Are All Ephedrine Supplements Banned?

Raw ephedra before processing.
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Ephedrine is a drug derived from the plant Ephedra equisetina. It has been used for hundreds of years as both a stimulant and decongestant. In 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the sale of supplements containing ephedrine after a number of deaths and cases of adverse effects related to their use were reported. That said, ephedrine can be legally obtained for certain medical purposes where the benefits are believed to outweigh the risks.

Effectiveness of Ephedrine

Ephedrine has long been found in many diet pills and sports supplements and embraced by athletes and non-athletes alike for its reported benefits, including:

  • Increased weight and body fat loss
  • Improved athletic performance and endurance
  • Improved concentration

Despite the widespread popularity of ephedrine in sports and diet supplements, a 2003 review showed that the benefits of their use are questionable. Among the findings:

  • While ephedrine can increase the likelihood of short-term weight loss, there is no evidence that it will offer any gains over the long term.
  • There is also no evidence that ephedrine improves athletic performance either by increasing strength, endurance, reaction time, anaerobic capacity, or recovery time after prolonged exercise.

Dangers of Ephedrine

Ephedrine is among the list of banned substances issued by the International Olympics Committee and practically every other major professional or amateur athletics association.

The dangers of ephedra were first reported in 2000 when a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that a number of people had died of cardiac arrest after taking an ephedra-containing product. The deaths were not always associated with either high intake or overuse.

By 2003, more than 40 such deaths had been reported including that of Steve Bechler, a pitcher with the Baltimore Orioles.

Among some of the more dangerous side effects associated with ephedra/ephedrine use are:

Many products found containing caffeine and ephedra/ephedrine were not found to be effective for their intended purpose and were found to increase the rate and severity of the above side effects.

Legal and Non-Banned Uses

While ephedrine is banned in diet and sports supplements, it still is commonly used to treat allergic disorders such as bronchial asthma. It is also used in certain medical procedures involving anesthesia to prevent dangerous drops in blood pressure.

However, the use of ephedrine even for these purposes is strictly regulated with drug control laws that vary from state to state. Many states will require merchants to obtain proof of identity and maintain records of all sales.

Products

There are many sports supplements marketed as containing "safe ephedra extracts." In a great many cases, however, they are made with other plant-based substances, such as Caralluma fimbriata, and contain no ephedra at all.

The one ephedrine-containing product that can be legally sold over the counter is the Chinese herbal medication known as Ma huang. It is the raw, natural tea made from E. equisetina or E. sinica. A legislative loophole allows the tea to be sold without restriction so long as it is not marketed as an appetite suppressant or added to any other supplement of any sort.

A Word From Verywell

Supplements remain unregulated, so it is best to use them with caution, investigate your source, and interrogate health benefits claimed by manufacturers of the product. Consult with your doctor before taking ephedrine and related products and make sure you understand the legality of the drug in your state.

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