Sports Supplements - Ephedrine and Athletic Performance

Ephedrine and Ephedra are Banned for Most Uses

Raw ephedra before processing.
Raw ephedra before processing. IMAGEMORE Co, Ltd./Getty Images

Ephedrine is a drug derived from the plant Ephedra equisetina. It has been used for hundreds of years as a stimulant and a decongestant. A synthetic form of the drug, pseudoephedrine, is a common ingredient in over-the-counter and prescription cold and allergy products. Structurally similar to amphetamines, it increases blood pressure and heart rate. The mechanisms behind ephedrine's effect on weight-loss appear to be those of increasing energy expenditure through increased lipolysis; increasing basal metabolic rate through thyroxine; and decreasing food intake by suppressing appetite.

Ephedrine Claims

  • Increases body fat loss
  • Improves athletic performance
  • Improves concentration

Research Shows

  • Research has found no effect of ephedrine on strength, endurance, reaction time, anaerobic capacity, or recovery time after prolonged exercise
  • Ephedrine products have been found to contain from 0% to 100% of the amount listed on the label
  • Side effects vary and do not correlate with the amount consumed
  • Caffeine potentiates the effect of Ephedrine and the combination can be dangerous

Cautions for Ephedrine

Ephedra Banned in Supplements

Ma huang is an herbal form of ephedrine called ephedra that was contained in many herbal products available in health food stores (often along with chromium).

Prior to 2004, ephedra and ma huang could be included in supplements because USFDA regulations excused the makers of nutritional supplements from fully identifying the contents of their products. It became a very popular addition to supplements that were sold for weight loss. Supplements that included other stimulants such as caffeine were especially concerning as they can enhance the side effects and health risks.

While some people thought that as a "natural" supplement that ephedra wouldn't be harmful, it was linked to deaths and serious reactions. Ma huang has been blamed for the deaths of several high school students who used it as a stimulant or aphrodisiac; the deaths presumably resulted from CNS bleeding or cardiac arrhythmia. Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler died of heat stroke in 2003 while taking ephedra for weight loss and the medical examiner said that may have contributed to it.

This resulted in a ban of ephedrine alkaloids (ephedra) in dietary supplements by the FDA in 2004. This ban was upheld in 2005 but low-dose ephedra of 10 mg or less was still marketed until a complete ban was upheld in 2007.

Ma huang may still be sold as a pure herb or tea in the United States.

Over-the-counter sales of pseudoephedrine-containing products may be restricted due to their use in illegal manufacturing of methamphetamine. Some states require showing identification and allow only small quantities to be purchased at one time.

The best advice is to lose weight the way sports nutritionists recommend: proper diet and exercise. If you choose to take ephedra or ephedrine, you should consume them according to national industry standards.

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