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Weight-loss Herbs & Diet Teas

Alternative Therapies

The herbs in this article have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years; however, their use as weight-loss aids is a relatively new (and very American) trend. Manufacturers of herbal weight-loss products are essentially taking herbs traditionally used as laxatives or energy boosters and marketing them as a way to lose extra weight.

Realize that the jury is still out about whether these products do or don't help you shed pounds. In the short term, some herbs may help you lose water weight but not fat, so these products do not help you achieve permanent weight loss. And herbal laxatives can be downright dangerous if taken for extended periods, generally any longer than 10 days at a time.

If you choose to give these products a try, be sure you are very informed about the ingredients, how they work, possible side effects, and the product's manufacturer. Treat these herbs as you would any drug. Don't use them if you are pregnant or nursing, and check with your doctor before taking any weight-loss herb if you are currently being treated for a medical condition or are taking any prescription medications.

Know your herbs

If you're thinking of trying an herbal weight-loss product, read the label thoroughly. The following is a list of common herbs you'll find in weight-loss remedies.

Ephedra or ephedrine (also called ma huang)

What it is

Ephedra is a desert-loving shrub; its stems are used medicinally.

What it does

Ephedra has been used for thousands of years to treat mild asthma and congestion, but it is now one of the most common weight-loss herbs on the market. It acts as a stimulant that gives you a burst of energy while helping you feel less hungry.

Does it work?

Ephedra is one herb that is actually undergoing testing for its weight-loss effects. One study found that ephedra, when combined with guarana, another herb, did help people lose weight.

Side effects

Ephedra is commonly known as "herbal speed," and taking too much can cause serious problems ranging from heart palpitations to stroke, psychosis, and even death. Most serious events occurred in young to middle-aged healthy adults who were using the products to lose weight or increase their energy.

Since 1997, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has required that products with ephedra include warning labels about its side effects and has limited the amount of active ephedra (ephedrine alkaloid) in herbal products.

If the product you're considering suggests a dose higher than 8 mg of ephedrine alkaloids in a six-hour period or more than 24 mg per day, don't buy it. These products should not be used for more than seven days.

Guarana

What it is

A climbing shrub native to South America, the seeds of the guarana plant have medicinal properties.

What it does

Guarana is the herbal twin of caffeine, and affects people much the same way caffeine would. Guarana is a mild diuretic; it also gives you an energy buzz and tends to keep your appetite at bay.

Does it work?

Researchers have found some evidence that, combined with ephedra, guarana may help weight loss.

Side effects

Guarana can give you that nervous, jittery feeling you get after you drink coffee. Too much can cause dangerous problems such as heart palpitations.

Cascara sagrada, senna, and aloe

What they are

The dried bark of the Rhamnnaceae shrub (cascara sagrada) is a laxative; the leaves and pods of the senna shrub are a stronger laxative; and the latex (as opposed to the more common leaf gel) of the aloe plant is a very potent laxative. All are used in herbal weight-loss products.

What they do

These plants have been used as laxatives for thousands of years. You'll see them used often as ingredients in herbal diet teas.

Do they work?

Because they do get rid of some body bulk, these herbs may help you temporarily lose weight — but only weight from stools, not actual body fat.

Side effects

You should not take these laxatives for a long period of time (more than 10 days). Longer usage will cause dehydration and may cause your body to become dependent on laxatives for normal bowel function. Abuse of these products can result in laxative-abuse syndromes and severe electrolyte imbalances that can lead to heart-rhythm disturbances and even death.

Buchu

What it is

A herb made from the dried leaves of a South African shrub.

What it does

Primarily buchu is used to treat urinary tract infections, but it is also used as a diuretic.

Does it work?

The German Commission E monograph, one of the most extensive listings of clinical research on herbs, found that buchu wasn't effective in treating urinary tract infections. Whether its diuretic properties help with weight loss is unknown.

Side effects

Buchu has been known to cause stomach problems and should be taken with food.

Dandelion

What it is

If you live in the United States or Europe you probably know of this fuzzy-topped flower. The leaves and roots of the flower are used for herbal remedies.

What it does

Dandelions as herbal remedies are used to help with everything from joint problems to hepatitis. Dandelion also works as a laxative and helps relieve water retention.

Does it work?

When it comes to weight loss, the dandelion's diuretic properties make it a logical choice for herbalists. But dandelion's help in shedding pounds has not been scientifically proven.

Side effects

Dandelion may cause an allergic reaction or heartburn in some people.

Juniper

What it is

The herbal remedy named for this evergreen tree is made from the fleshy scales of its cones.

What it does

Juniper is used as a diuretic and helps reduce water retention.

Does it work?

Juniper's role in losing weight has not been scientifically proven.

Side effects

You shouldn't take juniper for more than six weeks; longer may cause kidney damage. Some people may be allergic to the essential oil, and pregnant women should avoid the herb because it can cause uterine contractions.

Green tea

What it is

Green tea comes from the same plant as black and oolong tea. The difference is that green tea is not allowed to ferment; the leaves are used right when they are plucked from the plant.

What it does

Well-known for its immune-strengthening properties, green tea is also a stimulant.

Does it work?

Herbalists believe the mild caffeine-like effects of green tea help energize and stimulate.

Side effects

Because green tea does contain some caffeine, drinking a lot of it could keep you from falling asleep, but otherwise it is generally regarded as safe.

Uva ursi

What it is

A cold-weather plant with red berries and red flowers, the dried leaves of the uva ursi are used in herbal remedies.

What it does

Uva ursi leaves are used to treat urinary tract infections and as a diuretic.

Does it work?

Uva ursi's role in weight loss is as yet unproven.

Side effects

Uvi ursi makes some people feel sick, and using the herb for more than a few weeks may cause potentially harmful side effects such as convulsions. And you shouldn't take uva ursi with any acidic food or juice (such as lemons or orange juice).

Herbal "diet" teas

Products called herbal diet teas require extra caution. Many have long lists of ingredients, and most contain herbs that act as laxatives. Taken as directed, most probably aren't dangerous. But recently the FDA did find that many people were abusing these products, taking them for much longer than they should (longer than 10 days), and letting the teas steep longer than recommended.

If you decide to try a diet-tea product, be sure you know about all the herbs listed on the package, and follow the directions carefully.

How to research herbs

Herbs are natural, but that doesn't mean they're safe. Herbal remedies are not tested or regulated by the FDA, so you have to research details about specific herbs to determine if a product you're considering is worth the money — and safe.

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