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What Is All This Hype About Herbal Weight Loss Products?

An analysis of two particularly controversial products

- Nirvana Afsordeh


Herbal remedies, along with vitamins and various other types of dietary supplements, have long been popular with the customers of health food stores. But now they are part of a boom in alternative remedies and are widely available in supermarkets and pharmacies. In recent months, there has been an incredible surge in the sheer volume of scientific studies that have discussed the effectiveness of such herbal products. Medical scientists consider such findings promising but preliminary; additional research must definitely be explored. However, herbal supplement manufacturers are using such studies to boost the credibility of traditional herbal remedies. There are currently no government regulations to specify the purity, dosage or effectiveness of these products. Many consumers are opting to try them, assuming that the "natural" products with a long history of use will undoubtedly be safe.

As herbal remedies continue to gain in popularity, reports by consumers of serious complications are also increasing. In one statistical report it was stated that 500 incidents were reported to the Food and Drug Administration last year alone. Leading the list of dangerous and ineffective ingredients are ephedra (or Ma Huang) and Chromium. Ephedra alone has accounted for more than half of the complaints in the past three years and has been associated with more than three dozen deaths. Thus the validity and the efficacy of these claims will need to be addressed.


What are the claims of "Natural" Healing?

It is obvious that our bodies are remarkable machines. However, the claim is that natural remedies aid the body's immune system toward total body wellness. They supplement the body with natural substances that have been thought to be time proven over years. One company claims that natural healing "starts with healthful living practices, good nutrition, exercise, and use of nature's herbs and plants to aid the body's immune system toward wellness."(

Other such companies such as SlimUSA, claim that specific blends of ALL NATURAL herbs promotes rapid weight loss. They substantiate their claim by examples such as the fact that the Chinese have used these herbs for hundreds of years. They state that this new program of weight loss will control cravings, stop snacking, and increase energy. However no explanations are given as to how these claims can be validated other than personal testimonies of which there are plenty.

Another company, Imagine Herbal Weight Loss Formula, is in the market for an organic, product that contains a blend of 20 herbs that can be taken in capsule form or as a tea. The general trend among these products are fast effective weight loss, that has yet to be accomplished by other weight loss programs. This formula claims to increase the body's fat burning metabolism, thereby, burning the fat and keeping the muscle. They also include a list of all the ingredients. However, it is interesting to note the disclaimer attached to many of these product's descriptions stating that this information has not been approved by the FDA, and one should proceed with risk.

Other such companies can be found at and


What are some of the ingredients that have lead to the herbal controversy and what are their associated risks?

Ma-Huang (Ephedra sinensis) is one such ingredient ( This is the main ingredient in the "herbal fen-phen" product that will be discussed later in greater length. It is a plant containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine which are used in many over the counter medications of asthma and nasal decongestant. It is also included in some diet pills functioning as an appetite suppressant. Many of the claims about Ephedra are also associated with caffeine. However, for Ephedra the cardiovascular activity is greater, producing such adverse effects as high blood pressure, heart rate irregularities, insomnia, nervousness, tremors, seizures, heart attacks, strokes and death. The FDA has proposed to prohibit the marketing of dietary supplements containing 8 mg or more of ephedrine alkaloids per serving.

Another ingredient is Chromium. ( It is not manufactured in the body, yet the need for it is great. It plays an important role in the utilization of carbohydrates and as a weight loss aid. The American public generally do not have enough Chromium available on a day to day basis. When this mineral gets into the body in the proper form and in the suggested amounts, cravings for sweets are greatly diminished, body fat can be reduced without losing lean body tissue, blood sugar and cholesterol can be decreased, and metabolism is more efficient. However, studies have shown that Chromium (III) can accumulate in human tissues to reach the levels at which DNA damage has been observed in animals and in vitro. Therefore, the long term effects of chromium supplements should be reevaluated and better understood.


We will now examine two examples of herbal remedies that have caused a bit of controversy.

What is Herbal fen-phen?

Herbal fen-phen ( is a proprietary herbal blend that was specially developed as a natural alternative for those who prefer a non-prescription approach to weight loss. It does not contain Phentermine or Fenfluramine which were the dangerous ingredients in prescription Phen-Fen. This is a 100% natural dietary supplement made from two herbs: St. John's Wort and Ephedra. It works to control hunger, reduce cravings and create a feeling of fullness. Research has indicated that the primary ingredient in St. John's Wort (Hypericin), prolongs the reuptake of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin helps to decrease appetite and help people feel full while eating less food, thus providing feelings of well being and satisfaction. Ephedra is also an effective herb in the management of appetite.


What are the risks associated with Herbal Fen-Phen?

The FDA warns individuals on products promoted as "herbal" substitutes for fen-phen. In a recent article published by the Mayo Clinic, the FDA says there also are safety concerns with supplements sold as "herbal fen-phen." The agency warns consumers that "these unapproved drugs have not been shown to be safe or effective and may contain ingredients that have been associated with injuries," released by FDA Nov.6, 1997.(

Fenfluramine (Pondimin) - the "fen part of the fen-phen combination was withdrawn from the market in September due to concerns that it causes heart valve problems. One of the main ingredients is Ephedra. As mentioned above this ingredient is associated with many of the problems that have taken place with this "natural" remedy. Until recently the herbal remedies have not been subject to the same scrutiny that other dietary supplements have had to be subject to. Until now this has not been a problem. However, as Michael Hamilton, M.D., director of the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, N.C. stated, "I totally agree that the herbal preparations should go through the same licensing procedures. If there's any question about the safety of these preparations, the government should step in."


What is Chromium Picolinate?

Chromium is a trace element required for normal protein, fat and carbohydrate metabolism. ( Chromium is also an essential cofactor for the hormone insulin which regulates the metabolism of protein, fat and carbohydrates. In 1982, the United States Department of Agriculture discovered and patented a biologically active form of chromium called picolinate. Research has shown that daily supplements with at least 200 mg of chromium picolinate can: (1) reduce body fat, (2) retain and build lean muscle, (3) lower elevated blood sugar, (4) reduce cholesterol levels, (5) extend the lifespan of laboratory animals. (

What are the claims being made about Chromium Picolinate?

In overweight individuals it is claimed that chromium stimulates fat loss. This is somewhat contradictory because increasing insulin sensitivity should increase weight gain. However, chromium first seems to have an effect upon the satiety center of the hypothalamus. Chromium seems to stimulate the sensors in the hypothalamus for both glucose and insulin, which thus cuts down on food intake. Next, chromium seems to enhance the thermogenic effects of carbohydrate foods. Thermogenesis is the body's wasting of food energy. This is the one area where you want to be wasteful, because if you are not, the energy is stored as fat.

Companies also claim that Chromium Picolinate has been clinically proven to promote a leaner, firmer physique (

( and (

Whether these claim are substantiated has yet to be seen.


What is the controversy over Chromium Picolinate? What are the risks?

Chromium Picolinate has become the hot supplement among individuals looking to increase metabolism and lose weight. However last year reports question the supplement's safety.

Gary Evans founded the chromium picolinate patent, and he did all pre-liminary studies as to the validity of this product. He conducted studies with young male athletes given 200 micrograms of CP daily while participating in a resistance training program for 6 weeks. They seemingly lost significantly more body fat and gained more muscle mass compared to control subjects who exercised but took a placebo. However, it is note worthy that these results have never been replicated. The studies seem to be flawed due to the skinfold measures Evans used to measure body fat. They are very prone to a high degree of error.

A study by Priscilla Clarkson, Ph.D., of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst did a study on football players and found athletes who took chromium supplements excreted 5 times more chromium in the urine compared to controls. But no differences in strength or body composition were noted. (Berg)

Another study conducted by Diane Stearns, Ph.D. a mineral toxicologist at Darmouth, revealed that hamster ovary cells exposed to 3,000 times the 200 microgram recommended intake experienced 3-18 times more chromosomal damage compared to cells exposed to other forms of chromium supplements. They also reported that chromium picolinate could accumulate to toxic levels if high doses were taken for long periods. (Sterns)

A study by Hank Lukaski, Ph.D., of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Human Nutrition Research Center in Grand Forks found that chromium picolinate supplements interfere with iron metabolism, increasing risk of anemia.(Walsh)

Also a study done at the University of South Florida suggested that the biochemical, physiological, and behavioral actions of chromium picolinate may be a consequence of the effects of picolinic acid on the central nervous system. Analogues of picolinic acid have been shown to induce profound alterations in the metabolism of serotonin, dopamine, and norepnephrine in the brain. Thus, caution should be used with chromium picolinate supplements especially by individuals prone to behavioral disorders. (Reading)

A final study done by Trent explored the efficacy of chromium picolinate as a fat-reduction aid for obese individuals enrolled in a physical exercise program. The chromium group failed to show a significantly greater reduction in either percent body fat or body weight, or a greater increase in lean body mass, than did the placebo.(Trent)


Does Chromium Picolinate Work?

It seems that many individuals differ on whether they believe this product to work effectively or not. Many distributors claim to no end that this product is something of a miracle. However, studies have begun to seem contradictory to these preliminary claims (

Many question how it became so popular if there wasn't some validity in the claims being made. Others reply that it was all a hoax, masterminded by the inventor himself. Through advertising and publicity virtually anything can seem real.


Are these Herbal Remedies safe?

The safety of these products is also another area of debate. It has been seen that integral ingredients in Herbal Phen-fen have been removed from the market completely. Also the USDA and FDA do not in any way support or endorse chromium picolinate for use in human nutrition or weight loss.

However, on the other side distributors claim that no adverse effects have been noted. ( Studies continue to test the effectiveness of these herbal remedies. However until one is sure about the safety, it is good to check with a physician before beginning any new regimen

It is of no doubt that herbal concoctions have been used for hundreds of years in cultures around the world. However, today we know a lot more about the effects of drugs on the body, and we must therefore use that knowledge to our advantage and be cautious about potential side effects.


Berg, Frances M. "Chromium Picolinate--Still Hot on the Market". Healthy Weight Journal. Jul;8(4), 1994.


Dolby, Victoria. "Tip the Scales in Your Favor with Metabolic Weight Loss Nutrients". Better Nutrition. Oct; 58(10), 1996,


Okie, Susan. "Looking for Mr. GoodPill; Americans Have Fallen in Love With Herbal Supplements--But Do They Work? Are They Safe?" The Washington Post, Nov. 25, 1997.


Reading, S.A. "Chromium Picolinate". Journal of Florida Medical Association. Jan;83(1): 29-31, 1996.


Stearns, D.M. "A prediction of chromium (III) accumulation in humans from chromium dietary supplements". FASEB. Dec;9(15):1650-7, 1995


Trent, L.K. "Effects of chromium picolinate on body composition". Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. Dec;35(4):273-80.


Walsh, Julie. "The great chromium debate". Bicycling. Oct/Nov; 37(10), 1996.



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