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Blagojevich Takes Care of Ephedra

May 29, 2003 | Star Newspapers

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich made news last week by signing into legislation the first statewide ban of ephedra in the United States.

Both houses of the Illinois legislature unanimously supported the ban of the dietary supplement, which has been linked to over 100 deaths.

Have you ever taken a product containing ephedrine? This nutritional supplement can be quiet tempting, as it claims to safely help you lose weight and/or improve athletic performance.

Ephedra use has surged in the last decade, primarily because of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994, which allows supplements to be sold as foods, not drugs.

These days, ephedra is being blamed for countless heart attacks, strokes, and over 100 deaths, including that of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler. Bechler's death has been associated with Xenadrine RFA-1, an over the counter diet supplement. Last year, six plaintiffs were awarded $4 million in damages in a verdict against leading ephedra manufacturer Metabolife. Clearly, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has fallen under great pressure to ban this herb and better educate the public on its potential health risks. To arm yourself, read the following information on the effects of ephedra.

You may be wondering what ephedra is. It refers to several related species of herbs that grow in the desert. The prime ingredient is an alkaloid called ephedrine. When ephedrine is chemically synthesized, it turns into pseudephedrine, which is a less potent decongestant found in many over the counter cold/allergy medications that is regulated as a drug.

You are probably curious about how the herb works. Ephedra works like a stimulant in that it stimulates the thyroid gland (that regulates metabolism), elevates blood pressure, constricts blood vessels, raises heart rate and body temperature, and suppresses appetite. One recent study also found it to cause heart palpitations, tremors, insomnia, upper gastrointestinal effects, and psychotic episodes, especially when combined with other stimulants.

In a lot of ways, ephedra imitates the effects of exercise in relation to heat production. It causes the heart to work harder. This spelled out disaster for Steve Bechler, who had a history of heart/liver problems, especially when he further intensified the stress to his body by working out in a rubber suit in the hot Florida sun.

As stated earlier, ephedra use has soared in recent years. While the International Olympic Committee, the NCAA and the NFL have banned it, the herb seems to be commonplace among athletes at all levels, both professional and amateur, from high-school age to college on up. Popularity of ephedra is in part due to the immense marketing efforts that promise weight loss and performance enhancement. Everyone is quick to jump on a product that is going to make losing weight easier or give him or her a competitive edge.

But does it work? Makers of the product are quick to cite studies of people who lose more weight while using it than those who don't. As with most stimulants, the boost in metabolism can lead to an increased caloric burn that results in weight loss. Improved performance claims however, are much weaker, with results demonstrating that athletes only improve their perception of their performance, not the actual results.

More importantly, is it safe? That depends on a number of factors including the amount of ephedra in the supplement, dosage, combinations of other supplements, and your personal health. Persons suffering from heart disease, hypertension, and thyroid disease should never take products containing ephedra. Interestingly, most government officials and scientists agree that it is dangerous enough to be regulated like a drug. Because of the DSHEA ruling, supplements don't have to meet standards for purity, content, and labeling and be proven safe before being introduced to the general public like drugs do.

Consider the fact that recent data from poison control centers revealed that 64 percent of all the negative events from herbal products in the U.S. resulted from ephedra, even though they represent less than 1 percent of sales. Adverse effects may be greatly underestimated because unlike drug manufacturers, supplement makers aren't required to report these occurrences to the FDA.

What's frightening is that kids often think that if a little bit is good for losing weight or improving performance, then more will be better. This, coupled with the fact that it's not being tested for makes it all the more appealing.

When it comes to losing weight and gaining that competitive edge, there's no magic pill. Good old-fashioned hard work and commitment still seems to be the safest, most successful way to go.

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