Traditional Chinese Medicine's Thunder God Vine Could Treat Obesity With New Pill

Traditional Chinese Medicines
Various herbs and ingredients used in traditional Chinese medicine for sale at the Caizhuanyue Market in Yulin, China. The thunder god vine has been used for hundreds of years in traditional Chinese medicine and now may be used in weight loss treatment. JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

A new pill derived from a plant used in traditional Chinese medicine could be a potential treatment for obesity.

Researchers from Germany, Australia, South Africa and the United States found this pill may dampen hunger. Published in the journal Diabetes on August 28, the study found that over time, the new pill could reduce appetite safely.

In the United States, 93.3 million adults, or about 39.8 percent of adults in the U.S., are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obesity can cause various health conditions, such as stroke, heart disease, certain cancers, and type 2 diabetes.

Dr. Paul Pfluger, an author on the study, said in a statement, "breaking through this 'magical barrier' is so important, as it leads to an improvement in metabolism and accompanying metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes."

This new substance, called Celastrol, may provide an option to cut back on the prevalence of obesity, and therefore the diseases it can contribute to. Celastrol is derived from the thunder god vine, which is found in China and Taiwan. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, part of the National Institutes of Health, the plant has been used for hundreds of years in traditional Chinese medicine. Some have suggested that it could be an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. Despite that, the center warns that there can be some side effects from the vine, such as a decreased bone mineral content, infertility, and hair loss, and that the vine can be poisonous if the extract isn't prepared properly.

This study showed in mice, that the thunder god vine derived Celastrol can cause a significant weight reduction as well as an improvement in diabetes. The scientists found that Celastrol activates certain satiety centers in the brain, which help control body weight.

"Celastrol reactivates the body's own mechanisms for controlling weight that would otherwise be switched off in obese individuals," Katrin Pfuhlmann, an author on the study, said in a statement. "Normally those affected lose that feeling of fullness because the respective hormone—leptin—no longer has any effect. Celastrol, the compound we examined, restores leptin sensitivity and thus the sense of satiety."

The scientists observed that on average, the mice lost 10 percent of their body weight in one week. Celastrol doesn't replace other important lifestyle changes, such as eating habits, but it could help patients who are trying to make those changes. The team still needs to observe the effect on humans in clinical trials, but they have high hopes.

"Since the satiety hormone leptin has an almost identical effect in humans and mice, Celastrol has great potential," Dr. Pfluger said. "Relevant clinical trials are currently taking place in the United States, and we eagerly await the initial results."