The Hoodia Plant and Dietary Supplementation
Stephen Holt, MD
Hoodia gordonii (HG) is a plant that looks very much like a cactus. Given the nature of many cacti, which are often used for their botanical properties – such as the infamous Mescaline – it is not surprising that many people think of Hoodia as a cactus. However, HG is actually a Succulent plant from the family Asclepiadaceae, with a spiny appearance resembling that of a cactus. Hoodia plants grow in clumps, and bloom flowers with a peculiar odor.
Hoodia varieties have been used for years by the native inhabitants of South Africa. In the Kalahari Desert region, the San Bushmen used it to stave off hunger, and – hinting at its potential as a dietary supplement ingredient – fed it to children who “ate too much”.
There is currently an explosion of interest in Hoodia products, with companies far and wide hawking Hoodia supplements on the internet. Pfizer had planned to purchase the rights to develop one of the active constituents of Hoodia, the P57 molecule from a British company, Phytopharm. Since Pfizer apparently backed out of the deal, competing products have sprouted up, in every price and quality range.
The use of botanicals and herbs for their health-maintaining properties is not new. However, unlike many natural, first-line options which remain underexplored, Hoodia has benefited from some genuine research and interest – most likely due to the interest taken in its active constituent, P57 molecule, by the pharmaceutical industry. Hoodia has been the subject of scientific study, including that mainstay of traditional, objective evidence, the double blind study. The scientific interest began when the South African CSIR, or Council for Scientific and Industrial research, began testing various native foods. It was discovered that Hoodia resulted in a decrease of appetite and body weight with no toxicity or harmful side effects.
One manufacturer, Phytopharm, concluded that significant – but harmless – doses of Hoodia gordonii, taken by overweight volunteers, caused a significant reduction in daily calorie intake (-1000 kcal per day, by day 15 of the study). This double-blind study, which employed a traditional placebo control group, found beneficial outcome only in the group that received Hoodia, and not the control group. As always, further study could be done, but it is clear already that Hoodia appears to have a legitimate evidence base as a dietary supplement for the nutritional support of a healthy weight, and overall health.
Hoodia gordonii works to suppress the appetite by a clever subterfuge. The Hoodia plant contains a previously unknown molecule, designated P57, which mimics the effect that glucose has on the brain. More than mere mimicry, the effect of P57 is much more powerful than normal blood glucose. Reports vary, but it is anywhere between ten thousand to up to a hundred thousand times more potent than the “real thing”. The brain thinks that you are full, when if fact you are not; you eat less, and therefore avoid gaining, and in fact begin to burn, excess body weight.
Some early Hoodia gordonii products used a 20:1 HG extract, which was supposed to be 20 times more potent. However, the refining process that produced this extract left little of the active constituents in the end product. As a result, many companies have gone to using a refined powder formula that is essentially dehydrated, ground Hoodia gordonii succulent. Some, however, still sell 20:1 Hoodia extract, which should be avoided due to questions about its effectiveness.
One positive aspect about the Hoodia hype is that it has once again brought to the forefront of public discourse the topic of obesity and metabolism. As the constellation of weight gain, insulin resistance, and eventual development of adult onset diabetes continues to pose a mounting health threat, the discussion of Hoodia and its weight loss potential puts the topic of this constellation of illness – the metabolic Syndrome X – in the limelight. One web site even had a quote from an apparent customer talking of how his father developed diabetes as a result of his weight gain. Whatever the eventual role of HG is in weight loss and the dietary supplement industry, its contribution to the discussion of Syndrome X cannot be underestimated.