Ephedra is the common name of the shrub ephedra sinica, and it contains the compounds ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. The Chinese refer to the plant as ma huang and have long used it for the short-term treatment of upper respiratory problems such as asthma. Around the turn of the century, Japanese chemists isolated ephedrine, and it was marketed for its appetite suppressing capabilities in the United States as an aid to weight loss.
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The alkaloids in ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are what create the appetite suppression effect. The Harvard Medical School reports that these chemical compounds mimic adrenaline in your system. As a result, you feel a sense of stimulation and your desire to eat drops. Manufacturers of ephedra appetite suppressants often combined the drug with caffeine because of the synergistic effect the two appear to have together, further amplifying appetite suppression and a feeling of stimulation.
Ephedra’s ability to suppress appetite and aid in weight loss is well proven through clinical trails and credible studies. For example, one double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 180 overweight individuals showed that a combination of 20 mg ephedrine with 200 mg caffeine produced an average of 7 lb. more in weight loss than in a control group after six months.
Though ephedra pills and weight loss supplements are proven effective at appetite reduction, they carry a significant amount of negative side effects. Registered dietitian Suzanne Nelson-Steen states that the mild side effects of ephedra include nervousness, headaches and insomnia. If you are sensitive to ephedra or take it in high doses, you may experience more severe side effects, such as psychoses, heart attack and stroke.
The FDA officially banned the sale of ephedra diet pills in 2004 due to the risk of severe side effects or death. Manufacturers continued to produce appetite-suppressing ephedra pills following the ban, causing law enforcement to take legal action against the offending companies. Since this ban, some companies have produced other herbal diet pills that claim to have the same effect as ephedra, but research into most of these supplements is limited.