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Weighing In on Herbal Weight-Loss Products

Doctors say these 'natural' remedies don't work, and some products can pose health risks

FRIDAY, April 26, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- The U.S. Surgeon General recently issued this sobering statistic -- more than 61 percent of adult Americans are now overweight.

It's no wonder that over-the-counter weight-loss products are flying off store shelves in what is reportedly one of the fastest-growing segments of the consumer market.

Among the top sellers are herbal or "all natural" remedies and treatments that ostensibly help you lose weight without the usual side effects of more traditional diet drugs, such as appetite suppressants.

But do they really work? And more important, are they as safe as they claim?

Many doctors offer a resounding "no" to both questions.

"The ads for these products make you believe that because they are natural, they are safe, at the same time claiming to 'melt' the fat from your body, sometimes even while you sleep," says one of the nation's leading weight-loss experts, Dr. Lou Aronne, an endocrinologist at the New York Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City.

Unfortunately, says Aronne, you can't have it both ways.

"If it's powerful enough to 'melt' fat off your body, you better believe it's not going to be harmless -- whether it's natural or not," he says.

Many of the most popular of these natural weight-loss products contain the herb ephedra, also known as ephedrine or Ma Huang.

While it's true that some doctors will use ephedra to speed up your metabolism to help you lose weight, you should never use it on your own, says Aronne.

"It can cause a dangerous rise in blood pressure, and an equally dangerous increase in heart rate, which, for some people, could even prove fatal," says Aronne.

Dr. James Dillard says these products can also shoot your anxiety level sky high.

"The effect in the body is similar to adrenalin, only longer acting," says Dillard, clinical advisor to Columbia University's Rosenthal Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in New York City.

And, Dillard cautions, ephedra can also be habit-forming. Use ephedra-based products for any length of time and "your body becomes resistant" -- meaning you'll have to take more of them to achieve any weight loss, he says.

The Food and Drug Administration has received more than 1,000 reports of "adverse events" stemming from the use of ephedra products. In response, the FDA is seeking to limit over-the-counter sale of products containing ephedra.

Another controversial "natural" weight-loss supplement is known as guarauna. A plant that grows in the jungles of South America, guarauna has seeds that are touted as having almost magical fat-burning powers.

But, according to Dillard, there's no magic in how guarauna works. Its effects, he says, are purely the result of the high caffeine content of the seeds.

"It's a stimulant, pure and simple. And at best, its effects are temporary," says Dillard, who adds you can save your money and just grab a cup of coffee for a similar short-term effect. In high or sustained doses, however, guarana "can cause rapid heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, vomiting and abdominal spasms," he says.

Many herbal diet supplements combine both ephedra and caffeine, for what is often termed "super-effective fat-burning potential."

According to a recent report by the Mayo Clinic, however, while this combination may stoke up your metabolism, it also dramatically increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, seizure and sudden death.

A third popular weight-loss supplement is called chitosan, a substance taken from the skeletons of crabs and other crustaceans. It was originally used to mop up industrial oil spills, and some enterprising nutrition gurus thought it might help weight loss by binding to fat in the body, thereby flushing it out before those calories hit the hips.

Aronne says there's no truth to its weight-loss claims.

"Every reputable study done on chitosan has shown that, while it binds to fat, it only carries it as far as the intestines," says Aronne. Once there, he says, the body breaks down the fat the same way it would as if the chitosan weren't present. So, it makes no difference at all.

According to a recent study published in The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers found no correlation between chitosan and weight loss.

What To Do

If you need to lose weight, and diet and exercise alone don't seem to help, experts say talk to your doctor about any number of new prescription drugs now available.

You can find more information about losing weight by visiting the The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, or its Weight Control Information Center, found by clicking here.

Or, visit the American Heart Association for some super diet and weight-loss tips.

SOURCES: Lou Aronne, M.D., endocrinologist and weight-loss expert, New York Weill Cornell Medical Center, New York City; James Dillard, M.D., director of alternative medicine, Oxford Health Plans, and clinical medical advisor, Rosenthal Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Columbia University, and assistant clinical professor, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York City
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