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
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
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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