Ephedra: Healthy Supplement Or Health Hazard?

The herbal supplement ephedra (also known by the Chinese name of Ma Huang) has become one of the top news items of recent years. Some in the general public will agree with the decision, others will not.

Note: Ephedra was banned on April 12, 2004 by the federal government.

The herbal supplement ephedra (also known by the Chinese name of Ma Huang) has become one of the top news items of recent years. It has been alleged to have contributed to the death of at least two professional athletes, and is a hot topic for debate on major sports television and radio programs.

The question of whether or not ephedra should be used by athletes merits consideration, although its fate as a nutritional supplement will not hinge on those talk show analysts' opinions, nor on the opinions of the many regular health club denizens who consume bottles containing it. Ultimately the lawmakers will step in and make a decision. Some in the general public will agree with the decision, others will not.


Practice What You Preach

Regardless of personal opinion on the freedom to consume ephedra, or the lack thereof, it is important as fitness professionals to have an understanding of what this supplement is and what it does to the average exercise enthusiast's body that we are training. If the Internet is called upon to provide the complete answer, a lot of people will come away with the wrong information. Knowledge of basic physiology is necessary to be able to provide an educated answer when Mrs. Jones asks about ephedra.

Ephedrine, which is isolated from the Ma Huang shrub, has been used in oriental medicine for many years. It is now chemically synthesized. Ephedrine is an amine, which is the term for an organic substance that contains nitrogen. It exerts effects in the body that are scientifically called sympathomimetic or adrenergic. This is a complicated way of saying that ephedrine acts like adrenaline.

Everyone knows what happens in life when we encounter a stressful situation: the body's blood pressure rises, the heart rate increases, basically the adrenaline kicks in. This is called the body's fight or flight response, and ephedrine supplementation works the same way. Is this a good thing? Is it necessary to add to Mrs. Jones' body? An examination of what ephedrine can do to various body systems can help fitness professionals formulate their own opinions.

Ephedrine can affect the heart and circulatory system if taken orally. It activates receptors on cells in those parts of the body, causing release of adrenaline-like substances that in turn will act to increase blood pressure and heart rate. Ephedrine also stimulates the central nervous system. It is similar to amphetamine, and additionally, caffeine, in this regard. Excitement, increased alertness, and increased breathing can all occur. Ephedrine relaxes the muscles in the airways, making it an ingredient in some decongestant medications. And what about the weight loss effects touted by the supplement manufacturers? There are also receptor cells in the liver and digestive system. Ephedrine can help fat cells that are stored become mobilized into the bloodstream, to be utilized or excreted.

Ephedra does produce physiological effects desired by performance athletes and gym rats alike. Is this supplement directly responsible for the deaths mentioned in the news recently? This would be difficult to prove. For example, ephedrine would produce dangerous effects in someone whose blood pressure or heart rate were already above normal. This individual with the elevated blood pressure might be the deconditioned athlete or couch potato taking ephedra for the fat loss effect.

The average fitness buff, and even the professional athlete for that matter, does not have the understanding of what some of these substances can do to his or her body. The importance of a physician's recommendation before embarking on the journey of supplementation cannot be emphasized enough. Certified fitness trainers can inform their clients what the supplements are and what they do, but should never suggest that they be used. That should be left to the physician, or as it ironically appears to be the case, to the individuals themselves.

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References:

Veterinary Pharmacology and Therapeutics, 6th edition, Booth and McDonald, ed., Iowa State University Press, 1988. Pp 91-107.
Nursing 2001 Drug Handbook, 21st edition, Springhouse Corporation, 2001. p 602-603.
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