Physician advises caution with supplements

Capt. (Dr.) Adrian Stull
86th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron

With the recent implementation of new Air Force fitness standards, abdominal circumference has taken on new emphasis. As a result, some members are seeking methods for rapid fat loss in an effort to reduce their girth. Members may be tempted to turn to herbs, alternative medications and supplements in an attempt to make weight loss easier. These unregulated medications can carry with them a number of risks.
Some of the more widely-used products available include: ephedra, citrus aurantium, caffeine, theophylline, chromium picolinate and capsaicin.
Ephedra (also known as ephedrine or ma huang) has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years.
It is a stimulant, and has been shown to reduce weight, but there are several downsides to this drug. It is quite addictive, and typically weight loss has been shown to be reversed when people stop using the product. Some of the potential side effects may mimic a heart attack, including chest pain, a rapid heart beat, pain radiating down the left arm and shortness of breath. This medication has been shown to increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, which is why it was banned by the Air Force and the U.S. government in late 2003.
Citrus aurantium (also sold as bitter orange or synephrine) is another stimulant drug. This is currently being marketed as a replacement product for ephedra. Given that this product has only relatively recently been marketed, there is not much data to show if it is effective or not. It has been shown to have the potential for liver and kidney damage, dehydration and high blood pressure. It also interacts with several over the counter drugs (cough and cold remedies) and prescription medications (high blood pressure drugs).
Caffeine (also marketed as herbal caffeine, green tea extract, guarana, kola nut extract, or gotu kola) is sold as a “thermogenic” stimulant, which means that it supposedly increases body temperature, helping to burn calories. Caffeine has been shown to have a mild thermogenic effect, but the effect is fairly small. The caffeine in most weight loss supplements is the equivalent of eight to 12 cups of brewed coffee.
Additionally, the caffeine in most over the counter herbal supplements is mixed with other stimulants, which can magnify its bad side effects. Some of those side effects include dehydration, elevated blood pressure, nervousness, nausea and headaches. Finally, caffeine is addictive. Theophylline is related to caffeine, but twice as powerful. It was formerly used as an asthma medication, but isn’t used much these days, because more effective medications are available.
Chromium picolinate is marketed as an appetite suppressant, but has shown not to be effective. It has been shown to cause heart flutters, increased cancer risk, as well as liver and kidney damage, which is why is was banned by Great Britain in 2003.
Capsaicin is the active ingredient from cayenne chili peppers. It is used in cooking, police pepper sprays and is marketed as a thermogenic weight loss supplement. It has been shown to be minimally effective, and only at doses much higher than that available in most over-the-counter supplements.
When using herbs, supplements and alternative medications, it is important to be very careful and read the fine print on the bottle. A law was passed in 1994 (the Dietary Supplements Health Education Act) that basically made it legal for people to sell anything marketed as a supplement without oversight and regulation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
However, supplement companies will usually print a “fine print” list of people who shouldn’t use the supplement. It’s very important to read this. Also, the Dietary Supplements Health Education Act requires supplement manufacturers to print the phrase: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease” on their products.
An additional risk with herbs, supplements and alternative medications is the possibility that the bottle of pills does not actually contain the herbs that are listed on the label. Other drugs may be mixed in, and the “active ingredient” may not be present at all.
In conclusion, the numerous risks associated with the currently available over-the-counter weight loss supplements often outweigh the benefits. For questions about weight loss or other supplements, call your personal physician.