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Ephedra Deadlier Than Thought: Docs

Feb 5, 2003 | San Francisco Examiner

It has long been believed that those looking to get fit by taking ephedra supplements are putting their lives at risk, but at no time has that been illustrated more clearly than in a newly released study compiled by two San Francisco doctors.

Though ephedra, an herb found in weight-loss and bodybuilding supplements, accounts for less than 1 percent of herbal product sales in the United States, it accounts for 64 percent of all adverse reactions, the doctors said. The reactions include stroke, seizures, heart attack, psychosis and death.

Ephedra, also known by the Chinese name of Ma Huang, quickens the heart rate and causes blood vessels to constrict.

But ephedra, a stimulant found in an evergreen plant from Central Asia, and its synthetic form, ephedrine, is sold over the counter at Target and Wal-Mart.

"We found that the relative risk for an adverse reaction from ephedra was more than 100-fold higher compared with all other herbs," wrote Drs. Stephen Bent and Michael Shlipak in a study posted by the Annals of Internal Medicine's Web site.

Even in recommended doses, it is unsafe and should be restricted or banned, the study concluded.

"I was most surprised at the magnitude of the risk," said Shlipak, who works at the San Francisco VA Medical Center. "It blew me away. There is an extreme risk for anyone who takes it."

The Ephedra Education Council, a lobbyist group, issued a statement condemning the study, saying it was based on anecdotal reports.

A spokeswoman for Metabolife, which uses ephedra in many of its products, said the company believes that ephedra as a weight-loss aid is more beneficial to an obese person than having an unhealthy weight problem.

The study said the doctors based their findings on reports filed with the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

"First of all, this is not a dietary supplement," said John Tiedt, a Southern California attorney who began to specialize in ephedra cases after a friend's wife was hospitalized. "This is a drug."

The root of the problem, say critics, is that ephedra has been classified as a food and therefore cannot be regulated as a drug.

"These companies have been mixing stimulants into the product without any pre-market testing whatsoever," Tiedt said. "The public is essentially the guinea pig."

"I don't want to see anybody get hurt," said a manager of a San Francisco GNC store who asked not to be identified.

"I try to tell them this is not what you need."

It is illegal to sell ephedra to minors, but somehow it has still become a favorite of teenage boys.

"We're not involved in the political process," Shlipak said. "But a lot of investigators and organizations have gone into the work to get ephedra banned. Perhaps our report will help push it across the threshold."

Many groups have already banned ephedra use, including the National Football League, the NCAA, the International Olympic Committee, the Army and the Air Force.

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