The Family Health Guide

The dangers of the herb ephedra

Since the death of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler in February of this year, many questions have arisen about the safety of ephedra and the government's role in regulating the herb. Bechler died of heat stroke while taking ephedra, which occurs naturally in the Chinese herb ma huang. The speed-like drug contains the chemical ephedrine, an amphetamine-like compound closely related to adrenaline and found in many nonprescription drugs used to treat mild asthma and upper respiratory symptoms. Athletes and average people alike started taking ephedra when word started spreading about its ability to aid weight loss and increase energy and alertness.

But just because a supplement comes from natural sources doesn't make it safe. Ephedra can cause a quickened heartbeat and elevated blood pressure. Side effects include heart palpitations, nausea, and vomiting. More than 800 dangerous reactions have been reported with use of the herb. These include heart attacks, strokes, seizures, and sudden deaths. According to a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, ephedra products make up only 1% of herbal supplement sales in the U.S., but they are responsible for 62% of herb-related reports to poison-control centers.

The authors of one analysis concluded that supplements containing ephedra and ephedrine trigger modest short-term weight loss (about 2 pounds per month more than placebo). But none of the 52 trials they looked at lasted more than six months, so there is no evidence to support ephedra use for long-term weight loss. And no studies were found that evaluated ephedra use for enhancing athletic performance. Data from 50 trials did show, however, that ephedra and ephedrine are associated with 2- to 3-fold increases in psychiatric symptoms (such as irritability and anxiety), autonomic symptoms (jitteriness, trouble sleeping), upset stomach, and heart palpitations.

The results of this analysis help dash any claims that dietary supplements containing ephedra or ephedrine can help with long-term weight loss or enhance athletic performance. And with such dangerous side effects, people should think twice before popping those pills. In fact, ephedra is banned from the Olympics, college athletics, and by the National Football League. It has also been banned from U.S. military bases worldwide since more than 30 soldiers died while taking ephedra. But in spite of tragedies like Bechler's death, it's not banned from Major League Baseball.

June 2003 Update

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