One of the most frequent questions I'm asked is, "What do you think about thermogenics?" My answer is almost always, "They're nice - but are they worth the cost for you?" I have used thermogenics in the past, but for a very different reason than most people use them. This article will focus on facts about ephedra and explain how I use it!
What Is A Thermogenic?
A thermogenic is a product that increases your metabolism. Of course, many people don't know the term thermogenic, so for marketing, the term is "fat-burner." That sounds more exciting, right? It burns fat! Wow! The king of all "fat-burners" is ephedra. Why is ephedra king? Because it's not only been studied the most (out of anything available without a prescription) but it has been shown on numerous occasions to work!
Unfortunately, it has also come under recent attack by the media, and for this reason, many companies are discontinuing their ephedra-containing products. This does not prevent existing ephedrine-based products from topping the best-seller lists at Bodybuilding.com, however!
People take ephedra for various reasons. Some take it just for the "kick" or the "buzz". This is like taking amphetamines or speed. This mimics the behavior of a drug addict. Many Americans are addicted to a perfectly legal drug - caffeine - for the same reason (that "pick me up" feeling.) What most Americans also believe is that that "buzz" means that fat is being burned. Not necessarily!
Ephedra and caffeine are stimulants. A stimulant affects what is called your sympathetic nervous system. Specifically, in the case of ephedra, the release of epinephrine is stimulated. This can cause a myriad of changes to take place - elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, and can have potentially dangerous side effects.
Out of hundreds of studies done with this product, only a very small percentage shows any adverse effects. Out of an estimated billion plus users of ephedra, only a few thousand adverse effects have been reported, and only a few hundred have been confirmed (of those, many are related to people with pre-existing heart conditions or who abused proper use of the product). Some of these incidents, however, have involved high profile athletes, and therefore ephedra-based products have drawn the media's attention and the general ire of Joe Public.
The product has been used safely and effectively with teenagers as well as adults, in men and women alike. People with pre-existing heart conditions or issues with hypertension could have extremely negative side effects, and everyone should consult with their physician prior to using a potent stimulant or other supplement such as ephedra. For example, my wife has mitrovalve prolapse (MVP) and therefore should never take any ephedra or ephedrine-containing products.
What Is Ephedra?
Ephedra is the scientific name for the plant commonly known as "Ma Huang." Ma Huang and ephedra is the same thing. Ephedra has several ingredients that help it do its work - the "active alkaloids". One of those alkaloids is ephedrine. Another is pseudoephedrine. Yet another is propylamine or norephedrine. When you see that the extract has been "standardized" it means a certain amount of "active" ingredients are available. 234 milligrams standardized to 8% means 234 x 0.08 = almost 19 mg of active ingredient.
The research on ephedra has been mainly performed with a specific ratio. That ratio is 20 mg of active alkaloids to 200 mg of caffeine, or 1:10 active alkaloids to caffeine. This is known as the EC stack, as the caffeine is known to enhance the effects of the ephedra by blocking certain agents that would in turn block the actions ephedrine. This ratio is typically administered 3x per day, every day for a period ranging from 4 weeks up to 6 months in some cases.
Common sources of coffee include Guarana and Kola Nut. Both are natural sources of caffeine. These are often standardized in the same way that active alkaloids of ephedra are. This means that if your product contains 300 mg of Guarana, you are not guaranteed 300 mg of caffeine. The product may be standardized to, say, 22%, which would be 300 x 0.22 = 66mg of caffeine. Keep this in mind when checking out the ratios in the product.
The addition of aspirin also seems to enhance the effects of the stack. Again, the research is very specific. A certain ratio is known to be effective. The ratio of ephedrine + caffeine + aspirin is patented. Only the patented ECA stack will provide the benefits proven by science. Willow bark does not contain a specific ingredient (called an acetyl group) that aspirin contains, and therefore is not an effective substitute.
How Much Do I Take?
Many companies will produce this product without standardizing the extract, so you don't know how much active ingredient there is. Some will provide the inappropriate ratios. Others will add many other ingredients, purporting to "enhance" the effects. Most of these claims are not backed by solid science. If you want the benefit of the product, stick to what the research has proven - the ratio of 20:200 taken 3 times per day. Purchase the product from a reputable company, as lab analysis results indicate the most common problem with these products is an overabundance, rather than lack, of active alkaloids!
Many companies recommend cycling the product. They claim that your body will adapt and the effects will go away. This is not believed to be true by a leading expert on thermogenics, Dr. Daniel Mowrey, Ph. D. Mowrey states that the "perceived" effects due to the stimulation of the central nervous system are adapted to and go away. However, the true "fat-burning" effect takes place at a cellular level and not only continues, but increases after several weeks of continuous use of the product (well after the perceived effects go away).
The safest way to take the product according to Dr. Mowrey is to take it daily for the period of time necessary. This will allow the body to adapt to the negative side effects so that they go away, while the thermogenic effect continues to increase. Dr. Mowrey believes strongly that prolonged use will activate the synthesis of brown adipose tissue (BAT). BAT is a special type of fat cell that gets rid of excess calories by generated heat rather than storing them as fat! It does this through the actions of something known as uncoupling proteins. Most likely, companies know that the perceived buzz will go away after a few days, so the recommendations to cycle are really based on the need to make the consumer feel a steady buzz. This will make them feel the product is working and therefore they will continue to buy and recommend it.
When you analyze the research on ephedra, you'll find that the maximum benefit is probably an additional 150 - 200 calories burned per day, or about 1/3 pound of fat per week. Many products are extremely expensive and last for only a few weeks, so the cost justification isn't there unless you are down to contest prep and have no room to further manipulate your nutrition. Someone who is losing an extreme amount of weight may benefit from this, as will someone who has access to an inexpensive supply, but in general, you can make up those additional 150 - 200 calories per day simply by exercising for an additional few minutes and decreasing portion sizes only very slightly - and that approach is free!
The final item of note with reference to ephedra is the apparent muscle sparing effect. In clinical trials and research studies, people who lost weight and took ephedra products maintained or gained muscle mass, compared to the group that did not take the product, who actually lost muscle mass. For this reason, I take ephedra products when reaching an extremely low level of body fat. I'll take the product for 4 - 6 weeks continuously up to a photo shoot in an effort to spare muscle mass when dieting (not as a fat burner!). Ephedra also may have a mild appetite suppressant effect, which is also useful during periods of extreme dieting.
Choose ephedra products with care. Make sure that you are not paying for extra ingredients and that you are receiving the proper ratio of active alkaloids and caffeine. Always check with your physician prior to taking any ephedra product. When considering this product, remember that, at best, you will lose 1/3 additional pounds of fat per week. As with most supplements, you must have your training and nutrition (your "foundation") set before you will be able to determine any added benefit. Choose wisely, and decide if ephedra works for you!
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