Q: Will taking gymnema help me stop craving sugar so much?
A: Supplementing with extracts from gymnema, a perennial flowering plant native to India and some part of Africa, probably will not conquer your sweet tooth. While it has a long-storied history of use in ayurvedic medicine for the treatment of asthma, inflammations, snakebites, and diabetes, the reality of gymnema’s ability to stop sugar cravings remains fantasy.
In 1969 gymnema was identified as a compound that could reduce your body's sensing of sweet taste in your mouth. However, if we look a little closer at sugar cravings, the taste of sweetness on your tongue is really only part of the sequence of craving and indulging. I would argue that it isn't even the most important part. [Tweet this!]
Because of dopamine and anticipation. Research and my work with my clients has led me to believe that sugar cravings are less about the sugar itself and more about the anticipation of the sugar and how it makes us feel. This is where dopamine—the “feel good” compound that is released from your body in response to lots of different stimuli (think sex, drugs, and rock and roll)—comes into play. When it comes to anticipation, arguably the most powerful motivator, dopamine is specifically released from part of your brain called the caudate.
Anticipation is arguably the most addictive feeling. You know what I'm talking about: The promise of something is usually better than the thing itself. Think about window-shopping for a second. You don't actually buy anything when truly window-shopping, but it is enjoyable because of the anticipation or idea that you might buy something amazing. For a lot of people, their sweet tooth is more strongly tied to anticipation of the sweet treat than the actual eating of the treat itself.
Let's bring this back to gymnema. Gymnema doesn't do anything for the anticipation of a sugar crazing; it will just potentially dull the sweetness on your tongue after you indulge. This could prove useful in some people, as if the sweet reward of your favorite treat is no longer there time after time, anticipation will wane. How long that would take—if ever—is unknown. (It is important to note that in order to get this sweet dulling effect you’ll need to swish a solution containing gymnema or chew on the leaves of the plant. Swallowing a pill won't work, as you need topical application of gymnema.)
Cravings aside, gymnema might have some efficacy in aiding in blood sugar control via two different mechanisms. Because gymnemic acid, the bioactive compound in gymnema, is similar in structure to glucose, it binds glucose transporters, preventing and/or delaying sugar absorption. It also seems to be able to stimulate the release of insulin, leading to a decrease in blood sugar. While these two factors will help with blood sugar control, it is debatable if the latter will actually aid with fat loss, as it is increasing insulin release and insulin has inhibitory action on liberation of body fat for energy.
Based on its use in clinical trials, gymnema can be used safely in recommended ranges. That being said, despite gymnema being readily available as a dietary supplement, the FDA has not given it generally regarded as safe (GRAS) status.