Natural Healing: Tips to Improve Your Health

| November/December 2000

  • The kitchen garden of Kansas City’s Bluebird Café was once a vacant lot.

  • It’s important to stretch for at least five minutes before and after your workout.
  • One of the ten organic gardens created by Carrie Little and other community members in Tacoma, Washington.

What could butterfly wings, the shells of crustaceans, and the cell walls of mushrooms possibly have in common? The answer is that they all contain a natural fiber known as chitin.

The nutritional supplement chitosan, a derivative of chitin, comes from the tough, fibrous shells of shrimp and other shellfish. Touted as a fat blocker, chitosan allegedly traps fat and whisks it out of the body without the fat ever being absorbed. Chitosan contains positively charged amino acids that bind to negatively charged fat molecules, and because the shellfish fiber isn’t digestible, neither are the fats that it absorbs in the digestive system. Proponents of the “fat absorber” supplement claim that chitosan can also lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels due to its fat absorption properties. Manufacturers claim that 1 g of chitosan absorbs up to eight times its own weight.

However, while absorbing any bad fats in the body, such as those from French fries, chitosan also attracts good fats, as well as fat-soluble vitamins (such as A, E, and K) and some prescription drugs (such as birth control pills and cholesterol-lowering drugs).

Studies on chitosan’s ability to trap fat and lower cholesterol show varied results. In a 1999 Japanese study, mice fed a high-fat diet and chitosan showed an inhibition of intestinal absorption of dietary fat. A 1997 Japanese study of kidney failure patients found that four weeks of supplementation with chitosan reduced patients’ blood cholesterol levels. Yet a more recent British study found no change in weight loss among overweight patients taking chitosan (in a dose containing 2,000 mg of chitin daily) for four weeks.

Aaron Jack, natural foods manager for Clark’s Market in Aspen, Colorado, says the chitosan products are steady sellers; twice a month he reorders the two brands the market carries. Sales of the supplement are steady at Alfalfa’s Market in Denver, too.

“It sells like crazy because it works,” says Bonnie Dillender, general merchandise manager and natural living clerk for Alfalfa’s. Dillender says many repeat customers have lost weight while taking the supplement. But, she points out, it’s important to supplement the diet with the fat-soluble vitamins being depleted by the chitosan—vitamins that are essential for healthy eyesight and hair growth. “Chitosan should really be used under a doctor’s care, or for someone who is extremely obese,” she says. Women who are pregnant or nursing and people allergic to shellfish should not take the supplement.

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