Nature’s amazing cholesterol-reducing agent

A number of herbal supplements have been promoted for lowering cholesterol levels including garlic, psyllium, red yeast rice, fenugreek, and flaxseed. Another little-known natural product for treating elevated cholesterol levels is gum guggul-the resin that exudes from the guggul tree, Commiphora mukul.

This small bushy tree guarded by thorny branches grows in arid regions of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh and produces a yellowish gum resin in ducts located throughout its bark. A cut made in the bark allows the resin to seep out. The tree is commercially tapped from November through January, and the hardened resin is collected through June. A typical guggul tree produces up to 500 grams (about a pound) of resin per year.

Historical Use

Gum guggul has been used in Ayurveda-the traditional medical system of India-for more than, 2000 years to treat a variety of ailments such as arthritis, other inflammations, weight loss, and lipid disorders. Studies on the lipid-lowering activity of gum guggul were first published in 1966. Since then a number of animal studies and clinical trials have verified its value in lowering blood lipid levels. Recently there’s been an increase in the popularity of using gum guggul to lower cholesterol levels in the United States.

Studies in India that took place more than 20 years ago discovered that when gum guggul was fed to experimental rabbits suffering from hypercholesterolemia, their elevated blood cholesterol levels dropped significantly within a month. In addition, the administration of gum guggul partially reversed the atherosclerosis that had been induced in the animals by a high- fat diet. The lipid-lowering ability of gum guggul was further confirmed in experiments performed on rats, monkeys, and pigs.

Clinical studies conducted in that same country reveal that humans also respond positively to gum guggul. Typically, blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels fall by about 15 to 30 percent after two to three months when used by patients burdened with elevated blood lipid levels (hyperlipidemia). However, not all individuals respond to the treatment. Generally, about 70 percent do. The reason for the lack of effect in some patients is unclear.

Active Components

Gugulipid, the lipid extract of gum guggul, has been marketed in India for the past 15 years as a lipid-lowering agent. Initial experiments with rats produced significant decreases in both LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels. The active compounds in gugulipid believed to be responsible for the cholesterol-lowering properties are two steroids: E- and Z-guggulsterone. These two steroids constitute about 2 percent by weight of gum guggul.

In two clinical trials with patients who had elevated blood lipid levels, the use of gugulipid extract was found to be just as effective as clofibrate (a cholesterol-lowering medication). The use of gugulipid has also produced significant decreases in total cholesterol levels in some healthy individuals. However, not all clinical trials have been successful. A recent trial in Philadelphia failed to lower cholesterol levels in 103 adults with elevated blood lipids.

Typically, the dose commonly used in human studies is 500 milligrams of gugulipid a day. Alternatively, one can use three grams of gum guggul, three times a day.

Beneficial Effects
In addition to its lipid-lowering ability, gum guggul has also been reported to have beneficial effects on inflammation and acne, although these results need further confirmation. In India, gum guggul is used for the treatment of arthritis and other inflammations. Significant anti-inflammatory activity has been shown in numerous animal studies. Myrrhanol A, a potent anti-inflammatory compound recently isolated from guggul, was found to be more effective than hydrocortisone.

Gum guggul has also been shown to have a stimulatory effect on the thyroid gland. Several animal studies have shown that guggulsterones from gugulipid stimulate the thyroid gland by increasing iodine uptake and oxygen consumption. This has been suggested as a possible mechanism for the lipid-lowering effect of guggulsterones in gugulipid.

Side Effects

Gugulipid appears to influence the bioavailability of medications such as those used for the treatment of cardiovascular disease, possibly by increasing their metabolism. Because of its potential interaction with a number of drugs, gugulipid should be used with great caution in combination with other drugs.

In clinical studies, the use of gum guggul and gugulipid have shown a few side effects such as diarrhea, headaches, and skin rashes in some patients, and its use is not recommended during pregnancy. There appears to be no adverse effects on either kidney or liver function.

Winston J. Craig is professor of nutrition at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

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