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Safe Natural Enhancements

Herb-packed products promising everything from bigger muscles to larger breasts have flooded the market. But do they work?
By Erika Lenz
January/February 1999
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All you want to do is to look better. But when you decide to try products whose names imply that they’ll help you slim down, bulk up, or look younger, you get frustrated. You don’t understand the terms, and the labels tell you very little. Do you choose blindly? Do you use the products at all?

When marketed on their own, either as single herbs or in broad-spectrum formulas, herbal body-enhancing products are purported to burn fat, build muscle, improve fat metabolism, increase breast size, or all of the above. In some cases, herbs are included in formulas as supporters of nonherbal supplements such as creatine, chromium, pyruvate, and amino acids.

But if you read books by herbalists, you’ll find evidence of a different philosophy. Muscle-building and bust enhancement are generally overshadowed by topics such as boosting immunity or cleansing and supporting the liver.

So what’s up? Can herbs help you get a better body? Some herb experts think not—at least not herbs alone. This is partly because using herbs for targeted figure enhancement is a tiny slice in the herbal history timeline.

“I don’t know of a single herb for gaining or losing weight that has a solid traditional use,” says Steven Dentali, a natural products consultant with a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences. “The use of weight-loss and weight-gain products is pretty much wishful thinking and is ­market-driven. I think that these are all relatively minor aids compared to what you create through your lifestyle.”

Most herbalists and naturopaths approach body composition from a more holistic perspective, says Chanchal Cabrera, a medical herbalist who practices in Vancouver, British Columbia. An herbalist considers overall lifestyle, rather than offering a product specifically to help a client gain or lose weight, she says.

But other herbalists and naturopaths feel strongly that herbs can make you more beautiful, based on their experience.

“I think that herbs as food, building up in the body, can help your body to tone more than just with exercise,” says author Linda Page, a naturopath. “They work well on their own even without exercise.”

A Safe Approach

If you want to try an herbal body enhancer but don’t know where to begin, Dentali, Ca­brera, Page, and other experts offer this advice:

• Make lifestyle changes. Don’t rely on herbs alone. Nothing replaces exercise and a healthy diet when you’re aiming to change body composition. And go organic.

“Herbs work better with natural foods diets, and much better with a diet that is largely organic,” Page says. “When herbs are exposed to pesticides themselves, they have a hard time holding up healing qualities.”

• Avoid stimulant laxatives and diuretics. These include senna (Cassia acutifolia or C. senna), buckthorn (Rhamnus catharticus), and cascara sagrada (R. purshianus). These may ease the occasional bout of constipation, but they won’t help reshape your body, and long-term use can cause serious health problems.

• Realize that you’re a guinea pig. Few of these products have undergone rigorous scientific research and many don’t have a long tradition of use for body enhancement, so you’re experimenting on yourself if you use them. As for specific ingredients, many herbs, especially the culinary kind, are mild. But there are a few to treat with respect, in particular stimulating herbs such as ephedra and caffeine-containing herbs such as guarana (Paullinia cupana).

• Buy carefully. “Go with a brand name. You’ve got to pay a little more for someone you know is a big company, but if you buy from somebody you’ve never heard of” the product may be adulterated, says nutrition consultant and herb expert Leigh Broadhurst, Ph.D.

• Learn the lingo. Sometimes, the terminology seems deliberately designed to obscure how the herbs really work, especially for the novice. Terms such as “thermogenic” and “lipotropic” boggle most of us.

Popular categories of herbal body- ­­­­en­hancing products include hormone boosters, metabolism boosters, nonstimulant appetite suppressors, and fat metabolizers. Below, each category is described, with recommendations for their safe use should you choose to try them.

Herbal Hormone Boosters

Label Lingo: phytoestrogens, adrenal stimulation, adaptogens, body builders, breast enhancers

Typical Herbal Ingredients: wild yam, black cohosh, dong quai, sarsaparilla, fenugreek, ashwaghanda, schisandra, ginseng, Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus, also called eleuthero and ciwujia), Tribulis terrestris.

Hormones regulate countless body functions and contribute significantly to how our bodies look, affecting metabolism, muscle bulk, breast size, skin texture, and hair texture and thickness. Body enhancing products often contain ingredients that are known or believed to impact hormonal behavior to our advantage, but there are some things to know before trying them.

Herbs such as wild yam contain compounds called steroidal saponins that in the laboratory can be transformed into prescription steroid hormones. But don’t confuse these compounds with actual human hormones. And don’t assume that because they’re natural, they’re harmless. For example, one herb found in products for muscle building, the traditional Ayurvedic herb Tribulis terrestris, contains saponins. Some believe that tribulis enhances hormone development, Broadhurst says. But it’s not for everyone.

“This is not a product for women—it can cause acne, voice deepening,” she says. “If you want to make some money as a competitive bodybuilder, you might want to take the risk.”

Additionally, tribulis doesn’t have much impact on a young man’s body, but it’s an excellent product for older men with potbelly problems, she says.

“I would recommend it along with weight lifting to get their youthful waistline back,” Broadhurst says.

Another class of performance-enhancing herbs called adaptogens may be a better choice because they have milder effects and can be used long term. But adaptogens alone won’t be enough to sculpt you into an Adonis or Aphrodite—reshaping your body also requires exercise.

“When you’re trying to bulk up, you’re putting stress on the body,” Dentali says. And adaptogens help your body cope with that physical stress. Research shows that adaptogens can help keep your energy up while you’re exercising, as well as provide a way to improve your recovery time without stimulants.

“I’ve trained as a long-distance runner, and I found that using a good-quality Siberian ginseng was very effective in helping decrease my recovery time,” Dentali says. “I think if people want to use ginseng to help them recover from their weight-lifting program because it works for them, that’s fine.”

Women may also benefit from hormonelike herbs in ways other than building lean muscle. Page recommends different formulas, depending on age.

“With a menopausal woman, you might be targeting hot flashes, thermogenesis and weight loss, hair loss, and body shape changes,” she says. Her favorites for treating these symptoms include black cohosh, damiana, and dong quai.

“I do see a huge difference in the appearance of a woman’s body” with regular use of those herbs, she says.

Younger women may want to take a different approach, focusing on herbs with more general actions such as red clover and rosemary, Page says.

Some products that promise bigger breasts often contain wild yam and/or fenugreek. A compound found in these plants, diosgenin, has a very weak estrogenic effect; estrogen is associated with breast development. But experts say herbs are probably not going to make much difference.

“Honestly, I think that it’s highly improbable that there would be any noticeable improvement,” says Cabrera, adding that “anything that increases bust size is going to increase body fat because that’s what breast tissue is made of. My belief is that if any of those things worked, it would be international news.”

Metabolism Boosters

Label Lingo: thermogenics, brown fat, brown adipose tissue (BAT)

Typical Herbal Ingredients: ephedra (Ephedra sinica, also called ma huang), bitter orange (Citrus aurantium), yohimbe (Pausinystalia yohimbe), ginger, cinnamon, mustard seed, cayenne, cardamom.

The muscular, sleek bodies of youth are, for the most part, the result of a youthful metabolism. With age, metabolism drops, along with activity levels and the ability to burn fat and build muscle.

Stimulants, including some herbs, can help boost this sluggish metabolism by stimulating adrenal hormone production, suppressing appetite, increasing heart rate, improving blood flow to muscles and fat—all activities related to “thermogenesis.”

Thermogenesis is the process by which the body generates a heat energy that burns fat, says Colin Clay, Ph.D., professor of physiology at Colorado State University. But this stimulation can also cause nervousness, anxiety, insomnia, and hypertension.

“A true thermogenic increases the metabolism—in particular, makes the body burn fat at a better rate or be more efficient,” Broadhurst says. “A good example is exercise—a flat-out sprint when you come back exhausted and you feel that buzz.”

The best-known thermogenic herb is ephedra, or ma huang. Studies show that ephedrine, a compound in ephedra, stimulates thermogenesis. These findings led to the creation of many over-the-counter products, but, prompted by deaths associated with the misuse of these products, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued warnings about them, saying they shouldn’t be used by anyone younger than eighteen or for more than seven days.

Other thermogenic herbs include yohimbe and bitter orange, Broadhurst says. All should be treated with as much respect—-and caution—-as ephedra. In fact, the Herb Research Foundation recommends that use of stimulant herbs be supervised by a health-care professional.

The claims about how these products work can sometimes verge on the bizarre. One of the most perplexing is that stimulant herbs “reactivate” our bodies’ brown adipose tissue (BAT), also called brown fat. Brown fat is real, but experts say it’s unlikely that it plays a significant role in metabolism.

“The trouble is humans don’t have much BAT,” says Kenneth Allen, a Colorado State nutrition professor. “And when you talk about herbs, there’s a whole host of compounds in one given plant, and it’s very hard to think of a specific effect on a tissue that we don’t have much of.

“If there were such a thing, everybody would be jumping on it quickly, so I’m rather skeptical of those sorts of claims.”

Even if brown fat isn’t the mechanism, thermogenesis does reduce fat and increase lean body mass. Broadhurst says she advises her clients to start with half the recommended dose and gradually work up to no more than that.

Preliminary research also shows that the herb yohimbe may target fat in the lower body.

“Yohimbine, [an alkaloid] from yohimbe might help someone lose—or at least not gain as much—lower body fat by blocking adrenal receptors in the lower body,” Broadhurst says. “But don’t get too excited because research is scanty,” and the research that does exist used the prescription drug yohimbine, not the whole herb.

Yohimbe works better for men, but it can be used by women. It shouldn’t be used by pregnant or nursing women or by those who are considering getting pregnant. It also may cause masculinizing effects, such as unwanted hair growth, and alter blood pressure, Broadhurst says.

Some spicy herbs, such as mustard, black pepper (standardized to piperine), and cayenne are also marketed as thermogenics. While there’s not a lot of scientific proof, these plants have a mild ability to increase metabolism, Broadhurst says, with cayenne supported by the most ­research.

The real benefit of spices, however, is not thermogenesis—it’s their ability to aid digestion. In Chinese medicine, they’re called yang tonics, and are known to be stimulating, warming, and invigorating.

“They’re not aggressive; they won’t force the issue in the same way as ephedra or Korean ginseng,” Cabrera says. “But they will improve digestion, and with that alone you get better nourishment which will provide more energy.”

Nonstimulant Appetite Suppressants

Label Lingo: hydroxycitric acid (HCA), fiber, Citrin, CitriMax, CitriLean

Typical Herbal Ingredients: Garcinia cambogia, psyllium (Plantago spp.), glucomannan (Amorphophallus konjac)

Garcinia is the primary herb sold for improving lean body mass/weight loss. It’s also known as hila or brindall berry, and an extract from it, an acid called HCA (hydroxycitric acid), is marketed as Citrin, CitriMax, and CitriLean.

Garcinia is touted as an appetite suppressant that will also prevent the body from making fat.

“Garcinia cambogia and HCA do seem to offer the intriguing possibility of a safe weight-loss product that actually represents a healthful alternative to the conventional products on the market,” writes Herb Research Foundation President Rob McCaleb in some of the foundation’s educational material.

But conclusive research is still lacking. A single human trial combined garcinia and chromium, resulting in a few more pounds of weight loss in obese volunteers than a low-fat diet alone; this trial’s design, however, make these results inconclusive, according to McCaleb.

Most of the garcinia research to date has been done on animals. In rats, HCA blocks an enzyme that converts carbohydrates into fats, but that’s not a significant metabolic pathway in humans, says Herbs for Health editorial adviser Varro Tyler, Ph.D., a recognized authority on plant drugs and their uses and coauthor of Tyler’s Honest Herbal (Pharmaceutical Products Press, due out this year).

“Further, it’s marketed as salts, which are not easily absorbed,” he says. And manufacturer claims that it inhibits the production of fat cells have yet to be proven in the laboratory, he says.

But many herbalists swear by garcinia and, so far, it appears to have no harmful side effects, perhaps because it isn’t a stimulant.

“I think it’s helpful, especially in the first four weeks [of a weight-control program], but that’s anecdotal,” Broadhurst says. “And anything that has the effect of suppressing a natural biological function can only be used for so long.”

Broadhurst says a generally recommended dose of garcinia is 1g three times daily, spaced out between meals.

And if you’re looking for appetite suppression, don’t forget the less glamorous herbs that provide fiber.

“If you’re interested in eating fewer calories and feeling full, a tried-and-true method is to take fiber such as psyllium seed husk,” Tyler says. Be sure, though, to drink plenty of water with dietary fibers such as psyllium or glucomannan—without sufficient liquid, these can swell up and clog your throat or obstruct your bowels. Start with a packaged product and follow label directions.

“There’s considerable evidence that these products work as a sponge as they go through the intestinal tract and carry out a lot of products, including calories,” Tyler says.

Fat Metabolism

Label Lingo: lipotropic

Typical Herbal Ingredients: Cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia), green tea, ginseng, barberry (Berberis vulgaris)

Fat “metabolism” refers to something a little different than how many calories you burn. In this case, metabolism refers to your body’s ability to process fats. Lipotropic herbs such as cinnamon and ginseng promote the exportation of fat from the liver, a process that helps the body use fat for energy.

“There’s good research that these herbs lower tryglycerides and LDL cholesterol,” Broadhurst says. “If we see these markers go down that means people are metabolizing fats better.”

But this doesn’t mean that these herbs will cause your body to release stored fat, she says. Nor will they necessarily increase metabolism. But normalizing the burning and digestion of fat can make a difference in your overall health.

And health should be your main goal, not perfection.

“People’s quest for the perfect body type is tied up with societal pressure, and I think it’s sad,” Cabrera says. “I would be much more interested in helping them to learn to accept their bodies.”


Erika Lenz is assistant editor of Herbs for Health.


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