Weight loss supplements are heavily advertised, and taking them can seem like an easy fix to someone who is struggling to lose weight. Some people may shy away from prescription drugs, thinking them unsafe, and turn to herbal supplements that may be perceived as "natural," which many people equate with "safe." Hoodia is one such supplement, sold over the counter at pharmacies and on the Internet. But the little-studied status of the supplement makes relying on it for weight loss a risky venture.
A cactus native to the Kalahari desert, the hoodia plant is used as a hunger and thirst reducer by the area natives. During long hunting trips, Bushmen would carry a piece of the plant with them as their only sustenance for several days, claiming that it eliminated the need to carry bulky food and water stores. In the West, hoodia is sold as a weight loss aid -- pieces of the plant are dried, ground and capsulized for oral supplementation.
The few studies that have "proven" the effects of hoodia have been sponsored by the companies that manufacture the supplements, so are not considered reliable sources. As of July 2010, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine determined that there had been no reliable proof up to that point that hoodia works or is safe. Anecdotal evidence from generations of Kalahari natives cannot be precisely applied to western hoodia use because the herb is powdered in supplement form and offers no nutritional value. By contrast, the Bushmen ate the plant as a food source -- as a succulent, the plant has a high water content and at least some nutritional value that may have served to stave off hunger and thirst, however temporarily.
Because hoodia has not been widely studied, there is no documentation of any side effects or of the long-term safety of the supplement. The Bushmen claim to suffer no ill effects, but because they ate the whole plant, they ingested a much smaller concentration of its anatomically active ingredients than are found in the supplement pills. In weight loss supplements, hoodia is usually mixed with other herbs, and it is these herbs that typically cause side effects. Most herbal weight loss pills are combinations of laxatives and diuretics, so you may experience frequent urination, urgent stools, dehydration and an upset stomach.
Using an unexplored supplement like hoodia is done very much at your own risk. Dietary supplements do not have to approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration prior to sale, so there is no guarantee that they are safe or effective. If a supplement proves to be a problem once it's on the market, the FDA may investigate -- in fact, it has been found that many hoodia supplements do not contain hoodia at all. Considering the lack of research on the plant, that may not necessarily be a bad thing.