestion and reduces inflammation. Used for gallbladder and urinary conditions, jaundice, cirrhosis of the liver and constipation. High inulin content is beneficial to diabetics (Ageless, 2008).

Warning: Excessive intake can cause diarrhoea, dehydration and loss of potassium.

This investigation of the proposed slimming properties of the 12 herbs included in a popular slimming product on sale in South Africa shows the following:

  • No slimming properties were found for 10 of the12 herbs.
  • Ginseng may improve sporting performance and help slimmers to sustain exercise.
  • At very high doses (1500mg/day) Garcinia cambogia may suppress appetite, but this has not yet been proven scientifically. The Garcinia content of the product in question – 10mg – is so low that it probably doesn't have an effect.
  • One of the herbal ingredients, Berberis, may cause infertility. So why it is included in a slimming product intended for men remains a mystery.
  • Three of the herbs in this product are harsh laxatives (especially Cascara) and can cause severe diarrhoea, vomiting and loss of vital nutrients and water.
  • Three of the herbs are diuretics, which will cause water loss, but not fat loss.

It's clear that this herbal slimming product won't really assist with weight loss and that it will probably cause diarrhoea and dehydration, both of which can hold health risks. In addition, 11 of the 12 herbs can cause negative side effects and should not be taken if you suffer from conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure or ulcers.

Sensible precautions
If you're contemplating the use of herbal slimming products, take the time and effort to do an Internet search for the various ingredients, so that you can clearly see what each herb can do to you and whether it has any slimming properties, or not.

In the majority of cases, you'll find that the herbs are laxatives or diuretics that will not promote weight loss, but will cause diarrhoea and water/electrolyte imbalances that are potentially dangerous and which may even be fatal.

Rather use your money to join a gym or an exercise class and lose your weight by reducing your energy intake and increasing your energy output. This is a safer, cheaper and more sensible solution.

Finally, use the following important statement published on as a guideline whenever you contemplate taking herbal slimming products:

“Although we believe in the therapeutic and healing properties of herbs, care must be taken in the use thereof, as they are powerful compounds.” (Ageless, 2008).

- (Dr I.V. van Heerden, DietDoc, August 2008)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc

(Ageless (2008).; Answers (2008). ;Botanical (2008. mgmh/g/guaran43.html; Mills, E et al (2005). AIDS, 19:95-97. Puritan (2008). HN75_english/ Supp/Hydroxycitric_Acid.htm)


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