During the 80s, ephedra became popular outside of traditional Chinese medicine for weight loss and to enhance sports performance. Its popularity continued to grow, and it was found in many nutritional supplements marketed for weight loss and performance enhancement until supplements containing ephedra were banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2006.
The primary active ingredients in ephedra are believed to be the alkaloids ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which are thought to increase heart rate, constrict blood vessels (which increases blood pressure), dilate bronchial tubes (which makes it easier to breathe) and have thermogenic properties (increases body heat and metabolic rate).
A synthetic form of pseudoephedrine is found in over-the-counter decongestants and cold medicines, and synthetic ephedrine is used to treat asthma (but it has largely been replaced by newer medications). Synthetic ephedrine and pseudoephedrine have also been used to make the illicit street drug methamphetamine, as reported by The New York Times.
What is the Current Status of Ephedra in the United States and CanadaDietary supplements containing any amount of ephedra alkaloids have been banned in the United States since 2006.
In Canada, ephedra is authorized by Health Canada for use only as a nasal decongestant. Nutritional supplements with ephedra can't contain stimulants, such as caffeine, that might heighten the effect of the ephedra. Also, they can't exceed 400 mg per dose or 1600 mg per day of ephedra, or 8 mg ephedrine per dose or 32 mg per day of ephedrine. Products with implied or unproven claims for weight loss, appetite suppression, body-building effects or increased energy are not permitted.
Why Do People Use Ephedra
Prior to the ban on ephedra supplements, many dietary supplements marketed for weight loss also contained caffeine-containing herbs, such as green tea, yerba mate and guarana. The ephedra/caffeine combination, however, is now widely believed to heighten the potential health risks and is not recommended.
Ephedra is banned by many sports associations, including the International Olympic Committee, the National Football League (NFL) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
Safety ConcernsSide effects of ephedra may include:
- headache; dizziness
- irritation of the stomach; diarrhea
- anxiety; psychosis
- kidney stones
- dry mouth
- irregular or rapid heart rhythms; heart damage
- high blood pressure
- restlessness; nervousness; sleeping problems
- decreased appetite
- flushing; sweating
- increased urination
The NIH-commissioned study also concluded that ephedra was associated with higher risks of mild to moderate side effects such as heart palpitations, psychiatric and digestive effects, and symptoms of hyperactivity of the autonomic nervous system (tremor, insomnia), especially when combined with caffeine or other stimulants such as kola nut, green tea, guarana or yerba mate.
Many of the side effects of ephedra have been attributed to overdose, abuse and combining it with other stimulants that heighten its effect, such as caffeine. Side effects of ephedra, however, can vary and don't always depend on the dose. Serious adverse effects may also occur in susceptible people at low doses.
The risk of side effects and adverse effects appears to be greater in people with preexisting conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure; heart rate disorders; thyroid disease; hypoglycemia; glaucoma; anxiety; glaucoma; pheochromocytoma; diabetes; kidney disease or kidney stones; mental illness or a history of mental illness; enlarged prostate; cerebral insufficiency and a history of seizures, stroke, or transient ischemic attacks. People with these health conditions should avoid ephedra. People with allergies to ephedra, ephedrine, or pseudoephedrine should also avoid ephedra.
Ephedra is believed to increase the risk of heat stroke, because it increases metabolism and impairs the body's ability to lose heat.
Ephedra shouldn't be taken two weeks before or after surgery. It shouldn't be used by pregnant or nursing women or children. People with anorexia nervosa or bulimia should avoid ephedra because it affects appetite.
Remember, products containing ephedra were banned by the FDA in 2006.
Potential InteractionsBased on known interactions between the active ingredients of ephedra, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, the following medications could theoretically interact with ephedra:
- Aerolate, T-Phyl, and Uniphyl (theophylline) -- a medication used for asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis
- Amphetamines, such as those used for narcolepsy or attention deficit hyperactivity, such as Adderall (dextroamphetamine)
- Antidepressants, particularly monoamine oxidase inhibitors
(MAOIs), such as Marplan (isocarboxazid), Nardil (phenelzine) and
Parnate (tranylcypromine), due to an increased risk of high blood
pressure and stroke; tricyclic antidepressants, such as Elavil
(amitriptyline) and Pamelor (nortriptyline)
- Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid)
- Blood pressure medication
- Diabetes medications, such as insulin, Glucophage (metformin), Diabeta, Glynase, Micronase (glyburide)
- Narcotics, such as codeine
- Pitosin (Oxytocin) or Secale Alkaloid Derivatives
- St. John's Wort
- Stimulants -- Ephedra should not be combined with other substances with a stimulant effect, such as caffeine and Sudafed (pseudoephedrine hydrochloride), as it may have an additive effect. Herbs known to contain caffeine include green tea, kola nut, guarana and yerba mate, while bitter orange is a stimulant.