Ephedra: Why All The Fuss?

Ephedra is used by bodybuilders and other athletes, and by those wanting to lose weight/body fat, for two main reasons.

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


    - Ephedra is used by bodybuilders and other athletes, and by those wanting to lose weight/body fat, for two main reasons. First of all it increases their energy and training drive. Secondly, under certain conditions, it increases metabolic rate and the mobilization and oxidation of body fat.

The stimulating, thermogenic and lipolytic effect of ephedrine, multiplied when used along with caffeine, and to a much lesser extent, also aspirin (the ECA stack), makes ephedrine arguably the most popular nutritional supplement in the world, next to vitamins and minerals. And scientific research shows that ephedrine does promote weight and fat loss, especially for obese individuals.

Why Ephedra Has A Bad Rap

Unfortunately for the few that are sensitive to its effects, and those that abuse it, it can have serious adverse effects, including rapid and/or irregular hear beats, tremor, agitation, insomnia, and rarely, seizures and even death. These adverse effects have raised safety concerns and attempts to limit ephedra's availability.

While ephedra is freely sold as a nutritional supplement, there are some sanctions against the use of ephedra. For example, the IOC and most amateur sporting bodies have it on their banned list, mostly because of its potential for increasing performance. The National Football League's has also banned its use as of July 31, 2002. Something that I consider more of a knee jerk reaction than a well thought out policy.

On the other hand, makers of ephedrine products say that the safety concerns are overblown, especially compared to the hundreds of thousands of people who have lost weight, gained strength or otherwise attempted to improve their lifestyle with ephedrine. And they already include warnings on the labels that warn minors and those with conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and pregnancy not to use their product.

But ephedra, (a mixture of ephedrine alkaloids), even though there are no studies that conclusively show that ephedra is dangerous for healthy adults, has been dogged by controversy ever since it went on the market about 15 years ago. Lately the hysteria against ephedrine has taken on ridiculous proportions with comparisons being made between ephedrine and drugs such as methamaphetamine and ecstasy.

While many consumer and advocacy groups feel ephedrine should be controlled by the FDA, classified as a prescription drug or in some cases banned completely, academic researchers are less convinced that a ban is needed. They say that the side effects reported to the FDA and the misuse of ephedrine as a recreational drug, while worrisome, don't scientifically prove that ephedrine is dangerous to the general public.

Even with the polarity of views about the safety of ephedra, there's one thing everyone agrees on - we need more valid scientific studies on the effects and adverse effects of ephedra.

A recently published peer-reviewed study, the most comprehensive clinical trial on the safety and efficacy of ephedra products, does just that. In this randomized, double blind, placebo controlled study (the gold standard for research), a generic ephedra and caffeine combination (90 mg of ephedrine and 192 mg of caffeine per day for six months) were given to 167 mildly to severely overweight subjects. At the end of the study the authors concluded that the long-term use of herbal ephedra/caffeine promoted body weight and body fat reduction and improved blood lipids without significant adverse events.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line here is that scientific research does not support what the FDA and advocacy groups are saying about the serious side effects of using ephedra. That's not to say that ephedra can be abused without consequences. Just that if you follow the suggested directions, it's unlikely you'll run into any problems. On the other hand, if only to discover you're one of the few who are more sensitive to ephedrine than most, you could start off by using a test dose of 5 to 10 mg of ephedrine to see how it affects you before you take more.