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There are herbal medicines for weight loss that actually work. There's also a confusing morass of definitions and claims that is made even more confusing by a mixture of misunderstandings by the public and also in a few cases by regulatory agencies trying to keep the public safe.

The weight loss herb that we used to have, that really worked, was ephedra. This herb from China (I'm hesistant to call it a Chinese herb because there is a common misconception that all Chinese herbs are the same, and there are actually 5,000 different Chinese herbs), contains a couple of compounds that especially stimulate metabolic rate, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. There are four more compounds in the plant that work in a similar away. Collectively, these six ephedra chemicals stimulate your brain so you are more alert. They increase your heart rate. They constrict your blood vessels, raising your blood pressure, but also sending more oxygen to your core. They relax your bronchial tubes, so you breathe more easily.

Ephedra became very popular for weight loss, because it actually worked, and for athletes seeking a boost before or after a match. Some people drank it as a tea, which was the traditional method of using it in China. Some people took it as a supplement. In the 1990's, an unusually potent version of ephedra was formulated and marketed in the same kinds of shops that sold bongs and rolling papers for weed.

I happened to be working for the American Botanical Council in 1995 when the herb hit the fan, so to speak. A college student in Florida took 58 times a lethal dose of ephedra in an attempt to get high, and there was a national uproar. There were cover stories on many of the national magazines. We did chemical analyses on the diet aids. We gave interviews to Newsweek and US News and World Report and our director went on CNN. We tried to explain that the primary problem was the death occurred after extreme overdose of the product, and ordinary use was safe. Nonetheless, there were demands to ban the herb. 

The FDA naturally responded, and this being the FDA, just eight years later, in 2004, it became illegal to contain supplements that contain ephedra.

There is stricter enforcement of the laws regarding ephedrine, which is still available if you present ID and allow a pharmacy clerk to take the drug out of a locked cabinet and enter your name into a state registry, because that's the herbal constituent that can be used to make meth.

The benefit of using ephedra, or ephedra and caffeine, ephedra and Aspirin, the usual product formulas, was about two extra pounds (one kilo) a month for people who diet and exercise. It didn't always work.

When ephedra went off the market, other herbs came on the market.

Some products were based on bitter orange peel, also known as Citrus aurantium. This isn't a regular orange. It's a "Chinese" orange, that is used more for its peel than for fruit. 

Other products were based on green tea extract, which also works if you don't cancel out its effects by drinking too many diet soft drinks or too much coffee. Green tea extract used properly can help you lose one or two extra pounds a month, if you diet, or at least not gain as fast if you don't change your eating habits. A few products were based on the herbs found in Bryanta, which include damiana. 

Damiana is a plant from the Amazonian rain forest. It was traditionally used in love potions. To be sure, if you are horny all the time and you are doing something about it, you won't have time to eat and you will lose weight. The power of damiana, and the other herbs in Bryanta, for weight loss is overrated. Neither are they particularly dangerous. The questions about them are mostly moot, because the product isn't available, anyway.

All the herbs in the product are FDA-approved, by the way. They aren't regulated as drugs. They won't ever appear on a drug list because they are not legally "drugs."

However, the whole story about Bryanta illustrates a valid concern. Know who is supplying your herb. From time to time there are a few small-scale pill peddlers who lace diet pills with amphetamines so they will take off the weight. These kinds of products work, but they are illegal and unsafe.

It's also important to understand that the real hero in any weight loss story is the dieter, not the diet pill. 

You still have to eat less. You still have to eat right. You still have to exercise. If you lose weight, you did it, not a pill. Green tea with caffeine (limited amounts of caffeine, already in the supplement) can help a little. Green coffee extract helps burn carb calories, a little, especially when it is combined with sunflower extract. Garcinia cambogia also helps if you are just cutting back in general, but not if you are trying to lose weight with a high-protein diet.

Just focus on the fact that you do the work, not the pill. At best any kind of diet aid will make a pound or two of difference a month. It's highly unlikely you will encounter any dangerous over the counter diet products in the United States in 2015, but if it seems too good to be true, it usually is.

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