Shellfish like shrimp, lobster and crab, may seem an unlikely source of a natural remedy for weight loss. But, the outer shell of shellfish is composed of chitin, a naturally occurring compound that has been dubbed a ‘fat magnet’ by researchers. And chitosan, the natural, commercially available preparation used by millions of dieters across the world, is composed of many molecules of chitin strung together. But what few people realise is that there are lots of other benefits chitosan offers you.
Chitosan is completely indigestible and is, in essence, similar to cellulose, or plant fibre. Just like fibre, but even more powerful, it binds to fat molecules in your bowel and prevents them from being absorbed by your body. Instead, it accompanies them through the bowel where they are eliminated in the stools. Chitosan can bind up to six times its weight in fat. The result is that you absorb less fat and therefore fewer calories, helping you to lose weight.
Take chitosan for a minimum of 12 weeks to get maximum benefit
However, chitosan on its own would not help you lose weight over the long term. But, if you should use it in addition to proper diet and exercise, the results will surprise you. And researchers studying the use of chitosan taken for less than 12 days at a time, have not found any benefits (Int. J. Obesity 2002,26(1):119-1122), and the suggestion is that chitosan should be taken for a minimum of 12 weeks for its effects to become apparent.
Chitosan works in a similar way to the prescription-only drug, Orlistat (Xenical), taken for weight loss. This also blocks fat absorption by the body, and if used in association with diet and exercise, it can help the user lose weight. But, Orlistat has several nasty side effects, including:
- oily and liquid stools
- flatulence and abdominal pain,
- anxiety, tiredness, and even abnormal periods.
The benefits of chitosan go way beyond weight loss!
Exciting new research has highlighted the cholesterol-lowering powers of Chitosan. Conventional cholesterol-lowering drugs have many potential side effects including hair loss, chest pains, itchiness and sleep problems – but chitosan is much gentler. Although not as potent as these traditional drugs, it can gradually lower cholesterol naturally, without these side effects. And with regular cholesterol testing and monitoring by your doctor you may even be able to use chitosan to cut down on your prescription drugs. Side effects of chitosan, such as nausea and abdominal pain, are very rare and mild.
Australian research has found that chitosan supplementation can significantly lower cholesterol levels while on a normal diet. It was also found that it reduces the incidence of thickening of the arteries, leading to a lowered risk of heart disease. However, chitosan cannot do this on its own. To reap the maximum benefits of this fat-binding substance it should be used in association with other healthy lifestyle measures, such as a suitable low-cholesterol diet and regular exercise (Meth. Find. Exp. Cl. Pharm. 1999,21(5):357-361).
Scientists published a paper a few weeks ago reviewing all the available research on chitosan (Arnz 2002,52(1):1-7). They concluded that it can reduce cholesterol by anything between 6% and 42%, and fat absorption by 15-35%. However, these benefits are obvious only when chitosan is used for periods of over 12 weeks, in association with diet and exercise.
Chitosan boosts the effectiveness of insulin too
A very recent experiment showed that chitosan helps prevent diabetes in mice, particularly the form of diabetes that is related to obesity. (Biol. Pharm. Bull. 2002,25(2):188-1192). This experiment showed that chitosan decreases blood sugar, and that the more chitosan is used, the more the blood sugar is lowered. In addition, other studies have found that chitosan balances the actions of the cells that produce insulin, and so makes insulin work more efficiently in reducing blood sugar (J. Biomater. Sci. Polym. 2001,12(11):1243-1252).
An effective skin and soft tissue healer
Chitosan has a chemical structure somewhat similar to that of glucosamine, a well-known natural treatment for arthritis. This means that it behaves the same way as glucosamine with regards to tissue healing.
Chinese researchers have uncovered similar benefits also for chitosan (Zhong Wai 1998,36(6):379-381). For example, it was found that chitosan reduces scar formation following injury and prevents adhesions (when your tissues become fused) after joint damage. Used in the long term, chitosan supplements maintain the health of the ligaments and generally improve mobility of the joints (Zhong Xiu 2000,14(2):80-82).
To use chitosan, take a 250mg capsule 1-3 times a day, with meals. Also take a vitamin C supplement at the same time (1,000mg) as this helps activate the chitin in your bowel. Avoid supplementation with chitosan if you are pregnant or if you are allergic to shellfish.
Chitosan may also reduce the absorption of mineral supplements when these are taken in tablet form, so it is recommended that, if you take mineral supplements, you take them at different times from chitosan. This is a common problem encountered with any type of natural fibre.
The Amazing Properties of Chitosan
In addition to the above, chitosan has other benefits:
- It is used as a bone growth factor, and also in creating artificial bone that can be used to treat fractures
- As a food preservative, it inhibits the growth of bacteria. Studies show that chitosan weakens the outer shell of bacteria such as E.Coli and salmonella, and so it destroys the bacteria causing food poisoning (Int. J. Food Microb. 2001:71(2-3):235-244)
- As a biological component of capsules, it allows the capsule to dissolve easily in the stomach and so it makes drug delivery much more effective
- As a wound dressing, Chitosan helps wounds heal fast and, at the same time helps reduce the likelihood of infection (J. Biomed. Mat. Res. 2002,59:438-449).
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