If I told you that weight loss was simply a matter of turning on a key enzyme in the body that would magically burn fat and turn up our metabolism, would you believe it? Well, scientists may have found this master switch for weight loss in the form of an enzyme called AMP-activated protein kinase or AMPk for short. The activity of this hormone goes a long way in explaining why some people have no problem maintaining their ideal body weight, while others seemingly fight a major battle to lose weight and keep it off.
What is AMPk and Why is it Important?
AMPk is found inside every cell and serves as a “master regulating switch” in energy metabolism. Overall, the activity of this enzyme plays a major role in determining our body fat composition and especially the amount of visceral “belly” fat that we carry. Its activity is also tied to our life expectancy. When we are young, AMPk is more activate, but as we age the cellular AMPk activation decreases leading to visceral fat accumulation and loss of muscle mass.
The good news is that researchers are discovering natural ways to enhance AMPk. Specifically, certain dietary strategies and food components greatly influence AMPk activity in a positive way. Not surprisingly, these natural approaches hold great promise in the goal of near effortless weight loss as a result.
The No. 1 Factor that Influences AMPk Activity
The activity of AMPk is influenced by a great many factors including variety of hormones and dietary factors. That said, the most important influencer of AMPk activity ultimately appears to be the sensitivity of the cell to the hormone insulin. Hence, with insulin resistance there is reduced AMPk activity. So, the first step in improving AMPk is working to improve insulin sensitivity. By doing so, the process results in increasing adiponectin levels and lowering resistin levels which in turn lead to AMPk activation. Simple, right?
Improving Insulin Sensitivity
Improving insulin sensitivity is most successfully done with a combination of lifestyle changes, such as increasing physical activity and improving diet and nutrition, and targeted nutritional supplementation. It is one of the key areas of focus in this program.
Other Recommendations to Activate AMPk
In addition to improving insulin sensitivity, there are a number of very important steps to activate AMPk. Most notable are reducing total calorie intake and regular “vigorous” exercise. It is also interesting that many components of the traditional Mediterranean diet activate AMPk. In particular, olive oil, various plant pigments found in vegetables and fruits, and the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA from fish oil.
There are also lots of natural products that activate AMPk. My best recommendations to start with are alpha-lipoic acid and berberine as both of these compounds have clinical evidence in promoting weight loss.
• Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) is a naturally occurring and necessary biological factor. Although it has some vitamin-like functions, as it can be synthesized in the body, it is not classified as a vitamin. ALA has several unique abilities, including the ability to work as an antioxidant in both water and lipid soluble parts of the cell and cell membrane; the ability to regenerate other antioxidants; and the ability to remain activity once it neutralizes free radicals.
Double-blind clinical trials in humans have demonstrated that ALA improves insulin sensitivity, blood sugar control, cardiovascular health, nerve function and lipid levels, and reduces symptoms of diabetic neuropathy.
Recent studies indicate that ALA may help to boost metabolism, promote the burning of fat as energy, reduce food intake, and therefore, potentially aid in weight loss. In one clinical trial, ALA contributed approximately three pounds of extra weight loss over the course of the 10 weeks.
To enhance the absorption of ALA, it is recommended that it be taken on an empty stomach or two hours after eating as food intake may reduce the bioavailability of ALA.
• Berberine is one of the most exciting natural products in current medical research. It is an alkaloid found in goldenseal root, barberry bark, Oregon grape root and coptis (goldthread) root. What is so exciting about the research is:
1. The results from clinical trials in diabetes, high blood pressure, and elevated blood lipid levels show that it works as well as drugs but without side effects.
2. There is very encouraging experimental data in a wide range of other modern health issues including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.
Results from clinical trials showed quite convincingly that in the treatment of type 2 diabetes mellitus, berberine (500 mg two to three times daily) along with lifestyle intervention lowered the level of fasting blood sugar levels, after-meal blood sugar levels and glycosylated hemoglobin (HbA1c) more than lifestyle intervention alone or placebo. When berberine was compared to oral hypoglycemic drugs used in type 2 diabetes like metformin, glipizide and rosiglitazone, there was no statistical significance between treatment of berberine and these drugs. In other words, the clinical results seen with berberine are on par with the drugs, but with no significant side effects. In one double-blind study of 116 patients with type 2 diabetes berberine at a dosage of 500 mg twice a day lowered fasting blood sugar from just above the range of being classified as diabetes (i.e., 126 mg/dL) to normal blood sugar levels (less than 100 mg/dL) in most subjects.
The same sort of comparative results seen in type 2 diabetes were found in the treatment of elevated blood lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides) and high blood pressure. Studies also supported that berberine combined with conventional drugs in these conditions is safe and can produce better results than the drugs used alone. Side effects with berberine occurred at much lower rates and were milder than prescription drugs. Side effects were seen mainly at higher dosages (e.g., 500 mg three times a day) and included such as nausea, diarrhea, constipation, abdominal distension and abdominal pain.
In regard to its effects on blood lipids not only does it lower total and LDL cholesterol, unlike statins, berberine also lowers blood triglycerides and raises beneficial HDL cholesterol. Berberine has also been shown to lower apolipoprotein B by 13-15 percent, which is a very important risk factor to reduce. It addition to enhancing AMPk, berberine works by inhibiting an enzyme called PCSK9 leading to more LDL being removed from the bloodstream. The typical dosage for berberine in these studies was also 500 mg two to three times daily.
The researchers conducting the meta-analysis concluded that berberine has comparable therapeutic effect on type 2 diabetes, elevated blood lipids and hypertension with no serious side effect or toxicity. Furthermore, the review indicated that berberine combined with conventional drugs in these conditions is safe and can produce better results than the drugs alone.
Berberine has also been examined as a weight-loss aid in two double-blind clinical trials. In a study conducted in 2012 published in Phytomedicine, 500 mg of berberine three times per day caused an average of 5 pounds of weight loss over a 12-week period. In another 2012 study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 37 men and women with metabolic syndrome were given 300 mg of berberine three times per day for three months. The body mass index (BMI) levels dropped from 31.5 to 27.4. There was also an improvement in insulin sensitivity and fat-regulating hormones.
Other Herbal Products to Consider:
• Mulberry leaf extract has been shown to help improve blood sugar control, promote weight loss, prevent and treat type 2 diabetes as well as exerting favorable actions against the metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease. Many of these effects of mulberry leaf extract are due to it positively influencing AMPk activity. The daily dosage is generally equivalent to 3,000 mg of dried mulberry leaves. Extracts are generally used. The dosage for a 10:1 extract is 300 mg daily.
• Green coffee bean extract is rich in chlorogenic acid, a compound that has been shown to improve glucose metabolism, inhibit the accumulation of fat, and decrease the absorption of glucose in the intestines. Roasting coffee beans destroys most of the chlorogenic acid, so drinking a cup of coffee will not yield these benefits. Only raw green coffee beans contain a significant amount of this health-promoting compound. Clinical studies indicate that green coffee bean extract can promote weight loss, as well as reduce blood pressure in people with hypertension. The typical dosage recommendation is 400 mg three times daily.
• Green tea extracts have shown mixed results as a weight-loss aid due likely to poor absorption of the active polyphenols. One method to improve the absorption of these valuable compounds in green tea is by forming a phytosome—an herbal product in which plant compounds are complexed directly with phosphatidylcholine, the chief ingredient of lecithin. In the case of green tea phytosome, a high-quality decaffeinated green tea extract standardized for polyphenols is complexed to phosphatidylcholine. The result is three to five times better absorption. Better absorption means better results. A dosage of 150 mg twice daily has shown very good results.
It is easy to get seduced by marketing claims with any weight-loss aid. It is important to stress that the most important key in improving in promoting weight loss is boosting metabolism and the ability to burn fat by focusing on improving the sensitivity of cells throughout the body to the hormone insulin. This goal is achieved through diet, exercise, and proper supplementation. That said, I am also a firm believer in taking advantage of the health benefits offered by nature including the use of compounds with clinical efficacy in weight loss. VR
Michael T. Murray, ND, is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on natural medicine. He is a graduate, former faculty member and serves on the Board of Regents of Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. The author of more than 30 books on health nutrition, Murray is also director of product development and education for Natural Factors Nutritional Products. For more information, visit www.doctormurray.com.