In the battle to lose weight, some people are reaching for the extra fat-burning power of herbal supplements containing ephedra. But that doesn’t mean the ancient plant has shed its bad reputation.
In fact, just the opposite.
Steve Bechler, a pitching prospect for the Baltimore Orioles, died at spring training Feb. 17, and some are blaming ephedra. Bechler, who was 23, was reportedly taking three pills a day to help him lose weight.
These supplements promise to drop pounds, boost energy and libido, and enhance sports performance.
Ephedra is a stimulant just like caffeine, just like speed, says Dr. Kathryn Lambert. She is an assistant professor of family medicine and a staff physician in the division of sports medicine at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford.
Like a diet booster rocket, products that contain ephedra are supposed to rev up metabolism, helping the body burn more fat than it would with regular exercise.
“Often people who don’t eat feel tired, sluggish and hungry,” says Lambert, offering an alternative take. “And, the stimulating effect of ephedra makes you have more energy. You’re not missing that lack of nutrition. It helps you to cut your calories and still maintain the same level of functioning.”
Supplement makers insist ephedra or ma huang, as it is also called is safe when used correctly, and the products are readily available in vitamin, health food and other shops.
But its bad reputation keeps resurfacing: In studies, ephedra has been linked to heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, headaches, sleeplessness and death.
The Food and Drug Administration says it has received hundreds of reports about bad reactions to ephedra, and federal health officials initiated a study on the herb last year. The results aren’t expected until March, but Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson has already called for mandatory warning labels on products that contain ephedra.
Consumers Union, the nonprofit group that publishes Consumer Reports, on Monday repeated its contention that products containing ephedra “provide dubious health benefits while posing serious health risks to consumers.” As it did in November, the group asked the FDA to ban these supplements.
The worrisome and deadly side effects of ephedra were known long before that, however.
“I think many people feel that the potential hazards will not happen to them,” says Lambert, who notes she would never recommend the supplements. “Hopefully, we can raise the awareness that it can happen to anyone even a professional athlete.”
She suggests consumers carefully check labels of supplements for claims like appetite suppressant or energy boost that are associated with ephedra.
“If you’re trying to lose weight,” Lambert says, “there’s no replacement for regular exercise and a proper, lower-calorie diet. It’s just the tougher pill to swallow.”