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How Safe Is Ephedra?

May 6, 2003 | The move for nationwide legislation banning ephedra intensified after coroners linked it to the deaths of NFL offensive lineman Korey Stringer and Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler.

Each of the doctors I spoke with said it was a tragic inevitability that someone famous would have to die before the system changed.

Detroit Tigers third baseman Dean Palmer told me, "You have a lot of people taking stuff that they don't even know what it is. Just because they can get it at a store, they think it's safe."

Kids emulate their heroes. Teenagers are perhaps the most likely to mimick the hottest trends.

Says one local high school wrestler, "I think it's a big deal because pro athletes are using it, and it gets into young kids' heads."

Ephedra-based dietary supplements seem like an effective short-cut to bulking up. But there are two crucial holes in that theory, according to Dr. Dilip Patel, a Kalamazoo-based sports and adolescent medicine specialist.

One that's not what ephedra does, and two the side effects can kill you.

Dr. Patel says, "Does it help you in a given sport? The answer is no - absolutely not. The risks with ephedra include stroke, heart arrythmia, and cardiac arrest, including some deaths."

In a study of Kalamazoo-area teens, Dr. Patel found that 20 percent had used creatine at least once. That's the same as the national average. While no governing body bans creatine, ephedra is a different story. The NFL, NCAA, and the International Olympic Committee all ban ephedra. The American Heart Association has urged a ban on ephedra sales and legislation has now been introduced in Congress to do just that.

Dr. Patel says, "There's no way predicting how you'll react (to using ephedra)."

A local football coach says, "The scariest thing is that something will physically go wrong with a kid on the field that you can't control."

Two former football teammates at Harper Creek High School admit they used ephedra-based products while in high school. Neither uses them anymore.

One said, "I felt like it worked. The only problem was, I got butterflies in my stomach, and sometimes, maybe it gives you too much energy."

The other said, "It gave me a lot of energy, but with the scares, I backed off of it before I went to college."

Since they're classified as dietary supplements and not drugs, products like Stacker-2 and Metabolite are not held to any government standard. For now, that means anyone can get them anywhere. But it leaves some doctors scared that more athletes and some teenagers - will die because they couldn't separate the myth from the truth about ephedra.

Concludes Dr. Patel, "There is no scientific evidence that it helps your performance in a given sport."

GNC announced Friday that it will stop selling products containing Ephedra by the end of June.
The company's president says they're selling so many non-Ephedra products, they don't need to sell Ephedra anymore.

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