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"Thermogenic" Products

William T. Jarvis, Ph.D.

Supplement promoters have created a new marketing term, "thermogenics," which literally means "heat generation." The idea is that these products alter the metabolism in a way that causes the body to use more energy. The effect is a more energetic you, and accompanying weight loss. These products tend to be alike in their active ingredients, although some variations are seen. The following analysis was done on one product, ThermoChrome 5000. The information is useful for judging similar products. NCAHF advises consumers to read the labels of products. Information is often available on ingredients not covered below. NCAHF advises caution on the use of thermogenic products (see the NCAHF Position Paper on OTC Herbal Remedies (1995).

Ingredients listed in the brochure for ThermoChrome 5000 include Ma huang, kelp, gotu cola, ginseng, white willow, saw palmetto, L-carnitine, hawthorn berry, ginger, ginkgo biloba, boron proteinate, chromium picolinate, and chromium proteinate. Following is a discussion of each of these major ingredients.

Ma huang is one of several names on herbal products containing members of genus Ephedra. Serious adverse effects associated with products containing Ma huang have been reported to the Food and Drug Administration. Among these have been hypertension (elevated blood pressure), palpitations (rapid heart rate), neuropathy (nerve damage), myopathy (muscle injury), psychosis, stroke, and memory loss. The ephedras contain various stimulants, including ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and norpseudoephedrine, as well as other chemicals. Ma huang products are sold for weight control or as "energy boosters." The "energy" in Ma huang is a drug which stimulates the central nervous system producing a feeling of high energy, well-being and alertness. These products often contain other stimulants which may have synergistic effects which increase the potential for adverse side effects. The effects of Ma huang on the nervous system are similar to amphetamine and caffeine. (Congressional testimony by David Kessler, MD, JD, Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, July, 1993)

Kelp is an imprecise generic term for the ash obtained from burning any kind of coarse seaweed. Kelp has been used in folk medicine for many ailments. The active ingredient which may be in kelp is iodine. The concentration of iodine in seaweeds is extremely variable both among different species and within the same species. Iodine's important role in thyroid function is well known, but iodine deficiency is almost unknown in this age of iodized salt. Administering extra iodine beyond the ability of the thyroid to use it is worthless in the short-term, and in the long-term may present some health risks. Even if iodine were effective in causing the body to produce increased amounts of thyroid hormones, this would not be recommended for weight reduction. Experts do not recommend the use of kelp for any therapeutic purpose.

Gotu kola. In Sri Lanka it was observed that elephants, mythologized for their longevity among beasts, are fed extensively on gotu kola. This gave rise to the reputation of the herb as a longevity promoter, and a remedy for a dozen other ailments, for people. Scientific studies have shown that in relatively large doses the drug has a definite sedative effect in small animals. Also it has exhibited some anti-inflammatory activity, and apparently stimulates wound healing. However, there is currently no evidence to support the use of gotu kola as a longevity promoter or to substantiate any of the other extravagant claims made for it as a revitalizing and healing herb. Substantive data on its safety and efficacy are simply nonexistent.

Ginseng has some documented mild useful physiological effects in small animals. Probably the best documented side effects of ginseng are insomnia, diarrhea, and skin eruptions. However, even the prolonged or excessive use of ginseng appears to involve relatively low risk. Although purported to increase sexual experience or potency, there is no scientific evidence to support this. Ginseng is intensively searched for in the wild. It has been declared an endangered species and quality root retails at more than $20 an ounce. This demand encourages counterfeits. In one study, an analysis of 54 ginseng products showed that 60% of those analyzed were worthless and 25% contained no ginseng at all.

White willow bark is claimed in ThermoChrome promotions to reduce inflammation, relieve pain and swollen joints due to rheumatism and arthritis, and help neuralgia. These claims are probably true. White willow contains salicin which is converted in the body to salicylic acid, the same active ingredient that is in aspirin. However, unlike aspirin, white willow bark's label has no warning as FDA requires on aspirin. Aspirin labels warn that children should not take aspirin for chicken pox or influenza symptoms because of an association with Reyes syndrome; and, because white willow bark shares many of the same chemical properties and the same side effects as aspirin, white willow should also be avoided by aspirin-sensitive adults. Some stroke patients are also advised to avoid aspirin.

Saw palmetto is alleged to contribute lipase (an enzyme which splits fat) to the fat-burning process. Since the body makes its own lipase, there is no benefit to be derived from an herb containing lipase. Lipase can rightly be claimed to aid digestion as it breaks down fat in the intestinal tract, but the lipase has no role in burning fat for energy. Saw palmetto would therefore be an unnecessary ingredient in a weight control product.

L-carnitine is a metabolite which is synthesized in the liver from lysine and methionine (amino acids). American diets are high in protein from which lysine and methionine are derived. There is no daily requirement for carnitine because the body makes its own. Kenney says, "There is no scientific support for claims that carnitine supplements can slow the aging process or help in weight control. While it is appealing to think that ingesting more carnitine would speed up the burning of body fat because of its known role in intracellular fatty acid transport, it should be noted that body fat accumulates within specialized fat cells (adipocytes) and carnitine plays no role in the release of fatty acids from these cells. Neither is there any evidence that extra carnitine can increase the uptake of fatty acids from the blood or increase the rate the body's cells burn fat." (Kenney, 1987*)

Hawthorne. Modern research has revealed that the berries, leaves, flowers and bark of the hawthorn tree contain cardioactive principles. Scientific study shows it acts on the body in two ways: first, it dilates the blood vessels, especially the coronary vessels. Second, it apparently has a direct, favorable effect on the heart itself which is especially noticeable in cases of heart damage. Hawthorne's action develops slowly. Its toxicity is low as well. Some hawthorn components produce marked sedative effects which indicate an action on the central nervous system. Further studies are urgently needed for a drug as potentially valuable as this one. Until additional research has been carried out, prospective users of hawthorn for heart and circulation problems should consider all the consequences. Users of self-selected medicines almost always do so as a result of self-diagnosis. It is a very dangerous practice when such vital systems of the human body as the heart and blood vessels are involved. For this reason, self-treatment with hawthorn is neither advocated nor condoned.

Ginger. Scientific studies seem to indicate that ginger has value as a preventive of motion sickness. The antiemetic (prevents vomiting) action is due to its local action in the stomach, not to central nervous system activity. There are no reports of severe toxicity in humans from eating ginger, but some recent pharmacological studies seem to indicate that very large overdoses might carry the potential for causing depression of the central nervous system and cardiac arrhythmias. In the meantime, further investigations of these constituents and the therapeutic properties of ginger are warranted. The ThermoChrome claim that ginger "calms an upset stomach" is misleading. Ginger appears to calm a stomach which is upset from motion sickness.

Ginkgo biloba. Standardized ginkgo biloba extract (GBE) is used extensively in Europe for ailments associated with decreased cerebral blood flow, particularly in geriatric patients. It is extensively prescribed by physicians. Clinical and pharmacological studies have shown that GBE promotes vasodilation and improved blood flow in the arteries and capillaries, and that GBE reduces the clotting time of blood. This may be of concern to those already taking anticoagulants. Very large doses of GBE may cause restlessness, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and other unpleasant effects of a mild nature. GBE has not obtained the status to which it may be due. However, people should not self-diagnose any condition or self-prescribe any medication which has the systemic effects of GBE. (Tyler, 1992*)

Boron is utilized by the body in metabolism of cholesterol containing hormones. There is no established RDA for boron. There is no evidence yet established indicating a need for a boron supplement. It is found in vegetables, fruits and nuts. For normal, healthy individuals buying a boron supplement on the strength of existing scientific evidence is unnecessary and economically wasteful.

Chromium picolinate is made in the liver and kidney and binds with minerals to move them around the body. Chromium's biologically active form is called glucose tolerance factor (GTF), which helps the body use glucose. Research has shown that if blood glucose levels were normal and there were no signs of chromium deficiency, there will be no response to chromium supplements. While glucose metabolism is a major factor in diabetes, studies have found that most persons with diabetes are not chromium deficient. Although a severe chromium deficiency can lead to elevated blood glucose levels, this is not a factor in causing diabetes. In three studies in which persons with diabetes took a chromium supplement, the supplement had no effect on blood glucose control. Chromium is found in a wide variety of foods and is a nutrient, not a therapeutic agent (medicine). As for improving how the body handles glucose, chromium benefits only persons who are chromium deficient. Normal people with no signs of a chromium deficiency show no benefit after chromium supplementation. If normal, healthy adults take a chromium supplement, a safe and adequate amount is 50 to 200 micrograms a day. Extravagant claims for chromium supplements are highly questionable. (Franz, 1993*)

ThermoChrome 5000 contains many pharmacologically active substances. Like most dietary supplements, it is marketed under lower standards than American consumers have come to expect from medications. Its combination of ingredients may not be safe for use by certain individuals. NCAHF advises consumers to avoid the use of such products.

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© 1995 National Council Against Health Fraud. With proper citation, this article may be reproduced for noncommercial purposes

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This article was posted on December 29, 2000.