One of the questions I am frequently asked is: “Can herbal medicine help me to lose weight?” The person asking the question is often disappointed that I can’t offer them one magic herb in a convenient tablet to pop that will shed kilos off them without them needing to do anything else.
However, there are herbs that will assist in achieving the goals of weight loss. And these, of course, work better in conjunction with exercise and dietary modifications. Herbal medicine can help in many health conditions which may be contributing to problems with weight management.
With the treatment of any condition a wholistic approach is used in herbal medicine. That is, the whole person is considered. When someone has a consultation we talk about the main reason they are there but I also ask questions about their past health history and we cover what’s going on from ‘head to toe’. In wholistic medicine the concept is that everything is connected. Then we do a treatment plan which usually involves a herbal medicine tonic and perhaps vitamin or mineral supplements. The herbal medicine tonic is a mix of several herbs that are put together on the basis of the symptoms that need to be addressed and with consideration given to the causes of these symptoms. I see my role as not only to prescribe medicine but to encourage and support people in their own quest for health.
A case study to illustrate this: 38 yr old female, main complaint lack of energy but also has had problems shedding 10kg after her 3rd child, complained of headaches that panadol won’t help and a feeling of constant crankiness. Was not getting a full night’s sleep due to children. Questioned her about digestion and found she had lots of bloating and wind. Diet was fairly good but she did have chocolate cravings and usually gave in to them especially after dinner which she described as her danger time: where she might have ice cream,chocolate, biscuit etc. She did no exercise as had no motivation, no energy and no time. She was prescribed a ‘tonic’ which contained herbs to help with her digestion ie.to decrease bloating and wind, liver herb (treating the liver is so important in weight management and virtually any health issue) and adrenal tonics.
She was also prescribed a multivitamin/mineral supplement high in the B vitamins. It is important to the efficiency of all metabolic pathways that all the vitamins and minerals are at their optimum levels. This is crucial in weight management.
Adrenal tonics are to enhance the function of the adrenal glands. These glands are located above the kidneys and are involved in the production of stress hormones. They are also necessary in maintaining energy levels. Adrenal exhaustion is a naturopathic concept which is indicated by various symptoms, such as low energy, unrefreshing sleep and a need for external stimulants like sugar, tobacco and especially caffeine in the form of cola drinks, tea and coffee. The need for these substances is an indication that the body is unable to provide the energy and drive required to get through the day. This exhaustion eventuates after the chronic production of stress hormones. I have observed that due to the present state of our society of ‘busyness’ the majority of people that see me are suffering from adrenal exhaustion in varying degrees. Adrenal exhaustion leads to reduced capacity to deal with stress.
After 2 weeks the patient was calmer, less tired and her motivation had increased. She had started walking with a friend 3 times a week. Her bloating and other digestive symptoms had improved. Headaches had improved, not needing panadol. She said her head felt clearer. One of her sons was currently causing her some stress but she said she felt more able to deal with it.
Weight Management Issues
Blood Sugar Disturbances
- Functional dysglycaemia
- Insulin resistance
- Syndrome X
- Type 2 Diabetes
These conditions can create potential long-term health issues including problems with weight management.
The pancreas, liver and adrenal glands are involved in maintaining the body’s blood sugar levels.
The pancreas secretes insulin after a meal in response to increased blood sugar. Insulin transports that sugar (glucose) into cells for energy production or storage as fat. (Therefore, too much sugar leads to increased fat)
The liver is the storage site for glucose (stored as glycogen). In between meals the liver releases stored glucose into the blood to keep the levels optimum.
The adrenals produce hormones to stimulate the liver to release the stored glucose or to make more glucose.
A diet high in refined carbohydrates, sugar, alcohol and stimulants, long breaks between meals and high stress will push the pancreas to over-produce insulin.(Vitamin and mineral deficiencies can also cause this).
Insulin Resistance means your body is insensitive, or ‘partially deaf’ to insulin. The organs and tissues that ought to respond to even a small rise in insulin remain unresponsive. So your body tries harder by secreting more insulin to achieve the same effect.
The higher your insulin levels, the more carbohydrate you burn at the expense of fat. That is, increased insulin encourages fat storage instead of fat burning.
High insulin all day forces cells to use glucose as their fuel source, drawing it from either the blood or stored glycogen. Therefore blood glucose swings from low to high and back again playing havoc with appetite and triggering the release of stress hormones.
When fat is not used as a source of fuel, fat stores accumulate wherever they can: inside muscle cells, in the blood (causing high triglyceride levels in blood tests), in the liver (causing non alcoholic fatty liver) and around the waist.
Symptoms of insulin resistance are ravenous hunger, cravings, sweating, tremors, palpitations, dizziness, anxiety, headaches, poor concentration, fatigue, depression, insomnia and of course problems with weight management.
- Increase complex carbohydrates
- Decrease stimulants such as caffeine, chocolate and tobacco
- Decrease refined carbohydrates (white bread, cakes, sweeteners, cordial, ice cream)
- Eat small meals frequently
- Eat protein with every meal
- Don’t skip meals
- A low GI diet will improve blood glucose in diabetics and improve the sensitivity of the body to insulin.
- Manage stress
- Regular exercise
- Correcting diet may not be enough to improve insulin resistance, therefore supplements may be needed eg. magnesium, chromium, calcium, zinc, B vitamins in a multivitamin/mineral supplement
- Useful herbs: Gymnema, Rehmania, Fenugreek, Siberian ginseng, Dandelion root
The liver is responsible for many metabolic processes and if not treated well will become overloaded and sluggish.
A sluggish liver will affect the body’s ability to manage weight.
Liver function tests in a blood test may be normal even if liver function is not 100%.
Symptoms of a Sluggish Liver
- Problems with weight
- Mood changes eg. depression
- Digestive problems eg. nausea, constipation, bloating
- PMS and other hormonal problems
Extra burden is placed on the liver by:
- Taking medications (including the OCP)
- Consuming excess alcohol
- Eating a low fibre/high fat diet
To Improve Liver Function:
- High fibre diet (oats, barley, legumes, psyllium, slippery elm, pectin from the skins of fruit and veges)
- Diet high in antioxidants:
- Vitamin C (broccoli, parsley, red fruits and citrus fruits)
- Vitamin E (nuts and seeds, egg yolk)
- Zinc (Nuts and seeds, whole grains, oysters)
- Selenium (nuts and seeds especially brazil nuts and cashews, eggs, wholegrains, fish, garlic and onion)
- Decrease alcohol
- Regular exercise
- Herbs that help reduce the burden on the liver: St Mary’s Thistle, Dandelion Root and Schisandra
- Eat slowly to improve digestion
- Abdominal bloating can be as a result of food intolerance (often wheat)
- Bowel function is important: constipation/ sluggish bowels=straining, passing small volumes or ‘rabbit pellets’ as well as infrequent motions.
PMS can cause weight gain related to fluid imbalance. Treatment includes taking B6 + B complex, herbal diuretics eg. Dandelion leaf, herbal hormonal balancing herbs.
Polycystic ovarian syndrome can be associated with weight problems and is treated by addressing insulin resistance.
The thyroid gland is responsible for setting the metabolic rate. It may not be working optimally but still produce normal thyroid function blood tests. Hypothyroidism is an underfunctioning thyroid and symptoms include:
- Tendency to gain weight
- Sensitivity to cold
- Need for increased sleep
- Sluggish bowels
- Low energy
Strategies to Improve Thyroid:
- Daily exercise
- Increase Iodine-rich foods in diet: seaweeds, linseeds, sunflower seeds, fish
- Other helpful foods: chickpeas, lentils, barley, oats, brown rice, alfalfa sprouts, berries
- Have less foods from the cabbage family as they contain goitrogens that can lower thyroid function
- Herbs: bladderwrack, Siberian ginseng,
- Multivitamin and mineral supplement
Whether the stress is physical, emotional or mental the effects can be felt physically and can lead to weight management problems. With ongoing stress:
- Body is in constant ‘fight or flight’ state where the stress hormone levels are high and this leads to problems losing weight
- Cortisol, an adrenal hormone, affects the brain centre for hunger and fullness and promotes fat gain rather than fat loss.
- Other stress hormones can lead to nutrient deficiencies eg. magnesium that is linked to insulin resistance and therefore weight gain
- Meditation/deep breathing
- Allowing ‘time out’ from stressful situations
- Multivitamin high in Bs
- Herbs: Withania and Siberian ginseng help to minimise effects of stress by modulating the stress hormones
- Identify ‘comfort eating’: where emotional needs are not being met and food is used as a substitute. Explore these emotional aspects. Eg.counselling