Herbs for Weight Loss Resistance
Finding a way to achieve and maintain a healthy weight in a sustainable way can improve multiple long-term health parameters, and weight loss is a journey with which many people are familiar. Between 2013 and 2016, nearly half of all U.S. adults attempted weight loss within the previous year, with a majority being women. Medicinal herbs can help break through the wall of weight loss resistance, support the body throughout the weight loss process, and provide other health benefits.
Insulin is a hormone that sends a growth signal to the body, ultimately resulting in the storage of glucose; when insulin is secreted in excess, glucose will be stored as fat. During a state of “insulin resistance,” the body stops responding to proper signals, so both insulin and glucose levels remain high. This can wreak havoc on the normal process of metabolism, often resulting in weight accumulation and sugar cravings.
Herbal support for weight loss resistance due to insulin resistance may include gymnema, cinnamon, and berberine. Gymnema (Gymnema sylvestre) may help with sugar cravings by blocking sweet receptors on the tongue, impairing the ability to taste sweetness.1 It also can re-sensitize insulin receptors on cells which can help with weight loss as well as insulin resistance.1 Overall, gymnema has been reported to be very safe, but clinical studies suggest a minimum of two to three months of consumption for best results.2 Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum/verum) is associated with downregulating insulin resistance, lowering fasting plasma glucose, and working as a broad-spectrum anti-inflammatory compound as well as aiding in digestive health, all of which can help with weight loss resistance.3 Finally, berberine found in phellodendron (Phellodendron amurense) has been found to be as effective as metformin for insulin resistance and works via several different mechanisms including inhibiting adipogenesis, relieving inflammation and fibrosis in the liver, and promoting glucose uptake.4
Thyroid hormone plays a significant role in metabolism and can be targeted to overcome weight loss resistance. The conversion from thyroxine (T4) to the biologically active triiodothyronine (T3) is an important step in activating mitochondria, allowing them to function at maximal capacity. This can help boost metabolism which may then help with weight loss. The Ayurvedic herb coleus (Coleus forskohlii) has been studied for its beneficial role in weight loss and blood pressure regulation.5 It contains a compound called forskolin that acts like a second messenger in cells to stimulate secretion of T4 and T3.6 Randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies have found that ingestion of forskolin in conjunction with a hypocaloric diet significantly improved insulin concentrations and insulin resistance, as well as led to improvements in waist to hip ratio, body fat percentage, and fat mass in overweight and obese individuals.7,8
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is another herb that may help with the conversion of T4 to T3, particularly in cases of subclinical hypothyroidism.9 Approximately 80 percent of the conversion to T3 occurs in the liver, so supporting the liver, specifically phase two liver metabolism, can also help with weight loss. Herbs such as rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), schisandra (Schisandra chinensis), and milk thistle (Silybum marianum) can upregulate liver detoxification enzymes, supporting the liver and potentially T3 conversion.2
Because sex hormones contribute to weight loss resistance, they are also a possible target for intervention, especially in women where estrogen and progesterone have significant effects. For most women, a state of high estrogen and low progesterone is not well tolerated, so the adipose tissue will accumulate estrogen to try to clear it from the blood stream. This triggers inflammation in the adipose tissue, which may contribute to systemic inflammation. Similarly, androgen levels can begin to drop due to adrenal stress and fatigue. As exhaustion and stress set in, cortisol levels rise and interfere with progesterone metabolism, exacerbating the issue. Therefore, oftentimes the goal with weight loss resistance due to sex hormone disturbances is to support estrogen metabolism and reduce overall estrogen excess.
Supporting phase two liver enzymes through rosemary, schisandra, and milk thistle may help clear excess estrogen. Alternatively, chaste tree berry (Vitex agnus-castus) and white peony (Paeonia lactiflora) can support healthy estrogen and progesterone metabolism by supporting ovarian production of progesterone.10 White peony is also beneficial for irritability, anxiety, and premenstrual syndrome.11 Additionally, supporting good androgenic power may help women with weight loss. Both tribulus (Tribulus terrestris) and ashwagandha are androgen modulators and can help maintain muscle mass, support bone density, and aid in stress hormone recovery in women.12 When healthy androgenic power is maintained, women may lose weight easier as well as build muscle and bone density.
Finally, inflammation can be a major barrier to losing weight. Inflammation can become uncontrolled in conditions of overweight and obesity, making it very difficult to lose weight. Inflammation causes the release of immunological messages which trigger cytokines and interfere with the body’s insulin response and insulin receptor sites, causing cellular damage. In response, the pancreas releases more insulin, which triggers even more inflammation. Inflammation also suppresses leptin, the appetite-regulating hormone that signals the brain to stop eating but reducing inflammation can help re-sensitize the brain to leptin.
For inflammation-related weight loss resistance, turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a great option.5 There are many clinical studies supporting the role of turmeric as an anti-inflammatory agent. Other anti-inflammatory herbs include Indian frankincense (Boswellia serrata), saffron (Crocus sativus), nettle leaf (Urtica dioica), and rosemary. Many of these botanicals have been classified as regulators of oxidative stress, possessing both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Combining medicinal herbs with anti-inflammatory dietary interventions can provide a compound effect for addressing both weight loss and inflammation.
Weight loss resistance can be very frustrating but supporting the body and its biochemistry can help create a manageable, sustainable weight loss plan. Healthy dietary modifications combined with medicinal herbs that target insulin resistance, thyroid hormone, sex hormones, and inflammation can have synergistic effects on weight loss and overall health.
- Kanetkar, P., Singhal, R., Kamat, M. (2007). Gymnema sylvestre: A Memoir. J Clin Biochem Nutr, 41(2):77-81.
- Ghorbani, A. (2013). Best herbs for managing diabetes: A review of clinical studies. Braz J Pharm Sci, 49(3):413-422.
- Ranasinghe, P., Jayawardana, R., Galappaththy, P., Constantine, G.R., de Vas Gunawardana, N., Katulanda, P. (2012). Efficacy and safety of ‘true’ cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) as a pharmaceutical agent in diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Diabetic Med, 29(12):1480-1492.
- Xu, X., Yi, H., Wu, J., Kuang, T., Zhang, J., Li, Q., Du, H., Xu, T., Jiang, G., Fan, G. (2021). Therapeutic effect of berberine on metabolic diseases: Both pharmacological data and clinical evidence. Biomed Pharmacother, 133:110984.
- Majeed, M., Majeed, S., Nagabhushanam, K., Gnanamani, M., Mundkur, L. (2021). Lesser Investigated Natural Ingredients for the Management of Obesity. Nutrients, 13:510-532.
- Laurberg, P. (1984). Forskolin stimulation of thyroid secretion of T4 and T3. FEBS Lett, 170(2):273-276.
- Loftus, H.L., Astell, K.J., Mathai, M.L., Su, X.Q. (2015). Coleus forskohlii Extract Supplementation in Conjunction with a Hypocaloric Diet Reduces the Risk Factors of Metabolic Syndrome in Overweigh and Obese Subjects: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Nutrients, 7(11): 9508-9522.
- Godard, M.P., Johnson, B.A., Richmond, S.R. (2005). Body composition and hormonal adaptations associated with forskolin consumption in overweight and obese men. Obes Res, 13(8): 1335-1343.
- Sharma, A.K., Basu, I., Singh, S. (2017). Efficacy and Safety of Ashwagandha Root Extract in Subclinical Hypothyroid Patients: A Double-Blind Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial. J Altern Complement Med, 24(3):2432-248.
- Chen, L., Hu, C., Hood, M., Kan, J., Gan, X., Zhang, X., Zhang, Y., Du, J. (2020). An Integrated Approach Exploring the Synergistic Mechanism of Herbal Pairs in a Botanical Dietary Supplement: A Case Study of a Liver Protection Health Food. Int J Genomics, 2020:9054192.
- Arentz, S., Abbott, J.A., Smith, C.A., Bensoussan, A. (2014). Herbal medicine for the management of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and associated oligo/amenorrhoea and hyperandrogenism; a review of the laboratory evidence for effects with corroborative clinical findings. BMC Complement Altern Med, 14:511.
- Martimbianco, A.L.C., Pacheco, R.L., Vilarino, F.L., Latorraca, C.O.C., Torloni, M.R., Riera, R. (2020). Tribulus Terrestris for Female Sexual Dysfunction: A Systematic Review. Rev Bras Ginecol Obstet, 42(7):427-435.