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Barbara Burke

Health Options

By Joannie Dobbs & Alan Titchenal

Wednesday, April 12, 2000

Beware dangers
of ephedra

WHEN you think of being young, very likely you think of unlimited energy. Today some youth may seem to have more energy than you remember. It could be because they are using "legal speed." People taking herbal diet products may be using the same thing.

This new and currently legal herbal source of drugs contains substances that are close chemical relatives to amphetamines or speed.

You can find these chemicals in weight loss aids, sports products, herbal uppers and new age beverages. These drugs come from an herb called ephedra, ma huang, Chinese ephedra or epitonin.

Ephedra is a variety of plant species that contain substances called ephedrine alkaloids. These chemicals are like amphetamine compounds in both chemical structure and effects on the body. The major drugs in ephedra are ephedrine along with pseudoephedrine.

Ephedrine is a common drug used for the treatment of asthma. Pseudoephedrine is common in cold medications as a decongestant. The dosage of these compounds in drugs is carefully controlled and indicated on the labels since high doses can cause a variety of serious side-effects.

EPHEDRINE in over-the-counter medications is regulated since its chemical structure is almost identical to methamphetamine or ice. However, when ephedrine is sold in the form of herbal products, there is essentially no regulation. That means substances sold as dietary supplements do not need to be proven safe or effective by those who manufacture or sell them.

Many of the products that contain this herbal speed also include a source of caffeine (usually in unknown dosage) to give it an extra kick. The caffeine sources are found in the form of herbs. Some of these include cola nut (or kola nut), guarana, mate or yerba mate and cocoa. Metabolife, Ripped Fuel, and Escalation are examples of combined products.

Quite a variety of adverse reactions related to ephedra have been reported and documented. Some of these include anxiety, dizziness, increased blood pressure, heart attacks, angina, heart rhythm problems, psychosis, seizures, coma, memory changes, hepatitis, diarrhea, constipation, skin rashes and death. There also are numerous scientific publications world-wide about the addictive nature of ephedrine. And based on data from the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) voluntary reporting system, called the Special Nutritionals Adverse Event Monitoring System, ephedra products were the greatest source of adverse events with more than 675 complaints and 39 deaths reported.

SINCE the vast majority of these herbal products provide no indication of the ephedrine alkaloid dosage, the consumer is taking an unknown dose of what can be a powerful drug. FDA proposed to limit ephedrine alkaloids to 8 mg per recommended dose and 24 mg per day maximum. They also wanted to state on the label the risks of taking ephedrine for more than 7 days.

Congress ruled that FDA didn't provide enough evidence to require limiting dosages or warnings on labels. But then ephedra's real danger is combined with stimulants.

In California, however, one law firm is taking action for consumers who have been injured by ephedra products. They have a Web site at

Health Events

Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S., is a food and nutrition consultant
and owner of Exploring New Concepts, a nutritional consulting firm.
She is also responsible for the nutritional analyses
indicated by an asterisk in this section.

Alan Titchenal, Ph.D., C.N.S., is a sports nutritionist in the
Department of Human Nutrition, Food and Animal Science,
University of Hawaii-Manoa.

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