Ephedrine is an appetite suppressant derived from plant botanicals and is sometimes referred to as ephedra or ma huang. Diet supplement manufacturers typically combine ephedrine with caffeine to help people lose weight and feel more energetic. But the Food and Drug Administration banned sales of ephedrine in the United States in 2004 due to its potentially life-threatening side effects.
Potential Side Effects
Ephedra and ephedrine alkaloids, especially when combined with caffeine, killed more than 100 people between 1993 and 2003, according to ConsumersUnion.org. During that same period, Food and Drug Administration officials received 16,961 reports of adverse health effects associated with ephedrine. All types of ephedrine with or without caffeine can cause tachycardia, cardiac arrhythmia, dangerously increased blood pressure, strokes, heart attacks and central nervous system excitation.
Weight Loss Potential
No dosage of ephedrine is safe and creates only minimal weight loss, notes ConsumersUnion.org. While some users compared ephedra to amphetamines such as "speed," the supplement's weight loss properties were never really scientifically proven. In fact, overweight people who take ephedrine are more apt to suffer from serious side effects due to being out of shape.
In 2003, Baltimore Orioles pitching prospect Steve Bechler died from heatstroke after ingesting large amounts of a supplement containing ephedrine, according to USAToday.com. Even though ephedrine was not yet banned in the United States, this event sparked minor league baseball officials and some major league teams to ban players from using ephedra. Also, the Food and Drug Administration had already required ephedrine supplements to come with warning labels about the potential blood pressure risks associated with the ingredient.
Dieters can still find supplements with ephedrine online or under different ingredient labels, warns ConsumersUnion.org. Alternative names for ephedrine besides ma huang include epitonin, ida cordifolia and sinica. Some manufacturers also attempt to mask caffeine as a primary ingredient in weight loss supplements by using synonyms such as guarana, kola nut, maté, paullinia cupan and tea extracts.
Other Potentially Dangerous Supplements
Ephedrine is far from the only potentially dangerous dietary aid, warns the Mayo Clinic. Food and Drug Administration officials have banned several over-the-counter and prescription weight loss supplements such as fenfluramine, country mallow and heartleaf. As of 2011, officials were also investigating claims that bitter orange and orlistat cause severe side effects to organs such as the heart and liver.