I’ve been doing some research on chitosan. It sounds like a dream come true for weight-watchers, but I’m concerned because I haven’t been able to find information on it. It seems that chitosan might deplete your system of fat-soluble vitamins.
Stansbury responds: Chitosan (pronounced “kite-o-san”) is derived from chitin, a fiber-like compound obtained from the tough exoskeletons of marine shellfish. The chitin is processed to create a biopolymer (a naturally occurring chain-like molecule) that forms a gel-like substance in the intestines.
Like many natural fibers, gums, and pec-tins, chitosan is reported to trap ingested fats within the intestines, preventing their ab-sorption. Also, like many fibers and related compounds, chitosan is reported to reduce the synthesis of new cholesterol and improve the HDL to LDL ratio.
Furthermore, chitosan does interfere with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. While it doesn’t “deplete” your body of fat-soluble vitamins, it can usurp the vitamins and nutrients present in the fat that it traps. Though unlikely to promote frank nutritional deficiencies, chitosan can easily trap nutrients, just as the fiber can trap fat.
Also, I confess to having some concerns with grinding up shellfish exoskeletons to manage our weight or cholesterol. The fiber in legumes, the pectin in apples, or the gums in oatmeal and seaweed, for example, have also been shown to trap lipids and benefit cholesterol levels. To me, these foods seem to be a kinder, gentler choice in medicine.
Willard responds: You’re right—chitosan is both a dream come true and an area of concern for consumers. This fiber substance is another form of roughage that we know can be good for us. Like some plant fibers, it’s not digestible and therefore has no caloric value. Research on chitosan as a natural weight loss agent, as a fiber for adding bulk to the digestive system, and for colon cleansing dates back more than seventeen years.
Chitosan has been shown to absorb and bind fats (promoting weight loss), inhibit LDL cholesterol, boost HDL cholesterol, and promote healing of ulcers and lesions, among other actions.
Within the digestive system, chitosan dissolves and forms a positively charged gel. Negatively charged molecules of fats, lipids, and bile attach strongly to the chitosan, causing large polymer compounds to be formed that can’t be broken down by the digestive process. Herein lies the double-edged sword. Not only can chitosan bind the food you do not want to absorb, but it can also inhibit nutrients. The bioavailability of fat-soluble vitamins or medications will be inhibited if taken with chitosan. Also, people with shellfish allergies and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not take the supplement. As with any kind of fiber supplement, one should also drink six to eight glasses of water a day to prevent constipation.
If you take chitosan, I suggest that you take a good source of fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids at another time of day. Take the chitosan when you eat that cheeseburger, but have a good wholesome meal along with vitamins and essential fatty acids several hours later.
I’m fifty-one years old and had a vasectomy twenty-one years ago. Presently, my sexual desire is minimal. I visited a doctor who said that my testosterone level might be too low. Is there an herbal supplement that might help? —T. C., Zebulon, North Carolina
Stansbury responds: First, because testosterone is produced in the testicles, and a vasectomy involves severing the vas deferens (the conduit transporting the sperm from the testes toward the urethra), a vasectomy should not be to blame when the testosterone level is low.
Second, there are other options to testosterone injections. The so-called adaptogenic herbs and chi tonics may improve hormonal levels and the libido. Herbs such as Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), ashwaganda (Withania somnifera), and reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) have been used for centuries to promote longevity, energy, and vitality in the elderly, and enhance fertility and reproductive functions.
When a low libido is accompanied by weakness in the urinary system or by prostate enlargement or difficulty, genito-urinary tonics may also be indicated. Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) is popular and well researched for its ability to reduce prostatic enlargement and inflammation. Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and nettles (Urtica dioica) are also good genitourinary tonics for men.
However, it sounds like we don’t really know if you have a low testosterone level anyway. Chronic fatigue and other ailments affecting the energy level, such as hypothyroidism or diabetes, can affect the libido. Alcoholism and drug addiction can deplete vitality and impair it as well. And numerous psychological factors are known to affect the sex drive: depression, stress, low self-esteem, and so on. If any of these sound contributory or logical, testosterone may not be the cause or the answer.
Willard responds: Probably the vasectomy has nothing to do with your decreased sex drive. Usually reduced sex drive is associated with stress, a run-down body, or age. Age, however, does not have to be a factor. You can reduce your biological age and normalize the sex drive by reducing stress levels, cleansing the body, and building up vitality. This is a slow process for which there is no magic pill. After a two-week dietary cleansing period, I often suggest Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus); this herb builds the body and helps the body handle stress.
After prescribing the Siberian ginseng for about one month, I often add in a mixture of Asian ginseng, maca (Lepidum meyenii), muira puama (Ptychopetalum uncinatum), and wild oats (Avena sativa). These herbs usually increase sex drive within a few months. Acupuncture is also good for this. If you don’t see results within three months, seek a natural healing practitioner—a personalized program is often needed.
Do you have any information on alopecia areata in children? My grandson just turned two and was diagnosed five months ago. He has lost all his hair twice. He is being treated with a cream called Drithocreme. Any information would be appreciated. —L. V., Clifton, New Jersey
Stansbury responds: Although the definitive cause remains elusive, alopecia areata may be associated with adrenal cortical insufficiency, local inflammatory phenomena, nutritional deficiencies, thyroid abnormalities, toxicity states, and high fevers. Hormonal and/or acute autoimmune disorders appear most probable. Hormonal abnormalities are known to affect hair growth. Pituitary insufficiency and adrenal corticoids (the hormones released from the adrenal cortex) may also affect hair growth, as can acute diabetic crises, lupus, and lymphomas. I would advise a thorough history and physical, including a basic blood analysis.
Because the underlying cause may remain somewhat mysterious, in my own practice I usually try general hormonal and immune support, combined with optimizing nutrition and minimizing chemical and toxin exposure. I would suggest putting the child on a very clean diet containing plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and limiting sugar, flour, food additives, colors, and chemicals. Ensure an adequate protein intake with good-quality meats, legumes, tofu and soy products, nuts, or eggs to provide the sulfur-containing amino acids from which the keratin hair proteins are made.
When faced with stubborn ailments that defy a diagnosis or clear understanding, I always look for other clues and treat accordingly. For example, if a toxicity state is suspected due to prolonged chemical exposure or frequent antibiotic or pharmaceutical use, I would also treat the liver with milk thistle (Silybum marianum) and other liver-support herbs. If allergy symptoms accompany, I’d also use antioxidant vitamins, bioflavonoids, or herbs. If there are frequent colds or infections, I’d consider immune support such as astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus). Good luck!
Willard responds: I’ve been seeing many more cases of this in the past few years, and I’m not sure why. In addition to the causes Stansbury states above, another possible cause may be a deficiency in essential fatty acids. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is believed that alopecia is caused by general malnutrition, anxiety, or unhappiness. There is a relatively famous Chinese patent remedy for this called Trichogen Alopecia Areata Pill. It contains polygonium, rehmannia, dong quai, sage, schisandra, codonopsis, and other minor ingredients. The dosage for a two-year-old would be 2 tablets twice daily. You might have to crush the tablets and combine the powder with applesauce or yogurt. The purpose of this formula, from a Chinese point of view, is to nourish the body, especially the liver and kidneys.
This patent formula is so good I rarely use anything else, but the problem is that it’s hard to find unless you visit a Chinese herb store. If the formula is not available, I have used dong quai (Angelica sinensis), about 200 mg daily, along with multiminerals. Children usually outgrow alopecia areata.
Please send your questions to Herbs for Health “Q & A,” Herb Companion Press, 201 E. Fourth St., Loveland, CO 80537-5655; fax (970) 669-6117; or e-mail us at HerbsForHealth@HCPress.com. Provide your name and full address for verification, although both will be kept confidential. The information offered in “Q & A” is not intended to be a substitute for advice from your health-care provider.
In every issue of Herbs for Health, professionals from a variety of health-care fields answer your questions about using medicinal herbs. In this issue, Jill Stansbury and Terry Willard answer your questions on chitosan for weight loss, testosterone herbs, and alopecia areata in children.
Jill Stansbury has been a naturopathic physician for more than ten years, with a private practice in Battle-ground, Washington. She is the chair of the Botanical Med-icine Department at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon, and the author of many books including Herbs for Health and Healing (Publication International, 1997).
Terry Willard is a clinical herbalist, president of the Canadian Association of Herbal Practitioners, and founder of the Wild Rose College of Natural Healing in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is the author of eight books and a CD-ROM, Interactive Herbal.