People ask Chris Marano about Chinese herbs for weight loss on a regular basis. Here is his take on the subject
“What are Chinese herbs for weight loss?” is a typical Western question asked of herbalists and practitioners familiar with Chinese medicine. What inquirers are hoping for is a shortlist of herbs that would be good for doing that. This is something that is hard to do from the perspective of Chinese medicine.
Chinese medicine, first of all, rarely uses one herb by itself. Rather they blend multi-herb formulas that work as a symphony to get a job done, influencing physiology on a more broad-based and subtle level, making changes downstream that aren’t so obvious or up-front based on the individual herbs in the formula.
Secondly, this is hard to do because Chinese medicine views and approaches diseases and disorders differently than Western medicine does. In the West, we name a disease or disorder like an object unto itself and ask of practitioners, “Do you have something for this or for that?” The Chinese very rarely see or treat things this way. There is no generic arthritis, obesity, heart damage or anything else. A condition cannot be treated by one formula because any number of factors could be the cause. Usually, Chinese practitioners will ask questions down at least five different lines to see what particular kind of arthritis or what kind of weight gain or what particular kind of digestive imbalance or reproductive irregularity you may have. Formulas may be radically different depending on what conclusion they come to. If you go to Chinese doctors to ask for herbal help for weight loss, what they suggest for you may be very different than what they suggest for another person asking the same thing. At the very least, they are going to determine if it is more of an excess overweight condition or a deficiency overweight condition. That is the yang and yin of it in simplest form.
Chinese herbs for weight loss: Considering excess and deficiency
Are you overeating because you just have a ravenous appetite all the time and you can’t get enough? That would be excess. Or are you overweight because you are very slow in your digestive function and things just hang on to you no matter what you do? That would be an example of deficiency. These two examples would lead to two different formulas.
Are you overweight because you’re stressed and it’s part of your way to deal with stress? Are you overweight because your digestive fire has gone out and it needs to be kick-started? These are different scenarios in Chinese medicine, and each would have formulas with different herbs on their ingredient list.
Chinese herbs for weight loss: Two ways of approaching the topic
After all that, however, herbs are herbs and issues are issues. From the Western perspective, we’re very keen on understanding the constituents that exist in medicinal herbs because we know that certain constituents and certain constituent families will have certain effects, regardless of whether they’re in a formula or not. If those constituents are present in Chinese herb ingredients, it stands to reason that those activities will happen. Based on that reasoning, there are a few different ways weight loss can be encouraged through the chemical activity of plant medicines.
One common way is to reduce appetite so that we aren’t as hungry. There are medicines that can help speed up metabolism so that we burn more weight and calories. These herbs are considered stimulants. Many often contain caffeine or caffeine derivatives, like green tea (Camellia sinensis), which is possibly the most famous herbal medicine on the planet. It’s what “tea” actually is. Every time we say “herbal tea” we should actually be saying “herbal infusion” because tea is tea. Green tea, black tea, oolong, white, pu-er, and so on. Green tea is an appetite suppressant. It’s also a thermogenic agent, meaning it helps to stimulate metabolism. I know you might have been waiting to hear about something really exotic, but that’s the number one herb on the list. Green tea, in fact, is one of the only herbs that Chinese regularly drink alone, as a single ingredient.
Other herbs that we can utilize to help reduce weight are those that inhibit the ability of blood to absorb li[ids (fat and oils) from the intestines. If the lipids are deterred from getting into your bloodstream in the first place, then ultimately they pass unassimilated through the elimination process. A chemical constituent family that helps here is saponins. These compounds have a soapy quality that induce nutrients, especially fats, to pass on through before they get absorbed. So it’s kind of like getting a free pass: You get to eat it, but not keep it.
There’s an herb in Chinese Materia Medica called platycodon, or jie geng. It’s also commonly known as balloon flower. It is a beautiful horticultural ornamental that is popular in many American gardens. The root is the medicine and it’s famous as a lung tonic, but it also is rich in saponins and inhibits the intestinal absorption of fats and lipids, thereby allowing them to pass out of the body. It is often included in herbal formulas in China for weight reduction.
Chinese herbs for weight loss: Popular formulations
There’s a famous formula in China that consists of only two herbs: magnolia bark (M. officinalis) and phellodendron bark (P. amurense). Neither of these herbs is particularly famous on their own for being weight-loss herbs, but when they are mixed in a so-called proprietary blend, it is one of the combinations of choice used for stress eaters who want to lose weight. Hormones and the endocrine system are out of whack, and it mostly due to stress. If they are able to calm down, they wouldn’t be as triggered to eat and hold on to the weight because stress (cortisol) stimulates fat deposition. When we’re stressed and cortisol is running high, there’s a tendency to hold on to fat because it might be needed for emergencies later.
If the stress is moving more through the Liver channel, there is a classic formula called “Free and Happy Wanderer,” containing Liver-Constraint release herbs like white peony/bai shao (Paeonia lactiflora), atractylodes/bai zhu (A. macrocephala), and bupleurum/chai hu (B. chinense). These three herbs are often found in weight-reduction formulas.
If there’s a deficiency and weakness, this can also cause weight gain, but it is because we need to strengthen digestive vigor (Chinese Spleen Qi). Herbs that help here would not be considered weight-reduction herbs on their own. In fact, they could even be considered the opposite. You could just as easily take these herbs to gain weight. If digestive vigor is weak and under-functioning, then metabolism slows down and you gain weight.
These herbs would not be considered weight-reduction herbs by themselves in the West, but they too find their way into weight-reduction formulas. So again, if I was just thinking of a couple off the top of my head: green tea is the famous one. Another Chinese herb, which is now taboo in the United States, is ephedra. It is even more appetite-suppressing and more stimulating than green tea, and it wound up in a lot of diet pills, some of which to led serious enough adverse reactions that the plant was banned in this country. It is a shame because if used properly it is invaluable medicine.
Other herbs that find themselves in diet pills are laxatives like senna and cascara sagrada. Senna is found in Chinese weight-loss formulas, and it’s also found in Western weight-loss formulas. It’s actually cheating because it’s purely a laxative, and a dependency-causing one at that. For that reason I do not use senna.
Overall, the top Chinese herbs for weight loss I recommend are green tea, platycodon or balloon flower, and that special combination of magnolia bark and phellodendron for stress eaters. And beyond that, you have to take it client by client.
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