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Ephedra

There are many weight loss supplements which advertise themselves as “all natural,” and imply that they are safe.  Consumers must be incredibly careful when they choose weight loss supplements based on claims of being all natural.  “Natural” is not the same as “safe.”  Ephedra is just one example of an all-natural weight loss supplement which proves this point.

What is Ephedra?

Ephedra sinica (Ma Huang in China) is a plant which originates from China and has been used as part of Chinese medicine for upwards of 5000 years.  The plant contains a natural chemical called ephedrine.  Historically, ephedra was used primarily as a treatment for respiratory problems.  Ephedrine causes airways of the lungs to dilate, thus alleviating congestion related to conditions like asthma, cold, or flu.  Synthetic forms of ephedrine, such as pseudoephedrine, are widely used today in cold/flu medicines.

In addition to opening up airways, ephedrine also is a potent stimulant (stimulant weight loss supplements…) and thermogenic (thermogenic supplements: the hottest new weight loss pills) substance. Just like with most other stimulants, ephedra works by acting on neurotransmitters in the brain and inducing the “fight or flight” response.  The fight-or-flight response is essentially your body’s way of dealing with danger – whether perceived (like when you are stuck in traffic) or real (like if you have to flee from an attacker).  To help you deal with the threat, your brain increases your energy levels by burning off calories faster and also suppresses hunger.  When you are burning more calories and eating less, weight loss becomes much easier.   However, taking stimulants on the long term can also severely harm the body.  Potential serious risks of ephedra use include stroke, heart attack, heart arrhythmias, psychosis, hypertension, and seizures.

Why Ephedra was Banned

Because of the many risks associated with ephedra, the FDA banned all products containing ephedra in 2004.  This was largely prompted by the death of Steve Bechler, a pitcher with the Baltimore Orioles, who died due to heatstroke linked to ephedra use.  Other countries have also banned ephedra though the legal status of the supplement varies depending on location.

Even if ephedra is legal in your place of residence, it probably still isn’t a good idea to use the supplement for weight loss.  Ephedra has not proven effective for long-term weight loss.  Just like with other stimulant weight loss supplements, ephedra can cause withdrawal effects like hunger and reduced metabolism. When you stop taking an ephedra supplement, it is likely you will just gain back any lost weight and possibly more.  Since ephedra is also potentially very dangerous, it should not be used for weight loss.

What are Ephedra Replacements?

When ephedra was banned, many supplement makers took advantage of the gap in the weight-loss market and began selling ephedra “replacements” or “alternatives.”  It is important to understand that there is no one specific ephedra “replacement.”  Each of the weight loss supplements advertising themselves as such contain different ingredients, which may or may not help weight loss.  In many cases, the ephedra replacements are simply a different type of stimulant, such as caffeine.  Just because a stimulant is still legal, it does not necessarily mean it is much safer than ephedra.

One ingredient that dieters should be wary of is “geranium oil” or “geranium extract.”  These are often found in products advertising themselves as ephedra alternatives.  While geranium oil  may sound harmless enough, it is actually a chemical compound called 1.3- dimethylpentylamine which is made in a lab from the geranium oil.  This compound has the same risks as ephedra.  Its legal status is controversial and some countries have made efforts to regulate or ban it.

References:

Greenway, FL, MD. “The safety and efficacy of pharmaceutical and herbal caffeine and ephedrine use as a weight loss agent.” Obesity Reviews, 2.3 (2001): 199-211.

Murray, Michelle W. “Ephedra Overview: Potential Dangers of a Widely Used Supplement.” UMM.edu. University of Maryland Medical Center. 28 April 2010. Web.

Starling, Shane. “Synthetic geranium substance raises ephedra-like red flags.” Nutraingredients-usa.com. Nutra Ingredients USA. 11 May 2010. Web.

“Ephedra.” UMM.edu. University of Maryland Medical Center. nd. Web.

DISCLAIMER

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