The Potential Of Viagra To Become A Diet Pill In The Future
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The Potential Of Viagra To Become A Diet Pill In The Future

Every once in awhile there appears a new “magic” way to lose weight, whether this be through some complicated diet plan focusing on carbohydrate intake or in the form of a weight loss supplement.

keep calm and have a viagraIn terms of diet plans, there are numerous examples such as the infamous Atkins Diet, the traditional Weight Watcher groups and the newly developing healthy meal delivery services such as DietChef. Weight loss supplements have become a booming industry with approximately $20 billion being spent on research alone between 1990 and 2000 (Atkinson, 2002). Within the last ten years or so these weight loss supplements/pills have typically been of Asian origin as the interest in and demand for herbal remedies, has increased dramatically. An example of which is Ephedra which is produced by a Chinese plant of the same name. The supplement was used by both members of the public and athletes as it was discovered that it aided weight loss through an increase in metabolic rate whereby raising the internal temperature of the body and allowing more calories to be used. However, in 2004 it was banned by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after a series of deaths linked to known Ephedra usage. Such an example highlights the need for careful and thorough research before somebody commits to taking a diet supplement, even though these should only be considered as a last resort.

The newest supplement to receive the “magic weight loss” treatment is much closer to home and may be quite familiar to some. The drug Sildenafil, more commonly known as Viagra, has been the subject of recent research investigating the role it may play in aiding weight loss. Traditionally, Viagra has a number of uses ranging from the commonly known treatment of erectile dysfunction to more recent uses in treating altitude sickness. Additionally, the drug has also been proven to be useful in patients with depression although there are more effective medications that can be prescribed. Viagra has become so embedded in popular culture that drug abusers often take the pill along with their drug if choice in an attempt to alleviate the symptoms associated with their recreational habit. In terms of usage with non-humans, Viagra has been found to reduce jet lag in hamsters and increase the shelf life of pre prepared flower arrangements. These effects, although incredibly diverse all rely on the ability of Viagra to increase blood flow and oxygen availability.

How does Viagra work?

Viagra was initially developed with a view to reduce high blood pressure and angina through the onset of vasodilation. The view was that as blood vessels expanded in size more oxygen would be available therefore reducing the stress on the arteries delivering blood into the heart. After numerous clinical trials it was discovered that the beneficial effects of Viagra in treating angina were minimal and that it was more effective in treating erectile dysfunction (Cheitlin et al, 2002).

The drug works by preventing the breakdown of cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP) within the erectile tissues found at the base of the penis/clitoris, cGMP is responsible for relaxing smooth muscle and increasing the amount of blood within the blood vessels. Therefore as levels of cGMP increase, more blood is delivered to the erectile tissues thereby causing an erection.

Why has Viagra become associated with weight loss?

The study that began to draw interest in Viagra as more than a sexual health drug was conducted in 2006 by researchers from John Hopkins University in Baltimore. They began by genetically modifying a sample of mice so that they developed malignant melanoma which is a form of skin cancer which can affect both animals and humans. The researchers discovered that the when the mice were given Viagra, the cancer began to recede. This occurred due to the Viagra boosting the number of T cells available in the immune response to the cancer cells. The majority of cancer is spread through infected cells multiplying at an uncontrollable rate whereby causing tumours to appear. In this case the Viagra enabled the mice to reduce the rate at which the infected cells multiplied, hence reducing the size and number of resultant tumours and allowed the immune system of the mice to bring the cancer under control.

A further study carried out by German researchers at the University of Bonn in 2013 attempted to further investigate the effects of Viagra in mice. It is this study which has received major attention from many major newspapers such as the New York Times (Quenqua, 2013) in America and the Daily Mail (Bates, 2013) in England in relation to weight loss. The mice in this study were generously fed while being exposed to the Viagra drug and the amount of fat (or adipose tissue to give the correct scientific name) was monitored at regular intervals. The results indicated that the mice lost weight due to the Viagra prompting a change in fat tissue from ‘white’ fat tissue into ‘brown’ fat tissue.

There is no fixed percentage of ‘white’ and ‘brown’ fat found within the body, the proportion of each type of fat a person has is purely genetic, the only process that is known for certain is that the amount of ‘white’ fat increases as a person ages while the amount of ‘brown’ fat decreases. There are lifestyle choices, such as lack of exercise and poor diet, which accelerate this process but there is very little evidence to suggest this transition can be reversed. Now it is time for the technical part, that is to say what is the difference between the two types of fat and why is this difference important in terms of weight loss?

Let us begin with ‘white’ tissue first, many of you will have seen programmes which show surgery taking place, the lining of white tissue under the skin that is often visible during such filming is ‘white’ fat tissue. This tissue is commonly found surrounding organs as it acts as a protective barrier and insulator. It is also the reason for the appearance of cellulite. This tissue primarily stores energy and few biological processes happen within it, therefore little heat is produced and few calories are burned in this state (Trayhurn and Beattie, 2001).

The ‘brown’ tissue is the type scientists are particularly interested in; this is primarily because it contains vast numbers of mitochondria. The mitochondria are responsible for producing energy in the form of ATP (Adenosine Tri-Phosphate) and in order for this to happen a number of biological processes need to occur. The number and rapid pace of these processes mean that extra calories are recruited whereby increasing internal body temperature; this effect mimics the response to exercise (Cannon and Nedergaard, 2004).

In the German study, it was found that the exposure to Viagra prompted the conversion of ‘white’ fat cells into ‘brown’ fat cells; hence the mice used more calories and therefore were able to lose/maintain weight while being fed a high calorie diet. This instance of directly developing ‘brown’ fat cells is a recent development and the exact causes are not yet fully understood.

How could this affect me?

The human body typically stores the majority of ‘white’ fat cells in two main areas. If you are a man then the chances are your fat will be stored around the waist and stomach areas. If you are a woman then you will typically find that fat is deposited largely in the hip area. There is no concrete evidence to explain this, it is often claimed that early human hunters were exclusively male and used the fat a means to defend them from thorny foliage and attacks from predators. On the other hand, women tended to stay at camp in order to look after the children, therefore fat distribution around the hips would protect the unborn child.

As Viagra has the potential to turn ‘white’ fat into ‘brown fat’, then the fat in the areas described above would reduce and therefore people would be closer to gaining the bodies they desired. In other words, the ‘spare tire’ or ‘muffin top’ etcetera could be a thing of the past. It is therefore understandable, that some members of the public will feel this is the diet pill that they have been looking for.

Should I consider taking Viagra in order to lose weight?

The answer to this question is no, it would actually be a very risky strategy. Taking excessive dosages of Viagra has been scientifically proven to cause both temporary and permanent loss of vision, strokes and permanent erections. Although the last side effect may sound comical at first, irreversible damage can be caused resulting in a very serious condition.

The second point to consider is that the experiment was conducted on mice, while both mice and humans are mammals this does not mean that they react the same way to medication. Until multiple experiments are replicated with human subjects, the effects of taking Viagra will not be conclusive.

The third and final point is as follows, Viagra as it commonly appears on pharmacy shelves is not developed with weight loss in mind. Therefore it would be impossible to get a prescription with this goal in mind. It will be many years before the Viagra that we know today can be converted into a substance that is safe and developed with the focus to aid weight loss.

The bottom line

Viagra in its current form is unsuitable to use in aiding weight loss, if it is offered to you in a local gym or a friend has read the rumours and wants to try it for themselves then they should be immediately discouraged. While within scientific circles the drug does show some promise on a cellular level, it will be many years before it is safe to be sold to the public.

References

Atkinson, T (2002) “Lifestyle Drug Market Booming”, Nature and Medicine, Volume 8, Issue 909

Bates, C (2013) Viagra helps men fight the flab as well as boost their sex life. Daily Mail Online, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2264362/Viagra-help-men-fight-flab-boost-sex-life.html

Cannon, B., & Nedergaard, J. (2004). Brown adipose tissue: function and physiological significance. Physiological reviews, 84(1), 277-359. (http://physrev.physiology.org/content/84/1/277.short)

Cheitlin, M. D., Hutter, A. M., Brindis, R. G., Ganz, P., Kaul, S., Russell, R. O., … & Wolk, M. J. (1999). Use of sildenafil (Viagra) in patients with cardiovascular disease. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 33(1), 273-282. (http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/99/1/168.full)

Quenqua, D (2013) Viagra as Diet Pill? One Day, Perhaps. New York Times Online, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/29/science/viagra-as-diet-pill.html?_r=0

Trayhurn, P., & Beattie, J. H. (2001, August). Physiological role of adipose tissue: white adipose tissue as an endocrine and secretory organ. In PROCEEDINGS-NUTRITION SOCIETY OF LONDON (Vol. 60, No. 3, pp. 329-339). CABI Publishing; 1999. (http://journals.cambridge.org/download.php?file=%2FPNS%2FPNS60_03%2FS0029665101000362a.pdf&code=5ff30249c2b5e6365eecd461067b11c3)

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