Hands down one of the most famous and controversial dietary supplements ever brought to market is ephedra. This plant-derived supplement has long been used in Chinese medicine to treat breathing issues such as asthma, but it exploded in popularity back in the 90s when studies and anecdotal reports found that it could promote weight loss and increase energy levels.
Following several medical reports of the supplement’s side effects including an athlete’s death, it wasn’t long before ephedra was effectively banned. But is ephedra really all that dangerous? Let’s take a look at what ephedra is, the role of ephedrine in promoting fat burning, why it was banned, and safer alternatives to ephedra pills.
What is Ephedra?
Native to most of Asia, ephedra sinica, also known as ma huang, has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for years. The two most common ways to take ephedra are through the following means:
Benefits of Ephedra
Setting aside its reputation, let’s discuss the proven benefits of ephedra and the reason it became so popular in the fitness industry and among professional athletes.
Fat Burning:The science is clear in regards to ephedra pills being an effective fat burning supplement. Several studies have shown that ephedra can help you burn more fat by increasing your metabolic rate, which in turn will boost the number of calories you burn. What’s more, ephedra may be able to support the direct process of fat utilization (using fat as fuel) without building up a tolerance. In other words, you won’t need to take more and more ephedra to continue benefiting from its fat burning effects.
Weight Management: While the bulk of weight loss should be focused on a healthy diet and exercise program, a supplement like ephedra can complement your weight loss progress and help you stick to your goal weight. One study found that subjects were able to lose weight and keep it off for up to four months. Admittedly, four months isn’t a long time, but the idea is that ephedra should be taken in cycles of four weeks on, several weeks off. In other words, many people used ephedra as a weight management supplement from time to time.
Energy Levels: A few reports and many anecdotal reviews claim that ephedra is an excellent energy booster, which contributes to its role as a fat burner. After all, the more active you are, the more calories you’ll burn. Ephedra was often used as an energy booster and performance enhancer in athletic circles.
Boosts Benefits of Caffeine: One of the unique effects of ephedra is its relationship with caffeine. Studies show that while both ingredients – ephedra and caffeine – may provide benefits on their own such as energy-boosting and fat burning when they are taken together, that effect is amplified. This is why ephedra and caffeine were once taken with aspirin, forming the popular supplement: ECA stack.
What is Ephedrine?
Ephedra’s beneficial effects come from a compound within the plant called ephedrine. Studies suggest that it is ephedrine that produces the biochemical effects in the body that promote a boost in metabolic rate, energy levels, and fat utilization.
While some supplements still claim to contain ephedra, it’s ephedrine pills that have been effectively banned, but we’ll discuss this more below.
Effectiveness of Ephedrine
Ephedrine has long been thought of as an effective way to burn fat and lose weight. In fact, studies from the 80s were shedding light on its potential as a future form of treatment for obesity.
As we discussed above, the science confirmed the effectiveness of ephedrine long ago for weight loss. Here are a few examples:
Dangers and Side Effects of Ephedrine Pills
If ephedrine was so effective, why did it land in hot water in the early 2000s? Despite helping with fat burning, weight loss, and energy levels, the number of reports of side effects related to ephedrine diet pills steadily and consistently increased. The most reported side effects of ephedra include:
More serious side effects – the ones that landed the supplement in front of the FDA – include the following:
High Blood Pressure: Higher blood pressure is always a risk with stimulants, but with ephedrine, the number of reported hospitalizations was far greater than a normal stimulant such as coffee.
Palpitations or Fast Heart Beat: Continuing with the point above, studies show that users who are sensitive to stimulants tend to experience a faster heart beat and heart palpitations.
Psychiatric Issues: In the same way that people who are sensitive to stimulants tend to report anxiety after drinking coffee, users of ephedrine may experience the same. Mood swings, excitability, and psychosis was also reported.
Seizures: Ephedra is not recommended for anyone who is currently suffering from seizures as studies have found that it can trigger or worsen the condition.
Death: Finally, there have been several deaths that implicate ephedra as a potential direct or indirect cause. The most famous example has been Baltimore Orioles pitcher, Steve Bechler, who died after taking ephedrine.Is Ephedrine Legal to Use?