Chinese Herbs: Do They Really Work For Weight Loss

ginseng in a local market

It is currently estimated that 35% of all Americans are obese.  Billions of dollars are spend on weight loss programs, including weight watchers, nutria-system as well as many herbal supplements. It’s one of the most profitable businesses to be in as there are no shortage of people overweight.  For centuries, the Chinese have had a traditional medicine that helps keep weight off.  But do they really work and if so, how safe are they?

Traditional Chinese Medicine

It can be said that the Chinese have a different way of looking at how the body works than the Western culture does.  Westerners view weight loss as caloric intake, as long as they are in a deficit then weight will be lost, simple thermodynamics.  Chinese medicine on the other hand treats the body as a whole, seeing it as a microcosm of the larger universe.  This is all interconnected to nature and as such is subject to their forces.

In Chinese medicine, the human body is considered an organic thing that the various tissues, organs and all the other parts are interdependent along with it providing a distinct function.  This idea means that health and disease are a balance of all of these functions.

They have the Yin and Yang theory, which is says that there are two opposing sides to everything, yet they complement each other.  You cannot have one without the other.  It is similar to the Good and Evil concept of the west.  They also have the idea of a vital life force called Qi, which circulates through the body in a system of pathways called meridians.

Traditional Chinese medicine uses eight basic principles for symptom analysis and categorising various conditions.  These include:

  • Yin and Yang
  • The interior and exterior
  • Heat and cold
  • Excess and deficiency

They also use the five elements of earth, air, wood, water and metal to define how the body works.  Each organ and tissue corresponds with one of these elements and is essential in treating the body.

Most Common Chinese Weight Loss Herbs and How They Work

Now that you understand the philosophy behind traditional Chinese medicine, we’ll take a look at the most common and effective herbal treatments.  Most TCM does not use just one herb for weight loss, but a combination of herbs.  These are combined in such a way as to help increase weight loss and in some cases, keep it off.

ginseng plantGinseng:  When it comes to Ginseng, there are many different varieties.  For traditional Chinese medicine, the Chinese or Asian Ginseng sometimes called Panax or adaptogen is the preferred variety.  It helps with weight loss through a couple of different ways. 

First, it helps give you an energy boost and will help fight off fatigue¹.  This allows you to be more active and in leu burn more energy.  Second, it helps control and regulates blood sugar.  In Ginseng there are chemicals called ginsenosides which regulate insulin levels so that they remain constant and you don’t get spike and then a drop after eating carbydrates.²

cinnamon sticksCinnamon:  This common spice is one of the safest to use.  It helps control blood sugar and insulin sensitivity. It’s also been shown to exhibit lowering the amount of LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) in your body³. There are slight discrepancies between the type of cinnamon you can supplement. Cassia and and ceylon, the latter being more expensive and milder shows less damage to the liver when eaten in large quantities. We recommend starting off as you mean to go on and investing in Ceylon cinnamon.

In 2006, the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition published a study entitled “Effects of a Water-Soluble Cinnamon Extract on Body Composition and Features of a Metabolic Syndrome in Pre-Diabetic Men and Women”.  This study noted that people who added cinnamon to their diet daily for 12 weeks increased their lean body mass.

How much should you take?

Considered safe by the FDA, a teaspoon or so a day added to cereals, coffee or even a glass of water will help you to reduce your weight, reduce your overall blood sugar and increase your lean body mass.

Atractylodes:  This is an ancient Chinese herb that has been used for centuries for a variety of things.  This works by helping to reduce the appetite of people who over eat and by moving excess fluid through and out of their body.

Unlike many of the other herbs, this is used as a decoction, which is an infused potion made from the plant, with particular attention to the roots.  Although there are no scientific studies, it has shown weight loss benefits for many years in TCM.

Ginger:  Another well known spice, this root has been used from ancient times to modern times for a wide variety of medicinal purposes.

How Ginger affects your body

ginger in a marketThrough being a digestive aid: Ginger raises the pH of the stomach, which means that it stimulates the digestive enzymes.  It also increases the motility (the ability of the stomach to move food through it).  By these two methods, necessary nutrients are absorbed easily while non-essential nutrients and fats are excreted more readily.

Improves metabolism:  There have been some Dutch studies that show that ginger increases the metabolism of the body.  By increasing metabolism, we can burn off excess fat quicker, which means an overall weight loss.

Enhances Satiety:  A study done in New York and published in Metabolism showed that people who took ginger had a more satisfying feeling of satiety when eating.  Being able to control cravings is many peoples weakness when trying to lose weight.

Although these are not all of the herbs used, they are some of the more common ones.  It should be noted, that taking an herbal supplement alone will not necessarily reduce your weight on its own. Weight loss is not a sprint but a marathon and each small change to your lifestyle will in the long term have a massive outcome at the end of the race.

¹In vitro effects of echinacea and ginseng on natural killer and antibody-dependent cell cytotoxicity in healthy subjects and chronic fatigue syndrome or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome patients. Immunopharmacology. Volume 35, Issue 3, January 1997, Pages 229–235.
² Effect of Ginseng Extract on Lipid and Sugar Metabolism. I. Metabolic Correlation between Liver and Adipose Tissue. Chemical & pharmaceutical bulletin 23(12), 3095-3100.
³ Cinnamon use in type 2 diabetes: an updated systematic review and meta-analysis. Ann Fam Med. 2013 Sep-Oct;11(5):452-9. 

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