Hoodia gordonii

By Steven H. Horne

It’s interesting to watch herbal “fads” come and go. With a little research and a bit of marketing hype, numerous herbs hit the market and become the rage for a while—such as aloe vera, noni, St. John’s wort, ginkgo, mangosteen-—just to name a few. Fortunately, they eventually settle into a respectable place in our materia medica. It’s not bad that these plants get recognized; it’s just sad that the thousands of other useful plants nature offers us get overlooked.

The latest herbal fad appears to be hoodia, a plant from South Africa. Scientifically known as Hoodia gordonii, this cactus-like succulent is one of about twenty species of Hoodia plants, but is the only species that has been demonstrated to contain an appetite suppressant.

Because of its ability to suppress appetite, and the current problems in America with obesity, hoodia has received a lot of publicity as an aid to weight loss. It has been featured on 60-Minutes, ABC, NBC Today, BBC, CNN, Oprah’s “O” Magazine and elsewhere with positive reviews. This has placed a high demand on this relatively rare botanical.

The plant was originally used by the bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, who have been eating it for thousands of years. When hunting, they consume part of the hoodia stem to ward off hunger and thirst. Hoodia is also used as a medicine for severe abdominal cramps, hemorrhoids, tuberculosis, indigestion, hypertension and diabetes.

The excitement centers on research which demonstrates that a specific compound in hoodia, P57, is 10,000 more active than glucose in going into your brain and making you feel full. It tricks the brain into shutting off your appetite and appears to do so without any side effects.

The initial research was done at South Africa’s national laboratory, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Research showed that lab animals lost weight after taking hoodia. The animals typically consumed 30-50 percent less food when hoodia was included in their diets.

P57, a steroidal glycoside, was isolated and identified as the “active constituent.” Later, a British company named Phytopharm started working with the CSIR and spent about $20 million dollars researching P57.

One of the studies Phytopharm conducted was one of those “gold-standard” double-blind, placebo controlled clinical trials. A group of overweight, but otherwise healthy people, were split into two groups—one receiving the hoodia extract and the other the placebo. No other changes were made to their diet or exercise patterns. The hoodia group significantly reduced their caloric intake and lost body fat with no side effects. On average, the hoodia group ate 1,000 calories less per day than the control group.

In another animal study done by Brown University Medical School in 2004, special rats were used that have been bred to be both obese and diabetic. Not only did these rats lose weight on hoodia, it helped reverse diabetes in some.

P57 would probably be sold as a drug, except that it proved to be both difficult, and expensive, to synthesize. Furthermore, because supplies of the plant were limited, it would be difficult to extract enough to meet the demand.

So, Phytopharm took out a use patent on hoodia. A use patent means that no one else can market hoodia as a weight loss product. But, here’s the problem. It doesn’t mean that nobody else can sell hoodia (if they obtain it). After spending $20 million in research to prove the stuff works, other companies use their research and the name “hoodia” to capitalize on media attention. Many of these products contain little or no actual hoodia.

One can readily see why relatively little research is done on medicinal plants—it’s difficult to recoup the investment. Companies that do research on plants are typically looking for “active” compounds that can be patented and sold as drugs, not whole herbs.

The whole thing calls to mind the publicity St. John’s wort received a few years back. I had quite a few people come to my shop looking for St. John’s wort. In many cases, I thought there were herbs or formulas that would be better choices for their unique needs, but they had more confidence in a 15 minute TV segment than they did in an herbalist with nearly 20 years experience. Oh, well.

Obviously, hoodia has benefits. Since it’s such a scarce herb, NSP has wisely opted to capitalize on the “hoodia hype” with Nature’s Hoodia formula. The blend contains a little hoodia along with some other herbs and nutrients known to help curb appetite and boost metabolism. So, the formula gives you a synergistic effect.

Yes, just like there are many herbs for depression besides St. John’s wort, so there are many herbs that can help curb excess appetite. Here are a few—alfalfa, spirulina, bee pollen, garcinia, Caralluma fimbriata and licorice root. Formulas like Garcinia Combination, Super Algae and Target Endurance are all good choices to help curb excess appetite. Finally, humble fiber products, such as Psyllium Hulls Combination, Nature’s Three or Fat Grabbers, will also provide a feeling of fullness, reducing appetite. Fiber also cleanses the body, reduces the glycemic load, protects the colon, prevents gallstones and acts as a laxative.

Not to take away from the value of hoodia, but the whole hype thing brings up several problems with our modern American herb industry. First, the media hype gets people to focus on the idea that there are “special” plants that have almost “magical” properties, at the same time overlooking the fact that there are numerous valuable medicinal plants out there.

It also causes a kind of “tunnel” vision about herbs—St. John’s wort is for depression, saw palmetto for prostate problems, ginkgo for memory loss. The result is a loss of the “richness” of our herbal traditions. (For example, I just attended a workshop at the AHG convention in Boulder, Colorado with David Winston where he talked about all the different types of depression and over 20 herbal remedies for depression.)

There is also the issue of sustainability. To sustain the demand for hoodia, plantations are being started which will take years to mature. Meanwhile, what will happen to wild populations? I hope that wild populations of hoodia won’t suffer the same fate that wild populations of herbs like ginseng, goldenseal and echinacea have. We’ve decimated the populations of these plants in many areas.

And finally, what about indigenous people—who are the source of much of our herbal knowledge? The African Bushmen who have used this plant for food are “cut out of the loop” because they aren’t getting any benefit from the commercialization of hoodia. These native people supply the traditional knowledge that makes us aware of plants like hoodia, but they receive no financial benefit for their contributions. Meanwhile, the plant knowledge of traditional people all over the world is dying off, as people have lost interest in the abundant sources of medicine growing in their own area of the world.

Please don’t misinterpret what I’m saying here. I think it’s great that we have formulas like Nature’s Hoodia and other products that can help people lose weight. It’s just that I wish we could get as much enthusiasm generated over herbs in general as we do over the latest herbal fad.

Besides, unless any weight loss product is used in conjunction with helping a person develop better health habits, the results will be temporary at best. Americans, in general, are addicted to the “quick fix,” but when it comes to matters of health, all quick fixes do is band-aid the problem without addressing the cause, and in the long run, this never produces the results we really desire.