Stifle Hunger with Hoodia

Introducing Hoodia, a Botanical Treasure from Africa

Stifle Hunger with Hoodia
A potent appetite suppressant comes to us from a Stone Age people in a remote desert
By Will Block

Hoodia gordonii
oodia trust when it comes to healthcare issues? Doctors? Lawyers? Pharmaceutical company executives? Patent examiners? Take your pick—they all have their pros and cons (and they’re all involved in this story). In addition to being fallible, most people and organizations have axes to grind, so caveat emptor. Here and there throughout the world, though, are remnants of aboriginal peoples who, since time immemorial, lived lives so simple and elemental, and so interdependent on one another for survival, that there was no place for duplicity or deception. These were people who didn’t grind any axes except … axes.

Take, for example, the fabled Bushmen of the Kalahari—nomadic hunter-gatherers whose ancestral home is one of the earth’s most inhospitable regions: an immense high-desert plateau (primarily parched grassland) where there is no surface water at all for most of each year. Although hardly any of them still live in the traditional manner (see the sidebar “The Bushmen of the Kalahari”), there are still many Bushmen who remember the old ways.

The Bushmen of the Kalahari

If you saw the charming and funny movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, (there was also a TGMBC II), you surely recall N!xau, the Kalahari Bushman who starred in it. He was a small, wiry man, a man of few words (accented by the odd clicking sounds characteristic of his native tongue, Khoisan), but a man so endearing for his honesty, generosity, and kindness that one wishes everyone could be like him—the world would surely be a better place.

He was a member of a Stone Age culture of nomadic hunter-gatherers called the San—the name comes from their word sa, meaning “to pick up from the ground.” The San (Bushmen) have lived in and near the Kalahari Desert, in what is now South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Angola, for at least 27,000 years (based on the oldest known rock paintings in that region), and perhaps much longer than that. These diminutive but extremely tough people followed a lifestyle that changed hardly at all over that vast expanse of time, until white settlers arrived in the mid-seventeenth century and began persecuting them. The San became human prey, and for two centuries they were hunted and slaughtered like animals. Later, under apartheid in the twentieth century, they were robbed of their ancestral lands and enslaved.

Now, like the Australian Aborigines and the American Indians, the African San have a tiny fragment of their lands back again, but they are no longer the same people they once were. With Coca-Cola bottles falling from the sky (remember the movie?), and with other artifacts of civilization having forever altered their lives, their once pristine environment is changed. Most of them live in welfare dependency on the fringes of the Kalahari, plagued by alcoholism and marijuana abuse. Hardly any of them follow the traditional ways any more, and their peculiar language is almost dead. What a pity.

But there is yet hope for the San, in the form of a financial bonanza that might be coming their way. For that story, see the other sidebar, “A Tale of Biopiracy and Redemption.”

Their phenomenal skill at tracking prey and finding and exploiting the scarcest of resources, allowing no morsel of food or precious bit of moisture to go undetected or wasted, gave them an ability to survive and even flourish where others would quickly perish. When the men went on a hunt—naked save for a loincloth and their bow and poisoned arrows—it could take long days of walking and running before they captured their prey. During that time, typically, they would eat almost nothing.

Why the Bushmen Depended on Hoodia

One thing they did eat (sparingly) during these ordeals, however, was a bitter-tasting plant they called xhoba, which served both to suppress their appetite—thus stifling their fierce hunger pangs—and to give them the energy they needed to push on. Scientists know this plant by its botanical name, Hoodia gordonii.* It’s a spiny, perennial succulent that looks like a cactus and is often called a cactus but is not a cactus (there are no native cacti in Africa)—in fact, it’s a member of the milkweed family, Asclepiadaceae. Found throughout southern Africa, its branching stems can grow to 2 1/2 feet tall (the oft-cited figure of 6 feet is a myth), and it has yellow to brownish flowers that attract pollinating insects with their foul odor.

*There are about 20 other species in the genus Hoodia, but whenever we use the term Hoodia alone, it should be understood that we mean Hoodia gordonii.

While on the hunt, the Bushmen cut cucumber-sized chunks of Hoodia and chewed on the pulpy flesh for its moisture and for its desired effects on their appetite and energy. In a recent New York Times article, a Bushman tracker named Jan van der Westhuitzen (hardly a traditional Bushman name!) was quoted as saying that Hoodia, in addition to staving off their hunger, would give them enough energy to walk all day or make love all night, and it cured a hangover or settled an upset stomach.1

Obesity Is Pandemic in the West

It is Hoodia’s powerful appetite-suppressing effect that has aroused the most interest in the Western world, because obesity is pandemic. It’s our fastest-growing medical problem, afflicting at least one in four adults. This accounts for the booming rate of type 2 diabetes, which is caused primarily by obesity.* Among the other consequences of obesity are substantially increased risks for hypertension, atherosclerosis, heart disease, and osteoarthritis. It has been said that, on a statistical basis, it will soon be more dangerous to be overweight than to be a smoker. One could hardly imagine a more powerful indictment of the severity of this public health problem!

*To read about one of the devastating consequences of this problem, see “Avoiding Diabetes Can Help You Avoid Alzheimer’s” on page 21 of this issue.

Aside from the relatively rare cases of obesity due to genetic factors, there are two major causes of this dangerous condition: overeating and inactivity. The best remedy, naturally, is a healthy lifestyle consisting of good diet (with controlled caloric intake) and regular exercise—but drugs or nutritional supplements can also play a valuable role in weight control. A common problem with prescription drugs for this purpose is their stimulant (nerve-jangling) effects, and they have other undesirable side effects as well. Thus, an appetite-suppressing supplement that is free of these effects would be welcome indeed.

Hoodia May Be a Key to Weight Loss

It appears that Hoodia may fill that bill, according to information found in the patents that have recently been granted for its use. Patents typically contain much technical information—including, in this case, favorable data from animal trials with Hoodia as an appetite suppressant. One must be aware, though, that such information tends to be biased and does not meet the standards required of papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals—and so far there are no scientific papers that deal with the use of Hoodia by humans. Journalists have written a number of favorable stories about Hoodia, and some of them seem credible, but it’s wise to remember that such stories are usually based mainly on manufacturers’ press releases, so they’re usually biased and often error-ridden.

So where does that leave us? The fundamental premise of Life Enhancement is that the information we provide derives from credible information published in the scientific literature—not from manufacturers’ often questionable claims or from journalists’ parroting (and distorting) of them. Based on what we have seen thus far, it seems likely that scientific confirmation of the benefits of Hoodia will be forthcoming. While we eagerly await such confirmation, however, we note that there is one source of information—a most improbable one where matters of science are concerned—that appears to be highly credible: the Bushmen themselves.

Hoodia Used by Many Thousands of Generations

There is no reason to doubt the honesty of the Bushmen, so what they say about their use of Hoodia is undoubtedly true. Furthermore, their long history of use of Hoodia speaks for itself. Although no one can prove it, it’s likely that they used Hoodia for most or all of the 27,000-plus years they lived in the Kalahari. That’s an impressive testimonial to its value!

But to amplify on the Bushmen’s testimony, let’s see what the patents claim—because they’re probably reasonable indicators of what independent scientific research will eventually show. The basic United States patent was issued in 2002 to South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which did the original research on Hoodia after the discovery, in 1937, of its use by the Bushmen (see the sidebar “A Tale of Biopiracy and Redemption”).2 The patent is based on the claimed appetite-suppressing properties of extracts of five plants indigenous to southern Africa: three species of Hoodia and two species of another genus in the same family, called Trichocaulon. Of these five species, Hoodia gordonii is the one of principal interest to doctors and scientists because it’s the one favored by the Bushmen.

A Tale of Biopiracy and Redemption

Research on the pharmacological properties of Hoodia gordonii, centering on the P57 molecule, has been ongoing for the past 30 years at South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). In 1997 the CSIR signed a licensing agreement for its patents with Phytopharm, a small British pharmaceutical company that specializes in bringing ethnobotanical discoveries to market. The following year, Phytopharm sold the rights to an exclusive global license for P57 to the American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer (the maker of Viagra®, among other drugs). Pfizer reputedly spent about $400 million on the development of P57 as a drug.

In 2003, however, for reasons that are unclear, Pfizer decided to abandon the project, and the license reverted to Phytopharm, which has established Hoodia plantations worldwide to meet the expected demand. Phytopharm is now looking elsewhere for a licensing partner, based not just on P57 but also on numerous semisynthetic analogs of P57 that it has produced in the interim, with six patents to show for its work.1 (Patents, of course, mean great profit potential if these compounds are sold as prescription antiobesity drugs or as ingredients of weight-control snack foods.)

All this transpired with no regard for the people whose traditional knowledge of the benefits of Hoodia had led to these deals in the first place: the San. This episode was a blatant example of biopiracy, the exploitation for profit, by “civilized” society, of the knowledge and natural resources of indigenous peoples through theft of their intellectual property, leaving them out in the cold (or, in this case, the desert heat).

In the case of Hoodia, however, this injustice has been rectified, thanks to the legal efforts of various organizations acting on behalf of the San. In an unusual example of cross-cultural goodwill, an amicable benefit-sharing agreement was reached in 2003 whereby the San (of whom there are about 100,000 left) will be rewarded with 6% of all royalties received by the CSIR, and 8% of the CSIR’s milestone income received when certain targets are reached.2

Although this represents but a tiny slice of the pie (the CSIR’s slice is small to begin with—probably about 10% of Phytopharm’s royalties), that pie could turn out to be huge. The market potential for a safe and effective appetite suppressant could easily be in the billions annually—especially when pharmaceutical companies sell it at inflated prices as a prescription drug. Thus a good deal of money could soon befall the San, who until recently didn’t even know what money was, and would have had no use for it in any case; most of them are still unclear on its purpose and value.

Since time immemorial, the San’s very existence had depended on communal sharing of everything they had—the concept of personal property was unknown to them. How ironic that their perfect form of communism, based on utter selflessness and mutual generosity (hence no need for any government whatever), shares its name with Communism, a grotesque perversion of that ideal that spawned the greatest evil the world has ever known.


  1. Moran N. Phytopharm gets obesity drug back from Pfizer, seeks partner. BioWorld International, Aug. 6, 2003.
  2. Wynberg R. Biodiversity access and benefit-sharing in arid countries and those with low diversity and high endemism. Report prepared for the IUCN–Environmental Law Centre, Pretoria, South Africa, January 2004.

What the five plants apparently have in common is a potent appetite-suppressing chemical compound, a steroidal trisaccharide called 3-O-[-beta-D-thevetopyranosyl-(1—>4)-beta-D-cymaropyranosyl-(1—>4)-beta-D-cymaropyranosyl]-12beta-O-tigloyloxy-14-hydroxy-14beta-pregn-5-en-20-one. That’s rather a mouthful. Fortunately, this remarkable compound has a nickname: it’s called P57 because it was the 57th plant-derived compound investigated for commercial development by the British pharmaceutical company Phytopharm.

After 15 days, the treatment group
had achieved a 30% reduction in
caloric intake and a reduction in
body fat of 1 kg (2.2 lb).

Hoodia’s Message: Stop Eating

In two studies with lean and obese laboratory rats, it has been claimed that homogenates or extracts of several Hoodia species (the researchers failed to identify the species) strongly suppressed the appetite of the obese rats, causing major weight loss, and they moderately suppressed the appetite of the lean rats, causing mild weight loss.3,4 Hoodia also induced a modest drop in the rats’ blood sugar levels. It apparently did not cause any adverse effects.

When Phytopharm conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial (unpublished) with P57, they chose a group of 60 overweight individuals and compared the effects of P57 and placebo on their food intake.5 In this short-term study, twice-daily ingestion of P57 was claimed to have produced a dramatic effect: after 15 days, the P57 group had achieved a 30% reduction in caloric intake and a reduction in body fat of 1 kg (2.2 lb). According to Richard Dixey, the CEO of Phytopharm, it is believed that P57 acts on the brain’s hypothalamus, tricking it into thinking that the person’s stomach is full. The brain’s message to the body is: “You’re not hungry—stop eating.”

Knowledge for Our Time, Direct from the Stone Age

To the lean and supremely fit Bushmen of the Kalahari, whose principal occupation throughout their history was the never-ending search for food (and water), the idea of purposely not eating seems ludicrous. They probably cannot fathom why we are so large and soft, nor why we would want to use Hoodia to help us eat less food, when they used it to help them endure the ordeal of finding desperately needed food.

How ironic that these primitive and now impoverished people are sharing their knowledge of appetite suppression, of all things, for the benefit of us educated and overfed people of the industrialized world, who are staggering under the literally sickening burden of our obesity. If Hoodia proves to be the weight-control phenomenon that many think it will be, we will have the gentle, friendly Bushmen to thank for it.


  1. Thompson G. Bushmen squeeze money from a humble cactus. The New York Times, April 1, 2003.
  2. Van Heerden FR, Vleggaar R, Horak RM, Learmonth RA, Maharaj V, Whittal RD. Pharmaceutical compositions having appetite suppression activity. United States Patent 6,376,657, issued April 23, 2002.
  3. Tulp OL, Harbi NA, Mihalov J, DerMarderosian A. Effect of Hoodia plant on food intake and body weight in lean and obese LA/Ntul//-cp rats. FASEB J 2001 Mar 7;15(4):A404.
  4. Tulp OL, Harbi NA, DerMarderosian A. Effect of Hoodia plant on weight loss in congenic obese LA/Ntul//-cp rats. FASEB J 2002 Mar 20;16(4): A648.
  5. Habeck M. A succulent cure to end obesity. Drug Discovery Today, March 2002, pp 280-1.

Will Block is the publisher and editorial director of Life Enhancement magazine.

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