Ephedra, also known as ma huang, is an herb that has gained attention in the fields of body building and weight loss. In 2005 ephedra and products containing it were banned in the United States due to the significant safety risks, including cardiovascular events and death. Ephedra contains ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which stimulate the central nervous system and can lead to potentially harmful effects on the adrenal glands.
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The Adrenal Glands
The adrenal glands are triangular glands located on top of the kidneys. The adrenal cortex, the outer portion, secretes hormones that have an effect on the body's metabolism, blood and the development of male characteristics. These hormones include cortisol, aldosterone and androgen steroids. The adrenal medulla, the inner portion of the glands, secrete hormones involved in emotional responses. These include epinephrine and norepinephrine.
Inital Effects on the Adrenal Glands
Ephedra stimulates the central nervous system, causing the adrenal medulla to secrete epinephrine, or adrenaline. Adrenaline increases the heart rate and intensity of heart contractions, as well as increasing blood flow to the brain and muscles. This is the response to stress in the body known as the "fight-or-flight" phenomenon.
Long-Term Effects on the Adrenal Glands
Forcing the body to constantly secrete epinephrine puts unnecessary stress on the adrenal glands. Much like an addiction to any substance, over time it takes more epinephrine to get the same desired effects. The adrenal glands have to work harder than normal to produce enough epinephrine. The extra work over time can cause the adrenal glands to fatigue and fail.
Consuming a product containing ephedra puts your body on a roller-coaster of highs and lows, eventually ending in exhaustion. Potential side effects of ephedra include abdominal discomfort, anxiety, dizziness and headaches. More severe side effects include irregular heart beat, damage to the heart muscle, high blood pressure, heart attack, depression, fluid retention in the lungs, liver damage and kidney stones. According to MayoClinic.com, by the time ephedra was banned in the United States, there were over 100 deaths reported by the use of ephedra. Ephedra should only be used with extreme caution and under the care of a physician. Talk to your physician about the facts regarding ephedra prior to using it.