Get The Facts On Hoodia

Are you fascinated by how the stars manage to stay so very thin? I’ve regularly come to the conclusion that after all the personal training, liposuction, colonic irrigation, nips, tucks and what not, there must be a little extra assistance at hand. And I’m not talking about the class A kind that celebrities so often get caught snorting.

Then I stumbled across a couple of articles reporting that the likes of Nicole Richie and the Desperate Housewives stars are apparently getting a little helping hand from a little-known South African herb called Hoodia. According to one of Nicole’s pals (who spilled the beans to More magazine) the tiny starlet once confessed: "Hoodia makes you look hot in low-cut tops and backless dresses. It’s good for me - the bushmen have sworn by it for hundreds of years and that's good enough for me."

Hoodia comes from an ugly-looking cactus that thrives in the high temperatures of the African Kalahari dessert. The San Bushmen of the Kalahari, one of the world's oldest and most primitive tribes, have been eating the cactus for thousands of years. They use it to stave off hunger during long hunting trips and to keep their youngsters’ cravings at bay when food is in short supply.

But how does it work? Well, here’s the science bit: there is a part of your brain called the hypothalamus, and within that mid-brain are the nerve cells that sense glucose sugar. When you’re full, the cells tell the brain that your blood sugar levels are good and there is no need to eat more food for now. Hoodia causes these cells to send the same message to the brain. So, the nerve cells are firing as if you were full, but you’re not. And you’re not hungry either.

Hoodia takes years to mature and so to protect it, pharmaceutical giants who are keen to manufacture the plant as a slimming aid to the western world have begun growing it across huge plantations of the South African desert.

The bio-pharmaceutical company Phytopharm, based in Cambridge, has been routinely testing the plant and has isolated a previously unknown molecule in it, which it has christened P 57. The molecule has been patented by the company but the cactus itself, being a living plant, cannot be.

The BBC sent a reporter to the Kalahari desert to test the benefits of this wonder-herb. Tom Mangold tucked into the raw Hoodia cactus, which he described as "a slightly unpleasant-tasting, fleshy plant", eating a piece about half the size of a banana. So did his cameraman. On their four-hour drive back to Capetown, both of them felt good and neither of them thought about food. “Our brains really were telling us we were full. It was a magnificent deception,” says Tom.

Neither of them wanted dinner, and the next day neither of them wanted breakfast. Lunch was eaten with little pleasure, and their appetite did not return fully until 24 hours had passed.

On reading this report, I couldn’t resist trying Hoodia. I’m a big fan of the GI Diet, simply because it lets you eat lots and feel full without putting on weight (well, if you’re ‘good’, that is). I wondered if trying this new wonder herb would help to curb my appetite a little in order to shift a couple of extra pounds before the Christmas parties get into full swing. I spoke to James Leon, who owns the Pure Hoodia company here in the UK, and ordered myself a sample.

James discovered Hoodia when he was at a rural trade fair in South Africa about 12 years ago. He now buys direct from the South African farmers who he established a direct link with.

“I really like it because it’s a herb and therefore natural,” says James. And while many other Hoodia suppliers choose to mix up the Hoodia herb with things like green tea or chromium (which is said to boost the metabolism), James says it’s perfect in its natural form and he likes to keep it that way.

Hoodia may take a few days to start taking effect and the recommended dosage may be anything from one or two capsules a day for people who only have a little to lose, to around six for a 25-stone man. “People may already have a suppressed appetite before they notice any weight loss,” says James, who explains that to lose 1lb of fat, a person must burn up 3,500 calories, which can take a while. “But today someone who started taking Hoodia at the beginning of October emailed me and said they’d lost a stone,” he added proudly.

It is entirely up to the individual if they wish to continue using Hoodia when they’ve reached their target weight. James tends to find that people may contact him to buy a two or three month supply, then they stay at their target weight for six months, before coming back later when the weight starts to creep back on.

“People eat for different reasons, and if it’s out of boredom or because they’re unhappy, then maybe Hoodia might not be the right thing for them in that instance. But for those who want to lose weight and are prepared to stick to a diet, or cut back between meals – it can be very helpful,” says James. “We sell thousands of pots a month, which is based on the fact that we have a good product and a good customer service. I’m usually the one who answers the phone.”

tried Hoodia over a two-week period and found that taking it twice a day did help to reduce my appetite. There were a couple of particular instances on my way home from work when I felt absolutely ravenous and decided to try one of the capsules. Within about ten minutes the hunger had subsided. That’s not to say I didn’t want dinner when I got in, but I possibly ate less than I might otherwise have done.

In another instance on a Friday evening when I was about to head home via the chip shop after a night with friends at the pub, Hoodia came to my rescue again. And I was pretty pleased with myself when I woke up the next morning.

While I was running my Hoodia test, I didn’t feel as though I was eating a lot less than usual and yet I did manage to lose 2lbs over two weeks. At certain snack times I was less hungry and didn’t really think about food. But that said, Hoodia doesn’t take away the appetite completely, which can only be a good thing. Not eating all of the necessary vitamins and minerals will obviously always be detrimental to one’s health. But using a herb to simply help to curb the appetite can’t be bad, can it?

Hoodia has few known side effects at the moment. But it might be worth mentioning that a report in the New York Times claims there may be unwanted effects on the liver, caused by other components in Hoodia which cannot easily be removed from the supplement. While this has yet to be proven, further tests are needed before the full-known effects of the extract are completely understood.

But lawyer to the San tribe’s South African lawyer Roger Chennells believes Hoodia is the answer to obesity in the West, and for his people, the end of poverty in the Kalahari desert. He told the BBC: "The San will finally throw off thousands of years of oppression, poverty, social isolation and discrimination. I envisage Hoodia cafes in London and New York,” he says. “Salads will be served and the Hoodia cut like cucumber on to the salad. It will need flavouring to counter its unpleasant taste, but if it has no side effects and no cumulative side-effects, this is where we’re going."

As for whether Nicole Richie and the Desperate Housewives cast are using the herb to keep their frames stick-thin, I couldn’t possibly say. But what I will say is, if they are, they must be using a very strong dose to make their appetites so very small. To me, Hoodia seems more like a herbal diet supplement to aid healthy eating, as opposed to the pharmaceutical slimming drugs that speed up the metabolism and can keep their users awake at night. And if it is proven to have no side effects and help out obesity, that can surely only be a good thing.