Herbs for Health: Natural Weight Control

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Scented pelargoniums
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Saw palmetto growing wild in Florida
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Dried saw palmetto berries
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Stinging nettle

“Herbs for Health” is offered bimonthly by the American Botanical Council and the Herb Research Foundation as a supplement to ­The Herb Companion.

“Herbs for Health” is intended as an educational service, not a source of medical advice or a guide for self-medication. Please consult a qualified health-care professional for treatment of any serious health problems. For further information on any of the topics in “Herbs for Health”, write the American Botanical Council or the Herb Research Foundation.

American Botanical Council
PO Box 201660 Austin, TX 78720
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If I could find an herbal magic bullet that would allow me to eat whatever I wanted, skip exercising, and still lose weight, I’d be forty pounds lighter. Unfortunately, no such magic bullet exists. Common sense, a low-fat, high-fiber diet, and regular exercise are the most valuable tools for taking off weight and keeping it off. That said, there are several herbal approaches that may help.

Obesity means being so fat that your health is impaired: weighing 30 percent more than normal for women or 25 percent for men. Obese people are at high risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, respiratory distress, and joint stress, among other health problems. Losing weight reduces the risk.

As a rule, if you eat 3,500 calories more than you burn by exercise or other activity, you’ll gain a pound; burn 3,500 calories more than you eat, and you’ll likely lose a pound. However, other factors such as metabolic rate, enzyme production and utilization, heredity, and chemical appetite-triggers also affect the way your body deals with food. Many obese people have difficulty controlling their appetites, particularly when ­carbohydrates and fats are ­within reach.

There are many approaches to weight loss. These include dietary changes, exercise regimes, behavior modification, drugs, and–in severe cases–surgery to reduce the size of the stomach. Most weight-loss programs include a combination of approaches. If you’re overweight, discuss your ­options with a health-care professional.

Cooling Cravings

It would be a lot easier to stay on a diet if you weren’t hungry all the time. Most conventional diet drugs contain ingredients intended to suppress the urge to eat. Two Old World tropical herbs have been recently promoted as appetite suppressants. The acidic fruits of Garcinia gummi-guttata and G. indica have long been used as a food in India, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, and Burma. Muslims in India use the dried rind to flavor curries as a substitute for limes or tamarind, and they take an ­extract of the dried fruits after eating fatty lamb dishes to aid ­digestion.

Hydroxycitric acid, which constitutes up to 16 percent by weight of dried garcinia fruits, significantly reduced food intake (apparently by suppressing appetite), body weight gain, and body lipids in rats. It was also found to inhibit an enzyme involved in converting carbohydrates to fat in mammals. The results of many animal studies have yet to be confirmed by well-designed, large-scale human studies.

The leaves of Gymnema sylvestre, a member of the milkweed family found in central India and tropical Africa, have traditionally been used as a stomachache remedy, mild laxative, and diuretic. Known in India as gurma (“sugar-destroying”), gymnema’s use as an Ayurvedic treatment for diabetes mellitus has prompted recent studies of the effectiveness of leaf extracts in lowering blood sugar.

Chewing gymnema leaves or drinking a tea made of them suppresses the ability to taste sugars for several hours, apparently due to blockage by gymnemic acid of the transmission of nerve impulses from tongue receptors. The rationale for using gymnema leaf in weight-loss products seems to be that suppressing the ability to taste sweets will discourage people from eating them.

Flushing Out Wastes

Drinking at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day is beneficial for anyone, but it’s especially important if you’re dieting because it makes you feel full and helps flush out toxins released from fat tissue as you begin to shed pounds.

Harsh herbal diuretics such as buchu, juniper, and uva-ursi (bearberry) teas can irritate the urinary tract and so are not appropriate for a weight-loss program. Green tea, a relatively mild diuretic that has also earned attention recently for its antioxidant qualities, is a safer alternative. It contains one-half to one-third as much caffeine as brewed coffee and thus is less likely to make you jittery. The following herbs also are mildly diuretic.

Dandelion, my favorite in this group, is high in potassium, which helps compensate for potassium lost in the urine. Animal studies have shown that bitter compounds in the leaves and roots increase bile secretion, thus promoting digestion. In Europe, a tea–1 to 3 tablespoons of the dried leaf per cup of water–is used as a diuretic to relieve water retention and bloating. Use dandelion only under a physician’s supervision if you have gallstones and not at all if your bile duct is obstructed.

Cleavers is a common European weed found throughout much of North America. Virtually ignored by modern researchers, it’s prescribed in ­European herbal weight-loss regimens to flush the kidneys and lymphatic system; compounds called iridoid glycosides may be the active principles. No toxicity or contraindications have been reported. A tea made with a teaspoon of the dried, cut-and-sifted herb taken two or three times a day is the usual dosage.

Chickweed, a member of the pink family native to Eurasia, is now a pervasive weed nearly everywhere. Although science has not confirmed its effectiveness, herbalists consider it mildly diuretic and prescribe it for weight loss. A tea may be made using a handful of fresh tops or 1 teaspoon of dried ones. The tender tops are available throughout most of the year and make a nutritious, virtually calorie-free addition to a salad or cooked greens.

• The folk use of stinging nettle leaves and juice as a diuretic is supported by German animal studies showing that they increase the excretion of chlorides and urea. Their high potassium content may compensate for potassium loss in the urine as is true with dandelion. In Germany, nettle is used to treat urinary tract imflammation and other conditions. Pour a cup of boiling water over 2 teaspoons of the dried leaves to make a tea. (Rare allergic reactions to the tea have been reported.) The fresh herb may be cooked as a tasty, nutritious spring potherb; wear gloves when handling it to protect your hands from the stinging hairs.

Further Reading

Bishayee, A., and M. Chatterjee. “Hypolipidaemic and Antiathero­sclerotic Effects of Oral Gymnema sylvestre R. Br. Leaf Extract in Albino Rats Fed on a High Fat Diet”. Phytotherapy Research 1994, 8(2): 118-120.

Doering, P. L. “Weight Control Products”. In Handbook of Nonprescription Drugs. 11th ed. Washington, DC.: American Pharmaceutical Association, 1996.

Greenwood, M.R.C., et al. “Effect of (-)-Hydroxycitrate on Development of Obesity in the Zucker Obese Rat.” American Journal of Physiology 1981, 240:E72-78.

Majeed, M., et al. Citrin: A Revolutionary, Herbal Approach to Weight Management. Burlingame, California: New Edi­tions, 1994.

Rao, R. N., and K. K. Sakariah. “Lipid-Lowering and Antiobesity Effect of

(-)-Hydroxycitric Acid”. Nutrition Research 8 1988, 209-212.

Sullivan, A. C., and R. K. Gruen. “Mechanisms of Appetite Modulation by Drugs.” Federation Proceedings 1985, 44(1): 139-44.

Tyler, V. E. Herbs of Choice: The Therapeutic Use of Phytomedicinals. Binghamton, New York: Pharmaceutical Products Press, 1994.

Saw Palmetto: Help for the prostate

If you’ve ever been to Florida, chances are you’ve seen saw palmettos (Serenoa repens), 6- to 9-foot palms with sharp, saw-toothed leaves that form nearly impenetrable thickets covering hundreds of square miles in southern and central Florida as well as southern Georgia and Alabama. Each August and September, these thickets yield tons of purple-black olive-sized saw palmetto fruits earmarked for improving the health of older men.

The juicy, oily fruits, which taste first sweet, then acridly pungent, are highly nutritious. The oil, which has a peculiar fragrance, contains fatty acids and steroidlike phytosterols including beta-sitosterol, one of the few compounds found in plants that curtails human hormonal activity; specifically, it appears to prevent the development of benign prostatic hyperplasia by inhibiting the activity of the hormonal enzyme 5-alpha-reductase.

The nonmalignant enlargement of the prostate gland may narrow the urethra, resulting in weak urine flow, difficult or painful urination, increased frequency of urination, and a feeling that the bladder is not quite empty. The condition may afflict half of all men in America over the age of fifty. Saw palmetto fruit extracts have been used for more than 100 years to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia; their use is backed by more than a dozen controlled clinical studies, most conducted in Europe.

The Changing Role of Saw ­Palmetto

Native Americans ate the berries as food, but early ­European settlers found their flavor unpleasant. The first ­medicinal reference to the fruit appeared in the April 1879 American Journal of Pharmacy. J. B. Read wrote:

By its peculiar soothing power on the mucous membrane it induces sleep, relieves the most troublesome coughs, promotes expectoration, improves digestion, and increases fat, flesh and strength. Its sedative and ­diuretic properties are ­remarkable.

Two decades later, its benefit to the prostate had been discovered, and the 1926 edition of the United States Dispensatory hailed it as a treatment for ” enlarged prostate of old men” based on “much clinical testimony”. By the 1930s, many European physicians were using saw palmetto successfully to treat irritations of the bladder, urethra, and prostate.

Modern Use

Saw palmetto is a dietary supplement in the United States, but in Europe, where up to 90 percent of patients with benign prostatic hyperplasia are treated with phytopharmaceuticals, saw palmetto is considered to be a medicine. In one German survey, as many as half the urologists who responded indicated that they prefer plant-based treatments to conventional drugs. The German government’s monograph on saw palmetto allows use of the fruit preparations to treat difficulty of urination in the earliest stages of benign prostate hyperplasia. No contraindications are noted. Stomach irritation is the only side effect mentioned, but head­aches have been reported elsewhere.

The cause of benign prostatic hyperplasia is not clearly understood. However, it is known that 5-alpha-reductase, which increases with age in men, converts testosterone in the blood into dihydrotestosterone, a form of the principal male sex hormone that appears to stimulate prostate growth. Nonsurgical treatments thus have focused on inhibiting the activity of this enzyme. Fat-soluble berry extracts have been shown in laboratory studies to ­reduce tissue uptake of both ­tes­tosterone and the more active ­dihydrotestosterone by more than 40 percent as well as reducing symptoms, particularly the need to urinate during the night, in human subjects.

In a French double-blind trial published in 1984, 110 men with benign prostatic hyperplasia were given 320 mg of a saw palmetto extract or a placebo daily for thirty days. In the treatment group, nocturnal trips to the bathroom decreased by more than 45 percent, urinary flow increased by more than 50 percent, and the inability to empty the bladder completely decreased by nearly 42 percent. Pain during urination also decreased significantly. Men who took the placebo reported no improvement.

A larger 1996 study compared the effectiveness of a common European commercial saw palmetto extract with the conventional prostate drug finasteride. The study included 1,098 men diagnosed with benign prostatic hyperplasia in France, Scotland, England, Italy, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Greece, Switzerland, Slovakia, and the United States. The participants were given either 160 mg of saw palmetto twice a day or 5 mg of finasteride each morning (according to the ­manufacturer’s recommended dosage) for twenty-six weeks.

Although two-thirds of the men in each group obtained relief of their symptoms, those who took saw palmetto had significantly fewer complaints of decreased libido or impotence. Saw palmetto had no effect on prostate size, whereas finasteride shrank it significantly, suggesting that the two treatments have different mechanisms of action.

Taking Saw Palmetto

Whole, cut-and-sifted, and powdered dried saw palmetto fruits, capsules, tablets, tinctures, and extracts are available in the United States. Most of the clinical studies have used standardized extracts made with fat-­soluble solvents. An average daily dose of most preparations is equivalent to 1 to 2 g of the dried berries. Benefits are most predictable when standardized products are taken.

If you are a man who has been having difficulty urinating, it’s time to make an appointment for a checkup. Your physician will need to rule out cancer (which doesn’t respond to saw palmetto) and other conditions before diagnosing you with benign prostatic hyperplasia. Be aware that saw palmetto can skew the results of the prostate-specific antigen blood test that is often used to screen for prostate cancer; tell your physician if you have been taking saw palmetto when you go for your checkup.

Tomatoes for the Prostrate

The antioxidant carotenoid lycopene gives tomatoes their red color, protects them from sun damage, enhances photosynthesis, and stabilizes their cell membranes. According to a 1995 report, lycopene also may protect men against prostate cancer.

During the six-year study of the dietary intake of 47,894 healthy men, 812 cases of prostate cancer were diagnosed. Researchers found that the men ate a total of forty-six different fruits and vegetables and that those whose diets consisted of large quantities of lycopene-rich foods, mainly tomatoes and tomato sauce, were significantly less likely to develop prostate cancer than men who ate less of these foods. Other foods containing lycopene include strawberries, watermelon, guavas, and pink grapefruit. Lycopene accumulates in the prostate, but exactly how it protects against prostate cancer has yet to be determined.

Other studies also have linked frequent tomato consumption with a lower incidence of colon, rectal, and stomach cancers in both men and women and with stimulation of the immune system.

Further Reading

Brown, D. Herbal Prescriptions for Better Health. Rocklin, California: Prima, 1995.

Carraro, J. C., et al. “Comparison of Phytotherapy (Permixon) With Finasteride in the Treatment of Benign Prostate Hyperplasia: A Randomized International Study of 1,098 Patients”. The Prostate 1996, 29: 213-240.

Champault, G., et al. “A double-blind trial of an extract of the plant Serenoa repens in benign prostate hyper­plasia”. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology 1984, 18:461-462.

Hale, E. M. Saw Palmetto, Its History, Botany, Chemistry, Pharmacology, Provings, Clinical Experience and Therapeutic Applications. Philadelphia: Boericke and Tafel,1898.

Lowe, F. C., and J. C. Ku. “Phytotherapy in Treatment of Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia: A Critical Review”. Urology 1996, 48(1):12-20.

“Saw Palmetto”. Western Druggist 1892 (December): 355-356.

Giovannucci, E., et al. “Intake of Carotenoids and Retinol in Relation to Risk of Prostate Cancer”. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 1995, 87(23):1767-1776.


Pelargonium Oil Effects

A recent British study found that essential oils distilled from fresh leaves of thirty-two scented pelargoniums (Pelargonium spp.) significantly reduced muscle spasms in laboratory animals.

In South Africa, where nearly all of the 250 or so species of Pelargonium are native, many kinds have been used in folk medicine for the treatment of dysentery and other disorders (the Zulus used one species as an abortifacient). Since scented pelargoniums first made their way to Europe in the seventeenth century, hundreds of cultivated varieties have been developed. Some of the rose-scented pelargoniums are grown commercially for their essential oil.

The oils of scented pelargoniums differ greatly in their chemical makeup from one species to the next. Further research is planned to identify which compound or group of compounds produces the antispasmodic effect observed in the animal study.(1)

Herbal Melatonin

In 1995, Newsweek magazine referred to synthetic melatonin as “The Pill of the Year”. Dietary supplement manufacturers have promoted it not only as a sleep aid, but as a remedy for aging, sexual dysfunction, and other problems. Melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland at the base of the brain, is involved in regulating the body’s sleep-wake cycle.

A report associating chronic migraines with decreased levels of melatonin in the body and another showing that mammals that ate plants containing melatonin increased their own melatonin levels prompted Canadian researchers to measure the melatonin content of several medicinal herbs traditionally used to treat ailments of the nervous system. The 1997 study reports that samples of the leaves of feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), leaves and flowers of St.-John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum), and an unspecified part of huang-qin, or Baikal skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis), all contained melatonin. Richest in the substance were St.-John’s-wort flowers (4.39 micrograms per gram of dried material) and huang-qin (7.11 mcg per g). By contrast, feverfew contained at most 2.45 mcg per g and Virginia skullcap (S. lateriflora), which, like huang-qin, is also used as a sedative, contained only a trace.

The researchers noted that while the presence of melatonin in the herbs’ tissues may account for their physiological effects, it emphasizes the need for identification of the various chemical constituents contained in medicinal herbs.(3)

Turmeric for Drinkers

Turmeric, the pungent yellow- orange spice that colors curry powder, appears to protect the liver from alcohol damage.

The distinctive rhizome color of this ginger family member comes from a pigment called curcumin, which studies have shown also neutralizes free radicals, reduces inflammation, lowers cholesterol, and fights cancer.

Researchers in India fed male rats either ethanol, ethanol plus 80 mg of curcumin per kg of body weight, or a saline solution each day for thirty days. The rats that received curcumin with their daily “martinis” had lower levels of two enzymes known to cause liver damage than did the rats that received alcohol alone. The rats in the curcumin group also had lower levels of serum cholesterol, fatty acids, and phospholipids.(3)


(1) Lis-Balchin, M., S. Hart, and G. Roth. “The Spasmolytic Activity of the Essential Oils of Scented Pelar­goniums (Geraniaceae)”. Phy­to­therapy Research 1997, 11:5 83-584.

(2) Murch, S. J., C. B. Simmons, and P. K. Saxena. “Melatonin in Feverfew and other Medicinal Plants”. Lancet 1997 (November 29), 350:1598-1599.

(3) V. Rajakrishnan, V. P. Menon, and K. N. Rajashekaran. “Protective Role of Curcumin in Ethanol Toxicity”. Phytotherapy Research 1998, 12:55-56.