The Nutrition Diva's Quick and Dirty Tips for Eating Well and Feeling Fabulous

Indian Gooseberry: New uses for an ancient medicine

Episode Summary

A traditional Ayurvedic preparation is giving cholesterol drugs a run for their money.

Episode Notes

A traditional Ayurvedic preparation is giving cholesterol drugs a run for their money.

Nutrition Diva is hosted by Monica Reinagel. A transcript is available at Simplecast.

The two studies mentioned in today's episode:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3326920/
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21495900/

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Episode Transcription

Josh asks:

“I’m a longtime follower of Nutrition Diva and I was hoping you could give me your take on amla (Indian gooseberry) supplements to reduce cholesterol. I have naturally high cholesterol despite exercising regularly and eating a relatively healthful, high-fiber, and low saturated fat diet.”

Amla (or Indian gooseberry) is a small green fruit, approximately an inch in diameter, that grows on small trees throughout India and Asia. Like most berries, it’s rich in vitamin C and other antioxidants. Compared to other berries, it is relatively high in fiber. 

Although it is edible as a fruit, it is fairly sour and astringent. When it’s served as a fruit, it’s usually cooked in a sugar syrup. However, the dried, powdered fruit is also a staple of the ancient Hindu system of Ayurvedic medicine. It’s thought to be good for the skin, eyes, and heart and to have general anti-aging properties. It’s also used to treat everything from fever to bleeding disorders, diabetes, sore throats, hair loss, and low sex drive.

Like most traditional medicine systems, Ayurvedic medicine was developed and refined over thousands of years, using observation and experience—and that’s exactly where science begins. In fact, the Sanskrit word “ayurveda” literally means the “science of life.” However, Ayurvedic medicine developed and codified long before the emergence of the modern scientific method, which involves systematic testing of hypotheses under conditions that attempt to eliminate as many variables as possible.  

Some of the biggest variables, of course, are the beliefs and expectations of both the experimenters and the subjects of the experiment. Ancient Ayurvedic practitioners did not have the benefit of double-blind, placebo-controlled trials. Now, of course, we do! As modern investigators have put various traditional remedies to the test, some ancient beliefs about how various herbs and foods work in the body have been disproven. But many have been validated.

One of the traditional uses of amla is to treat blood sugar disorders, or what we now refer to as diabetes. Controlled trials confirmed that powdered amla does, in fact, reduce both early morning and post-meal blood sugar levels, in people both with and without Type 2 diabetes. But even more notable was its beneficial effects on cholesterol levels.  

A subsequent trial compared the effects of powdered Indian gooseberry to a popular cholesterol-lowering drug in 60 people with high cholesterol. After 6 weeks, all of the subjects had a significant reduction in their total and LDL cholesterol and a significant increase in HDL cholesterol.  

The effects of the amla on total and LDL cholesterol were comparable to the cholesterol medication–even a bit better. However, the cholesterol-lowering drug was more effective in raising HDL and lowering total triglycerides. On the other hand, those who were taking the amla also experienced a significant reduction in blood pressure, a benefit that those taking the cholesterol-lowering medication did not enjoy. 

In their conclusions, the researchers stop short of suggesting that amla could or should replace cholesterol-lowering medications. After all, we have decades of data on millions of patients taking cholesterol-lowering drugs, v.s. one 6-week trial of amla. But they do suggest that adding amla to a cholesterol-lowering drug regimen might allow patients to lower the dosage of the drug, and add some additional benefits. Clearly, this is something that doctors would want to evaluate on a case-by-case basis.

Practitioners of Western medicine often place a very high value on the scientific method as the gold standard for making treatment decisions. However, that gold standard also has its weaknesses—notably, a somewhat reductionist tendency. In our attempts to isolate variables and reduce bias, we sometimes lose track of the fact that individual factors are always functioning within a much larger context. One of the things that a traditional approach to medicine offers is a much more holistic view of both the patient and the conditions that affect them. 

Finally, just a word to any of you who may have what Josh refers to as “naturally high cholesterol levels.”  

Diet and exercise (or the lack thereof) do have an effect on the amount of cholesterol circulating in your blood. But genetics also plays a role. I’d hate for anyone with a genetic predisposition to feel that they’ve failed because they were unable to control their cholesterol levels through diet and exercise alone. Sometimes, cholesterol levels remain stubbornly high, even when people are very diligent about their diet and lifestyle. And in those cases, cholesterol medications can be extremely helpful. 

But it might be worth an experiment (in collaboration with your doctor, of course), to see whether a combination of amla and medication might produce better results or allow you to lower your dosage of the pharmaceutical. 

In the show notes for today’s episode (which you can find in your podcast app or at nutrition-diva.simplecast.com), I’ve included links to a couple of the key studies if you’d like to share those with your doctor. 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3326920/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21495900/

If you have a nutrition question for me, send me an email. I’m at nutrition@quickanddirtytips.com or you can call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206 and leave me a message!

Also, just a quick announcement that we are soon going to be opening enrollment in our year-long Weighless program, where we help people create the mindset, habits, and lifestyle that allows them to maintain a healthy weight without dieting. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be hosting a series of events to share more about our approach and help folks decide whether it is a good fit for them. To stay in the loop, you can go to weighless.life and click on the button to get on our mailing list for announcements. That link is also in today’s show notes!

The Nutrition Diva podcast is a Quick and Dirty Tips show. It’s audio-engineered by Nathan Semmes with script editing by Adam Cecil. Our team at Macmillan also includes Morgan Christianson, Davina Tomlin, and our intern Brendan Picha.