On February 9, 2004, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a final rule prohibiting the sale of dietary supplements containing ephedrine alkaloids or ephedra. It stated that such supplements present an unreasonable risk of illness or injury. FDA also reiterates its advice that consumers stop using ephedra products immediately.

Two thousand years ago ephedra (under the name Ma huang) was used in Chinese medicine to treat several disorders. Amongst other illnesses, asthma and bronchitis were treated with ephedra. Ephedra comes from a plant that has a few powerful active compounds, of which ephedrine is the most useful.

Ephedra is a shrub-like plant that is found in desert regions in central Asia and other parts of the world. The dried greens of the plant are used medicinally. Ephedra is a stimulant containing the herbal form of ephedrine, an FDA-regulated drug found in many over-the-counter asthma medications.

In the United States, ephedra and ephedrine are sold over-the-counter (OTC) in pharmacies and in health food stores under a variety of brand names. Currently, ephedrine is widely used as a weight loss drug, as an energy booster, and as an athletic performance enhancer. These products often contain other stimulants, such as caffeine, which may have synergistic effects and increase the potential for adverse effects.

Over the past few years, ephedra has gained much more attention for its side-effects: an increased metabolism, plus the thermeogenic and fat-burning qualities that come along with it. This gives the body stimulation and provides energy. Thanks to these qualities, ephedra now has the reputation of being a fat-burner, smartdrug and sports supplement. A reputation that has recently become controversial because of the ban on ephedra products in the United States and the Netherlands.

Studies have suggested that herbal supplements are generally not advised by the established medical community, including continuous warnings from the FDA. The real problem with herbal supplements is not in their effectiveness, but their side effects, which often include drastic increases in blood pressure and heart problems.

Ephedrine alkaloids are amphetamine-like compounds used in OTC and prescription drugs with potentially lethal stimulant effects on the central nervous system and heart. The FDA has received more than 800 reports of adverse effects associated with use of products containing ephedrine alkaloid since 1994. These serious adverse effects, include hypertension (elevated blood pressure), palpitations (rapid heart rate), neuropathy (nerve damage), myopathy (muscle injury), psychosis, stroke, memory loss, heart rate irregularities, insomnia, nervousness, tremors, seizures, heart attacks, and death. The agency has proposed to prohibit the marketing of dietary supplements containing eight milligrams or more of ephedrine alkaloids per serving.

Despite its many potentially harmful side effects, ephedrine is for the most part, dangerous only if abused. Nevertheless, it offers a variety of positive qualities in terms of its beneficial effects on particular aspects of the mind and body. One of its more significant qualities is its potential effect on weight loss.

In short, ephedrine has shown promising signs in terms of its generally positive effects on the human body, especially on the reduction of fat and body weight. But research has also shown that is is virtually impossible to achieve weight loss without a healthy diet and regular exercise. Therefore, it seems that the most logical solution to lose weight must involve the proper combination of diet, exercise, and drug interaction. Ephedrine may hold the key to fill in for the drug portion of the equation, but as with practically all drugs, there are risks involved. Whether ephedrine is too dangerous to be sold in OTC products, is still under debate. Ephedrine does have great potential, yet is it worth the risks?

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