Garcinia Cambogia: Safe for Weight Loss? Or Hyped and Dangerous?
Most people are drawn to the idea of using garcinia cambogia because of the potential that it can provide near-effortless, quick weight loss without the need to change someone’s overall diet or lifestyle very much. But do garcinia pills really work?
Just like most other weight-loss supplements, pills and products, studies regarding garcinia cambogia’s effects and safety have been mixed. While there’s some evidence that a compound in garcinia cambogia called hydroxycitric acid might be able to aid in weight loss, even when someone does not exercise often or change his or her diet very much, there’s also concerns regarding garcinia side effects that can occur — including liver damage or failure, anxiety, fatigue, dizziness, and digestive problems.
What Is Garcinia Cambogia?
Garcinia cambogia comes from a small, pumpkin-shaped fruit (also called garcinia gummi-gutta) that grows in Southeast Asia and India. Garcinia is a large genus in the Clusiaceae plant family which includes over 300 species of trees and shrubs. The key active ingredient found in the rind of garcinia cambogia fruit is hydroxycitric acid (HCA), which some research suggests can help certain people lose weight. Numerous other chemicals have also been isolated from G. cambogia fruit.
Hydroxycitric acid is a derivative of citric acid, which is also found in certain other citrus and tropical fruits. The promise of HCA working for fat loss is mostly based on animal studies that show it has multiple sites of action, primarily in the liver and brain. Hydroxycitric acid is an inhibitor of citrate-cleavage enzymes (ATP-citrate lyase). In other words, some studies have demonstrated that HCA can reduce the conversion of carbohydrates into stored fat by inhibiting certain enzyme processes. Others suggest that HCA suppresses appetite.
Garcinia cambogia itself is not a new product; in fact, it’s been consumed in parts of Asia for many years, although not for the purpose of losing weight. Since garcinia cambogia (traditionally also known as the Malabar tamarind) first began to gain popularity in the U.S. several years ago — after appearing frequently in the media and on popular health-related TV shows — sales have gone up dramatically. More and more people are purchasing this so-called “weight loss miracle drug” in hopes of losing stubborn body and stomach fat they’ve been struggling with for years.
So is garcinia cambogia ultimately worth trying? What’s the truth with this purported weight-loss supplement? It’s important to keep in mind that that just because garcinia cambogia is derived from a natural fruit doesn’t mean it’s always completely safe. Below we’ll take a look at how HCA works, in what situations garcinia cambogia might be helpful, and what adverse reactions are possible.
Related: Does Chitosan Work for Weight Loss or Is It All Hype?
Is It Safe for Weight Loss?
Is Garcinia safe to take? What are the side effects of garcinia that can potentially occur? According to the National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Medicine, “Cases of liver damage associated with the use of garcinia cambogia products have been reported. This problem appears to be uncommon, but some cases were severe.”
While some people claim they don’t experience any side effects at all from using garcinia cambogia, others have had very different experiences. It can easily be overused and is not very well-regulated. Some manufacturers recommend taking high doses multiple times per day, for example 30 to 60 minutes before every meal, for eight to 12 weeks straight, which can wind up causing toxicity.
The potential for serious liver problems among some people who take high doses of garcinia remains biggest the concern with this product, yet it’s unclear if garcinia is the actual cause of liver problems, or if liver damage may be due to other lifestyle choices, too. Additionally, evidence points to the fact that garcinia cambogia may worsen liver damage in people who already have liver issues.
Potential Health Benefits
Garcinia cambogia reviews, research results and weight loss testimonials have been mixed to say the least. By far the most well-publicized benefit of using garcinia cambogia is its ability to increase weight loss, mostly do to how hydroxycitric acid found in garcinia cambogia works.
According to a 2016 abstract published in Nutraceuticals, Garcinia has also demonstrated anti-inflammatory, antiulcerogenic, antioxidant, hepatoprotection, cytotoxic and antidiabetic effects in experimental studies. Studies of various parts of the garcinia cambogia plant have revealed the presence of beneficial compounds like xanthones, benzophenones, organic acids and amino acids.
Claims that are commonly made about garcinia cambogia benefits include:
- loss of appetite or less of a desire to eat than usual
- reduced cravings for unhealthy foods, such as sugar addiction
- a more positive mood (including feeling happier, more energetic and less tired)
- increased energy and concentration
- stabilized blood sugar levels
- improved bowel movements
- reduced joint pains
- improved cholesterol levels
- stronger desire to be physically active
- treating constipation, hemorrhoids, and intestinal parasites
While most of the weight loss claims above about hydroxycitric acid found in garcinia cambogia have not been backed by scientific studies involving humans, some have. Let’s review the garcinia cambogia benefits that actually have some merit and seem to be effective in some manner.
1. Weight Loss
Some studies have found that garcinia cambogia might, in fact, be able to help with low amounts of fat loss, plus some of the other health concerns mentioned above, although its effectiveness is rarely strong or consistent. For example, research suggests that HCA works by blocking a certain enzyme called adenosine triphosphate-citrate-lyase, which contributes to the formation of fat cells. But studies comparing garcinia cambogia’s effects to controls have found that it might only increase weight loss by a mere one to two pounds on average.
These findings are exactly what researchers published in the Journal of Obesity in 2011. When they compared people who took garcinia cambogia extract to those who didn’t, the weight difference was very small (on average just about two pounds). Plus, it wasn’t even possible to conclude that garcinia cambogia was directly responsible for the additional pounds lost.
The meta-analysis reviewed results from 12 different trials involving garcinia cambogia and revealed a small, statistically significant difference in weight loss favoring use of garcinia cambogia products containing HCA slightly over use of a placebo. However, the analysis also found that some studies showed digestive side effects (“gastrointestinal adverse events”) were twice as common in HCA groups compared with placebo.
A study that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that garcinia cambogia used for 12 weeks (1,500 milligrams dosage) “failed to produce significant weight loss and fat mass loss beyond that observed with placebo.”
The conclusion of the meta-analysis regarding garcinia cambogia? Researchers summed up their findings by saying that “the magnitude of the effects are small, and the clinical relevance is uncertain. Future trials should be more rigorous and better reported.”
In addition, the National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Medicine concluded that a “2020 review of 11 short-term studies in people did not find significant effects of garcinia cambogia products on weight loss.”
The bottom line is that if you’re struggling to lose weight, garcinia cambogia likely won’t be the answer, according to trial and controlled studies.
But what about boosting the effectiveness of garcinia cambogia by combining it with high-quality apple cider vinegar for weight loss or appetite reduction? While apple cider vinegar is considered overall very safe to consume, there has been virtually no formal research done that has focused on using garcinia cambogia and apple cider vinegar simultaneously. Apple cider vinegar appears to be safe when taken in amounts of about 1–2 tablespoons per day, diluted with water. However, taking higher amounts may lead to side effects like indigestion, stomach ache/burning, throat irritation, and erosion of tooth enamel.
2. Lowering Appetite
Studies have also suggested that it’s possible that HCA found in garcinia cambogia can help lower appetite by increasing production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is associated with calm and happy feelings — and therefore, sometimes appetite suppression, less cravings and reduced desire for comfort foods. Animal studies show it might also help increase energy expenditure.
Keep in mind, however, that this isn’t the case with all people, and there are other, potentially less risky ways to better manage your appetite and boost serotonin production (such as eating balanced meals with protein foods and healthy carbs at regular times throughout the day).
3. Lower Cholesterol
There’s some support for garcinia cambogia being able to improve cholesterol levels and lower high triglycerides. It might also be able to help raise HDL “good” cholesterol. It’s not safe for anyone already taking medications that affect cholesterol, however, and its effects don’t seem to be very reliable or strong.
A 2009 study published in the journal Phytotherapy Research found that garcinia cambogia has “no significant effect on anthropometric parameters, REE, triglycerides or glucose levels” but might have a small effect on lowering cholesterol. However, there are also plenty of other natural ways to improve cholesterol levels, including exercising and eating more dietary fiber from high-fiber foods like veggies, nuts, seeds and beans.
4. Stabilized Blood Sugar
Finally, what about CG’s effects on blood sugar levels? Some evidence exists showing that garcinia cambogia can help control blood sugar by improving how cells take up glucose (sugar) to be used for energy. One way in which it might improve weight loss is through inhibition of pancreatic alpha amylase enzymes, changes in intestinal alpha glucosidase and alterations in fatty acid synthesis. This might be able to change how carbohydrates are metabolized.
This might possibly help your body respond to insulin better, although it can raise the risk for having low blood sugar levels in some people, too. If you have a history of blood sugar swings, you’re prediabetic, diabetic or taking medications that alter insulin’s effects, garcinia cambogia might make your blood sugar drop dangerously low. While this doesn’t appear to happen in everyone who takes garcinia cambogia, it’s something else to consider and something to discuss with your health care professional.
Products and Dosage Considerations
Several different garcinia cambogia products exist:
- Garcinia cambogia extract
- Garcinia cambogia tea
- Garcinia cambogia capsules/tablets
- Garcinia cambogia topical lotions
Because supplements like garcinia cambogia are not regulated by the FDA, it can be difficult to know exactly what you’re purchasing and taking. To err on the safe side, avoid buying garcinia cambogia “formulas” or “supplement blends,” which might fail to report all of the other ingredients included or accurate levels of HCA. Many proprietary formulas are made by manufacturers that only use a fraction of the active ingredient or standard dose to keep costs down.
For example, in 2013 ConsumerLab.com tested the quality and safety of 13 of the most popular garcinia cambogia supplements and found that seven of those supplements contained far less hydroxycitric acid than was listed on the bottle. Always read labels and look for the words “pure garcinia cambogia extract” and “hydroxycitric acid (or HCA) extract” (this should be around 50 percent to 60 percent of the product). If you purchase a blend and see an ingredient listed without an amount, that can be a red flag that you don’t know exactly what you’re getting.
If you decide that you still want to try taking garcinia cambogia for weight loss or its other benefits, here’s what you need to know about dosage recommendations for products containing HCA:
- Studies using garcinia cambogia have used a wide range of doses, anywhere from one gram to 2.8 grams daily. Typical doses are usually between 250–1,000 milligrams per day. Up to 2,800 mg of garcinia cambogia per day seems to be safe for most adults.
- Study durations have also varied widely, ranging from using garcinia cambogia between two to 12 weeks at a time.
- The optimal dose of HCA is currently still unknown. It’s not clear if a higher HCA dosage even means a higher bioavailability of HCA once consumed.
- There does seem to be a significant correlation between the dosage of HCA and body weight loss, meaning higher doses have slightly more effects.
- Garcinia cambogia continues to be the most widely used supplement in studies for providing HCA, however aside from garcinia cambogia, HCA can also be found in supplements made from the plant Hibiscus subdariffa.
- Because most studies have investigated the effects of garcinia cambogia taken for about eight weeks, researchers believe this is ultimately “too short a time to assess the effects of HCA on body weight.”
As noted above, potential liver damage is the most troubling side effect. A 2021 study revealed that garcinia cambogia is often combined with green tea for certain weight loss supplements and this combination can cause mild to severe liver injury.
Other garcinia cambogia side effects that can potentially occur include:
- becoming fuzzy or weak
- fatigue and brain fog
- skin rashes
- an increase in catching colds/lower immune function
- dry mouth and bad breath
- digestive issues like nausea, trouble eating or diarrhea
Something else to consider about garcinia cambogia is the long list of its potential medical/drug interactions. Many people should avoid garcinia cambogia due to how it can affect other medications, pregnancy, nutrient levels, blood sugar and more. Garcinia cambogia can potentially interact badly with:
- pregnancy and breastfeeding
- existing cases of liver or kidney damage
- medications that are taken to control asthma and allergies
- diabetes medications and insulin
- iron supplements (usually taken by people with anemia)
- pain medications
- medications used to control mental disorders like anxiety and depression
- statin drugs that lower cholesterol
- blood thinning drugs (like warfarin)