What is Ephedra?

Ephedra, also known as ma huang, is a naturally occurring substance found in plants. Its principal active ingredient is ephedrine, an amphetamine-like compound that has strong stimulant effects on the nervous system and heart, and which can increase both the heart rate and blood pressure. Synthetic ephedrine is available as a component of various over-the-counter and some prescription medications for treating nasal congestion, asthma and allergies. It is also used in cough and cold products and as a dietary supplement for the purpose of weight loss, body building or to enhance sports performance and energy.

What are the Side Effects?

There may be common side effects such as headache, irritability and stomach upset. However, if any severe side effects occur, such as those listed, seek medical attention immediately:

 fast or irregular heartbeat
severe allergic reaction (rash, hives, difficulty breathing, chest tightness, swelling of the face, lips or face)
 severe headache
 chest pain
 nervousness, agitation, hostility or personality changes
 loss of consciousness
 numbness in an arm or leg
 slurred speech or confusion
 thoughts of suicide

What are the Serious Risks?

Ephedra (ma huang) has been reported to cause potentially fatal side effects. These include stroke, heart attack, irregular heartbeats, sudden death, seizures and severe mental disorders. Ephedra has been linked to over 100 deaths, including the February 2003 death of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Belcher, who was just 23 years old.

What are the Warnings for Ephedra?
It is not recommended for use by people with disorders including heart disease, angina, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, lung disease, eating disorders, mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, mania, bipolar disorder or psychosis, kidney or liver disease, prostate problems, or hyperthyroidism.

The FDA determined that supplements containing ephedrine alkaloids were shown to pose a real health risk. Based upon their investigation, on April 12, 2004, the FDA rule prohibiting the sale of dietary supplements containing ephedrine alkaloids went into effect.

On August 21, 2006, the FDA again confirmed that no dosage of a dietary supplement containing ephedrine alkaloids was safe and the sale of these products in the United States is still illegal and subject to FDA enforcement.

James R. Keller
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