After writing my first post in this series, I assumed that I would write part two and part three in short suit right after. Here I am back, instead, several days later. I had to take a step back and pause because of the reaction to the first post. The fact is, I don’t (yet?) have a public following eager to drink from the fount of my knowledge about things nutritional, especially things weight-loss oriented. If anything, I have rather a private following of friends who are concerned about me and who get quite worried whenever I talk about anything to do with weight loss. To my friends: please know that I am offering this as a service, this being a public blog, out of my (perhaps ill-won) knowledge. Please know that the tl;dr version of all this is:
Please love yourselves, understand why you want what you want from your bodies, know that the only magic pills are harmony and self love. Some supplements may be guides or aids on your journey toward health, but you are the one walking the path.
Don’t do as I do. Many of the paths I’ve chosen I would not recommend to anyone else. I’m a wanderer, not a scout (unless a scout of where not to go).
One more thing before I get into it, just to be clear: if diet pills really “worked,” I’d probably take them quite a lot. I don’t, because they don’t. I’ll get more into that in the next post, but for now I’ll just reiterate that these substances work via a variety of modalities, and you have to know what you want for your unique set of challenges.
Okay–I promised two things for this post: some review of the eight different kinds of weight loss supplement, and whether to get a combination pill, a single-item pill, or go straight to the herb.
Combination, Single-Item, or Straight to the Source?
This isn’t as simple as you might think. A good rule of thumb, though, is this: Don’t buy a generic Walmart/GNC/Big-box Store combination formula. That would be the classic “diet pill” supplement with the most extravagant promises. They are also the ones Dr Mercola reported as having been found to contain substances not listed on the label, including illegal stimulants. Unfortunately, I have my own experience with this. Several years ago I took a Walmart-type combination: basically hoodia and a bunch of caffeine and diuretics. I was dumb enough to take it for six months, and it played havoc with my mood disorders and digestion. Any weight that I lost during that time I lost because I wasn’t eating and was overexercising. My thyroid and adrenals also went down the toilet at that time.
That said, I wouldn’t buy a single-pill supplement from one of those stores either, because typically (1) they’re not made from good ingredients and (2) they contain poor-quality additives and fillers.
As it turns out, though, combinations have their time-honored place. “Triphala,” a venerable Ayurvedic formula that helps to cleanse the colon without being habit forming, is a combination “tri”=three and “phala”=fruits – three superantioxidant berries that work in concert. Many western colon cleansing modalities also employ a combination of herbs that work synergistically. If there’s a parasite cleanser like wormwood, it’s good to have a toxin absorber in there too, like charcoal or clay. If there’s a stimulant laxative like senna or cascara, good to have something soothing like aloe too. On the neurotransmitter support end of things, 5htp is better absorbed in the presence of certain B vitamins, and so it’s often compounded with them.
On the other hand, I love to go straight to the herb and work in its energy.
These are hibiscus flowers, which contain hydroxycitric acid (as in hydroxycut, etc.).
As it turns out, hydroxycitric acid, which is claimed to boost metabolism, isn’t proven effective in the literature whatsoever. But guess what? hibiscus, as well as garcinia cambogia berries, which are the other common source of hydroxycitric acid (itself an antioxidant), is loaded with vitamin C and other antioxidants. They probably have resveratrol also, because they have that proud staining purple color. I usually have one of my kombuchas in a hibiscus tea, and here in the heat a pitcher of hibiscus tea in the fridge is a lovely idea.
Hydroxycitric acid falls under number (3) of my previous post, working on hormones to “stimulate metabolism” by increasing production of certain hormones, or increasing cells’ sensitivity to those hormones.
Other substances that work this way are:
–Raspberry ketones (I haven’t tried these but the research says they’re almost certainly a gimmick)
–Green coffee extract Note: this isn’t a stimulant like black coffee; the roasting develops the caffeine. Green coffee extract is high in antioxidants (noticing a pattern?) one of which helps to balance blood glucose after a meal. I recently got some green coffee extract powder, and I’ll play with it in smoothies and see what I think. If it’s nutrient rich, it’s likely to contribute to satiation and general feel-good.
–(top pick) Relora is actually a magnolia/phellodendron bark extract. It’s an herb that works to balance cortisol. Because of the relationship between cortisol, insulin–and progesterone, getting cortisol back into balance can help allow the body to release weight, especially held around the midriff. Most easily found in capsule form.
–(top pick) Rhodiola is a root. It also helps balance cortisol. Can be found as capsule, tincture extract, or dry root (powder for tea). I’ve also found it can have an almost magically positive effect against depression.
–(top pick) Di-indolyl-methane (DIM) and Indol-3-carbinol (I3C), two sulphoraphane (sulfur) compounds found in the brassicas (arugula, bok choy, broccoli, cauliflower, etc., although these extracts contain many many times the amount you could reasonably eat in the whole food). These compounds are crucial for balancing the different kinds of estrogen with progesterone and testosterone. With all the estrogen mimics in our environment, and the fact that excess of estrogen leads directly to weight retention and much more, this is another great all-round health strategy.
Backtracking for a moment to (1) and (2) in the last post, (1) was Laxatives/Cleanses. As I stressed in the last post, if you’re carrying excess fat and fluid, they are protecting you from something. Cleansing is likely going to be an important part of releasing whatever toxins you’re being protected from. But I’m hesitant even to make recommendations, because it’s such a sacred, intense, not-to-be-undertaken-lightly, life-changing thing to do, and you really need an experienced practitioner to guide you. Don’t just take a bunch of laxatives–you’ll become dependent on them, and they may create dangerous electrolyte imbalances. Do look into things like walking, skin brushing, saunas, and other non-pill ways to cleanse, and benign digestive system supporters like ginger, peppermint, and fennel.
(2) Stimulants: before you go buy caffeine pills, bear in mind that this is a supplement we’ve probably all played with. Tea, coffee, chocolate, colas (this is kola nut powder, btw; it’s super bitter, and I haven’t yet found a way to make it preferable to green tea)…
…energy drinks. Once again, these plants are all antioxidant rich, and you’re not going to get those antioxidants in poor-quality derivatives like soda pop or red bull. And yes, because they’re stimulants, they do also “stimulate” metabolism, but the effect only lasts as long as it’s in your system, and there may be an equal and opposite crash to follow.
Much of the same holds true for bitter orange.
Ephedra is a major stimulant and also opens the lungs. It should be noted that in Chinese medicine it’s used for asthma and congestion; it doesn’t have a long history of use in weight loss as some other substances do. I had a big bag of ephedra powder at one point. I made tea with it a few times, but even I wasn’t crazy enough to make a habit of it. Yes, it amped me up, but in such a way that I felt like my heart was going to explode out of my chest!
The other thing about caffeine is this: just as you can become dependent on laxatives, so too you build dependence to caffeine. But with time, the caffeine depletes the adrenals. So while a quick burst of energy help once in a while might not do any harm, making a habit of it will probably backfire.
This is Gymnema sylvestre, whose Sanskrit name, gurmar, means “destroyer of sugar.”
so it’s in my category (3), in that it helps balance blood sugar and quell sugar cravings, and has long been known and used as such.
And most people know that good old cinnamon is full of chromium, a mineral crucial to the pancreas’ good functioning and so also a blood sugar balancer. I’ve chewed on a cinnamon stick, testing my blood sugar before and after, and seen it go down more quickly than expected.
In many ways, my category (4) of the previous post, creators of a sense of satiety, is the most interesting category. Especially combined with category 8, which help to reduce chemistry-based cravings, having something that helps you feel physically full sounds like a good thing if your struggle is with overeating and cravings. As mentioned, there are two kinds of agent here: physical fillers, and agents that work with leptin.
The good news is that the best things to create a sense of satiety, many of them used that way for millennia and well known as safe and beneficial, are…drum roll…starchy vegetables, and certain seeds!
The one-word answer, although it’s an oversimplification, is fiber. A subset of “fiber” that’s becoming recognized as especially important is polysaccharides–long-chain sugars that also feed the beneficial bacteria in the gut, which means better assimilation and elimination rather than food hanging around putrefying. That mucilaginous property that some people find offputting but that is so gentle on the gut is a good hint. Other than okra and aloe, here are some honorable mentions:
Three kinds of cactus on three continents! Yes! In Central America, in Bushman Africa (Namibia, Botswana), and in Asia (India) three different kinds of cactus have been used historically for long journeys, times of food scarcity, and for endurance and weight loss.
We have nopal cactus, we have hoodia from Africa, and we have caralluma from India. Now that I’m surrounded by nopales/sabras, I’m putting them in my smoothies all the time because they’re delicious and they give a great texture (the fruits are ripening now, too). But leaving aside my disastrous experience with poor-quality hoodia years ago, I have used both good-quality hoodia and good-quality caralluma, and I’ve used caralluma in combination with green tea extract also. I can’t confirm the claims that they give you “boundless” energy, but in the realm of “pills” they’re probably the best, in my experience, at suppressing hunger, tying with
Sea vegetables (and fucoxanthin pills). Sea veggies are also full of those slimy polysaccharides–very satiating. Both the veggies and the extracts in pills work in two other ways as well: being rich in iodine, they support the thyroid, which controls metabolism, and also support detoxification of the pervasive harmful halogens (chlorides, fluorides, bromides); and the antioxidant fucoxanthin in the brown seaweeds is thought to promote breakdown of fat and also to increase production of the important (anti-inflammatory) omega-3 DHA. NB Seaweeds, or sea veggies, are another class of food used traditionally in many cultures around the world, including medicinally.
Mucilaginous seeds. ”Chia seeds were used by the Indians in Central America. They could run for a whole day on one tablespoon.” It’s become a cliche, hasn’t it? (I don’t think you could call it an urban legend.) But these thirsty seeds combined with fluid create that same mucilaginous context that is both soothing and satiating. Just like the cacti and the sea veggies, chia has its counterparts. Flax, for one. And if you don’t know about basil seeds, consider this your introduction:
I usually find them in the Indian section of Asian markets, where they’re also called tukmaria or sabza (or sabja), but I’ve had them in Thailand, and if you look at the Chinese canned drinks in the same Asian market, there are always some “basil seed drinks,” like a chia fresca but with basil seeds. Basil seeds are lower in fat and calories than flax or chia, but here’s what all three, as well as the cacti and the sea veggies (and nonstarchy veggies in general) have in common: All of them are high in fiber, and all of them have a high ratio of omega 3 to omega 6. The three types of seed are therapeutic, in that not only do they have far more omega 3 than omega 6 in terms of ratio, they also have sufficient quantity to remedy an overbalance toward omega 6.
Hey, did you notice? All these foods are high in fiber and rich in antioxidants and important micronutrients. Do you think that might be why they are satiating?
For the second way of creating satiety, I only know of two things.
There’s African Mango, aka irvingia gabonensis–it supposedly mimics leptin in the same way that wild yam mimics progesterone and griffonia simplicata mimics 5htp. Amazing how plants mimic so many of the chemicals we humans run on!
The other one is homeopathic leptin.
See how this is another example of the “weight loss product as affirmation” I was talking about in the last post? I confess I keep a bottle of it around my work station, but I almost never ingest it–it’s just for the reminder.
One to avoid, imo: Satiereal “hunger chews,” which claim to suppress hunger and sugar cravings.
I bought a bag of these two years ago. It was incredibly expensive, and I still have almost half the bag. Partly, no doubt, because it was so expensive. Partly because it contains safflower oil, which I normally wouldn’t touch. But big-partly, because they don’t work! I don’t think they work any better than sucking on a piece of cheap candy (which can help with hunger, but xylitol-based is better for your teeth). I haven’t been able to find a good explanation for saffron’s effect on hunger, but I have read that in trials this supp. had an adverse effect on mood, so tread cautiously (save your money).
(5) Binders/absorption blockers: this is your psyllium, your activated charcoal, your bentonite/zeolite/pascalite clays, your diatomaceous earth. Different people respond differently to these; you may find one that works great for you (good elimination; if you eat something that disagrees with you and take whichever one of these works for you, you’re able to get rid of it without great protracted discomfort), but what works great for you may give someone else constipation or diarrhea. These may help with weight loss in that they bind toxins to themselves electrically and thus neutralize them. Interesting fact, that: most toxins, heavy metals, etc., are positively charged ions. The Earth, and earths, clays, charcoals, are negatively charged, so putting them in your body can help to take the other out.
Two words of caution around psyllium, which works because it is insoluble fiber rather than for electric reasons: (1) psyllium seed husks frequently cause allergies when used a lot. (2) I heard this only recently, but it was from a very good source–there are issues with lead contamination of psyllium (which could explain the allergenicity).
Another one is chitosan, made from the chitins of shellfish. I suspect it’s another “your mileage may vary” option.
With all of these non-nutritive substances, be aware that they may bind up nutrients as well as toxins, taking them along for the ride, so to speak. So if you’re taking medications or supplements that you need to absorb, take them at least two hours apart.
(6) Blockers of a specific nutrient (carb or fat) because no one wants to block protein, right? Most people agree that protein takes the most metabolic energy to digest and therefore is the most weight-loss-promoting macronutrient. So, Alli is supposed to block absorption of fat but, as I said in the last post, you really can’t eat fat when you’re taking it, so why not just not eat fat? (not that I’m saying that’s a good idea, though).
White kidney bean extract, aka Phase 2, is supposed to block absorption of carbohydrate. My curiosity got the better of me on this one. I’m allergic to red kidney beans like please let me die now allergic. It doesn’t last as long as a reaction to gluten but sometimes feels even worse at its peak. So, do I dare try white kidney bean extract? The nomenclature of legumes is so notoriously imprecise, and I was unable to determine whether white kidney bean was a kind of kidney bean or if it was just another name for a navy or cannelini bean. Well, eventually I got some Phase 2 and tried some. And it didn’t make me feel like I was going to die, but I did have the worst stomach ache for about a day and a half. So, I guess I was the wrong guinea pig for this one! Or, hey–I couldn’t eat, so it worked, right? Yeah, or stick a rock in your tummy…
(7) Alternative sources of brain fuel for sustained energy and reduced cravings: I only know two of these, and I don’t fully understand their chemistry, but I do know that they work. First is medium-chain triglycerides (MCT oil), usually refined from coconut oil or palm oil, both of which contain MCTs but at a much lower concentration. The idea is that we go into ketosis (burning ketones rather than glucose for fuel) as a matter of course every night. MCT oil is easily absorbed by the brain and, because it contains no carbohydrate (and also no protein, which can be converted into carbohydrate), it allows the brain to continue to burn ketones for fuel. It makes enough sense to me that on my fasting days I’ve been experimenting with putting some in my tea. I have to get over my fear of oil, though–I don’t think I’ve put enough to really notice, although it did seem like I was less hungry.
The second one is an amino acid, glutamine. Like all the good supplements, glutamine is wonderful for many different things. BUT like most good supplements, it should not be taken in excess — because it can convert into glutamate, and we all know that’s trouble, right? I’ve taken glutamine for years because it’s healing to a leaky gut. It’s supposed to actually help heal the places where the tight junctures have been breached. I’ve often found it soothing to my gut. But it also, apparently, feeds the brain directly, and works to balance blood sugar. I’ve experienced cravings going away instantly when I’ve put some glutamine powder under my tongue. If your blood sugar is whacked and you’re craving, just getting a little space between you and the craving can be salvation.
That overlaps with category (8)–neurotransmitter supporters to improve mood and reduce cravings. Two absolute no-brainers here are vitamins C and D. Vitamin C is the all-purpose antioxidant that aids in so many metabolic processes, while vitamin D is coming to be recognized as a hormone, crucial to regulating the body’s homeostasis. Google vitamin c and body weight and vitamin d and body weight and see what you turn up.
Back to amino acids, their support of neurotransmitters and brain processes, and how that can impact weight, in addition to glutamine you should know about tyrosine, 5htp or its precursor tryptophan, phenylalanine, and GABA at least. The place to go to learn all about this is Trudy Scott’s blog–she has the neurotransmitter/amino acid piece nailed down and very clearly explained, and I’d be stumbling around if I tried to paraphrase or summarize her great work.
The good thing about these is that they support your whole-body health, and if losing weight is part of coming into whole-body health, they will support that too. And, like relora, rhodiola, and DIM/I3C and MCT oil mentioned above, they are useful for many things besides weight regulation. Some people take 5htp for sleep. GABA is a first step for anxiety. Glutamine for intestinal walls, as I said…
Big, big pictures…
O-Kay! If you’ve read this far, thank you, and I hope there’s been something useful for you here.
I’ll offer one more post on this subject–a shorter one, I promise!–to wrap things up, address any questions, correct any mistakes I might have made here.
Good night from balmy Tucson, where the wind is high tonight and it smells like there has been rain somewhere nearby!