In my practice, I have been asked many times about herbs to help with weight loss. Up until now, I have been extremely cautious about using plant medicine specifically for weight loss for a number of reasons:
l Weight gain or obesity is a symptom. To simply address weight is to miss the underlying cause and provide a quick fix. Quick fixes rarely provide long-term support for serious health challenge and can be physically and mentally dangerous.
Obesity is a serious health challenge. To resolve the physiological and psychological causes of obesity requires a willingness to acknowledge deeply-held belief systems while making radical lifestyle changes including easing off on the viscous diet/binge cycle.
Making these kinds of changes requires commitment on behalf of both the individual working to balance their weight and the persons supporting them.
l Many people who ask me for support in weight loss do not have weight challenges other than sensitivity to the extreme societal pressure to be thin.
When someone needs to lose a few pounds, I always recommend exercise and home-cooked meals. These lifestyle changes will bring long-term health benefits besides helping one lose a few pounds.
l A little extra weight can be a blessing. At one time in my life I was very ill. When I walked out (and my nurses were amazed that I was walking) of the hospital, I weighed 80 pounds. It was a good thing I carried an extra ten pounds when I became ill. Those 10 pounds saved my life.
l Obesity is a new challenge for human beings. Historically, herbal medicine was rarely offered to reduce weight. Herbals are full of plants that support weight gain, particularly during convalescence.
l Promoting quick-fix weight loss with medicinal plants has caused death and given herbal medicine a bad name. Ephedra (ephedra sinica) is one such plant. Ephedra, a Chinese herb called ma-haung, has help asthmatic breath for centuries. Never before 1980 was it used for weight loss. Then taking ephedra in high doses was promoted to increase metabolism and cause weight loss. The consequences of ignoring ephedra’s traditional uses and prescribing it for weight loss were death, heart attacks and temporary weight loss. Plants are as complicated as the conditions they treat and rarely provide a quick fix for chronic conditions.
Recently, I have been working with a number of obese clients. Listening to their stories and the extreme limitations that obesity has placed on their lives, I have rethought my approach to plant medicine for weight loss.
My research into obesity has given me to a new understanding of how herbal medicine can support an individual in weight loss while addressing the underlying causes.
Here are two things I have learned:
l The key to weight loss is regular maintenance of the body’s needs. This means regular bathroom visits, regular sleep, regular food, regular movement and regular fun! Within the body, an internal clock ticks that runs the body’s maintenance schedule. This clock is called circadian rhythms and is run by hormones, including cortisol and melatonin.
When circadian rhythms are out of sync, sleep is irregular, bowels are irregular, appetite is irregular and the mood is irregular. This leads to erratic eating and exercise.
There are many herbs that can help the body find its rhythms. For example: rhodiola (rhodiola roscea) improves hormonal regulation of sleep, licorice root (glycyrrhiza glabra) moderates the effect of cortisol on fat storage, and devil’s club (oplpanax horridus) improves blood sugar balance.
l People who carry weight experience pain. The pain limits their ability to move and wears on their moods and motivation while interrupting sleep. Pain is exhausting. To establish regular circadian rhythms, it’s necessary to offer pain relief that does not compromise either physical or mental health.
Plants like turmeric (curcuma longa) can ease pain while supporting circadian rhythms, while plants like willow bark (salix spp) ease the experience of pain in the body.
Obesity is an complex health challenge and I have barely touched on how plant medicine can support individuals severely affected by their size.
As with all complex medical conditions, individuals suffering with them need to be treated with care and compassion. I rarely find either of these virtues present in quick fixes.
Herbs for Life is written by Abrah Arneson, a local clinical herbalist. It is intended for information purposes only. Readers with a specific medical problem should consult a doctor. For more information, visit www.abraherbalist.ca. Arneson can be reached www.abraherbs.com.