Health Benefits of Hoodia

South African Succulent Used for Weight Loss

Seth Mazow/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

Hoodia gordonii, also known as Bushman's hat or simply hoodia, is a succulent plant that is believed to aid in weight loss. Used for thousands of years by the San people of South Africa, hoodia had been touted as a safe and effective appetite suppressant since the early 2000s. Some alternative practitioners believe that it can relieve indigestion and treat mild gastrointestinal infections.

To date, there is little evidence that hoodia offers any of these benefits.

Health Benefits

Hoodia's weight loss effects were attributed to its use by the San people of the Kalahari Desert, who gnawed on the plant to block hunger and increase energy when on long hunting expeditions.

The practice was brought to the attention of the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in the 1960s. By 1977, the CSIR isolated the steroid sugar believed to trigger this effect, which they deemed P57.

It was nearly 20 years later that P57 caught the eye of the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, who acquired the rights with the aim of producing a weight loss supplement.

When Pfizer failed to do so, the rights were released, allowing other manufacturers to produce derivative products. Today, there are numerous hoodia supplements on the market, despite a glaring lack of supporting research.

An early study published in 2004 suggested that hoodia stimulates the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the enzyme associated with energy output and satiation (the sensation of feeling full). However, the same effect has not been seen in humans.

A 2014 review of studies concluded that the amount of hoodia needed to reduce appetite was considerable and that the side effects of treatment—rather than hoodia itself—were ultimately responsible for the weight loss.

Possible Side Effects

At lower doses, hoodia is considered safe and tolerable. However, at doses needed to effect appetite suppression, hoodia can often cause nausea, upset stomach, rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, abnormal skin sensations, and vomiting.

Jasjit Bindra, lead researcher for hoodia at Pfizer, stated that components of the plant could raise liver enzymes and affect liver function. Even in its purified form, many of these compounds are not easily removed during processing.

People on diabetes medications should be cautious about using hoodia. Some scientists believe that hoodia tricks the brain into thinking that it has enough blood sugar. Without proper feedback from the brain, a person's blood sugar could drop dangerously low without the usual physiological symptoms.

Hoodia is believed to suppress not only appetite but thirst as well. There have even been unconfirmed reports of African shepherds dying of dehydration because they didn't feel thirsty after consuming hoodia.

Due to the lack of research, hoodia should not be used in children, pregnant women, nursing mothers, or people with hypertension, arrhythmia, or other cardiovascular conditions.

It is not known whether hoodia causes any drug interactions. If you experience any unusual symptoms while taking hoodia, stop treatment and call your doctor.

Dosage and Preparation

Hoodia supplements are available in tablet, capsule, and powder forms, most of which can be purchased either online or at vitamin supplements stores. Supplements generally come in 250- to 500-milligram formulations and may take up to 14 days before appetite suppression is felt.

There are no guidelines directing the appropriate use of hoodia. As a rule of thumb, never take more than the recommended dose on the product label.

What to Look For

Safety and quality are the primary concerns when buying any dietary supplement. In the United States, supplements like hoodia are not required to undergo the rigorous testing or safety evaluation that pharmaceutical drugs do. As such, quality can vary.

While vitamin supplements will often undergo voluntary testing by the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) or other independent certifying bodies, hoodia supplements rarely do. Because of this, consumers may be left blind as to what is in a supplement and what is not.

According to a 2007 study from Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, only 30 to 60 percent of hoodia supplements contained the amount of hoodia listed on the product label.

In the absence of USP certification, opt for supplements that have been manufactured in an FDA-certified lab. Never use expired supplements or ones that are discolored or deteriorating in any way.

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