Ephedra, a controversial herbal supplement widely used for weight loss, accounted for nearly two-thirds of all herb-related reports made to poison control centers nationwide, a new Veterans Affairs study released Monday reveals.
Researchers at the San Francisco VA Medical Center studied information phoned in to poison control centers in 2001 and found although ephedra accounted for less than 1 percent of all herbal supplement sales in the United States that year, it was responsible for 62 percent of all herb-related side effects reported.
“We were sure ephedra would have a couple of times more calls more reports than other herbs but it was more than 100 times more calls,” lead study author Dr. Stephen Bent, a staff physician at the VA center and a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told United Press International. Bent said this is one of the first studies of its kind to examine herbs’ effects by looking at poison control center data.
Researchers gleaned information from the American Association of Poison Control Centers’ “Toxic Event Surveillance System Database Annual Report 2001.” They reported an estimated 80 percent of phone calls received by poison control came not from healthcare providers, but from the general public.
The researchers looked at the number of phone calls made to report side effects suffered from ephedra users and compared them to the number of side effects suffered among users of other herbs, such as kava kava or ginkgo biloba.
Based on that information, they calculated ephedra posed 200 times more risk than all the other herbal products combined. The risk of adverse side effects from ephedra was 100 times greater than kava and 720 times greater than ginkgo biloba. The side effects reported ranged from rapid heartbeat to headaches.
“It’s clear ephedra is very dangerous,” Bent said. “Its benefits are not well-proven. We think it should be significantly restricted or banned. Even by prescription, it’s not safe. Certainly, the ephedra industry seems to have been pretty successful in preventing any ban.”
Some lawmakers, including Senator Richard Durbin, D-Ill., have called on Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson to issue a ban, although so far no action has been taken.
Bent said he and his team have requested that poison control centers share the remainder of their data so they can look at the demographics behind the phone calls.
“We believe, though we don’t know this, that ephedra users, in general, tend to be younger and healthier than other herb users,” Bent said. In contrast, ginkgo biloba users tend to be elderly people who use that herb for memory loss. Ephedra, also is known as ma huang and is used primarily for weight loss.
Wes Siegner, a spokesman for the Ephedra Education Council in Washington, D.C., and its legal counsel, said the findings were not news.
“The whole debate that’s spinning around ephedra is whether it causes serious adverse events and this study doesn’t help you answer that question,” Siegner told UPI. “It doesn’t do anything to contradict the clinical data,” which he said support ephedra’s use for weight loss. “Our view again is obviously this problem with overweight, and obesity is an epidemic, and there’s very few alternatives for people to use. Ephedra works, and it should be maintained on the market.”
Siegner added: “You take coffee and get jittery and you can’t sleep at night, that’s an adverse event and that’s likely the type of thing that’s getting called into poison control centers.”
The findings are published on the Feb. 3 Web site edition of Annals of Internal Medicine and will be published in the print version of the journal on Mar. 18.