Ephedra is a stimulant traditionally used to treat colds and asthma. It was a popular ingredient in weight loss supplements in the United States and other countries before being banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration after numerous reports of dangerous side effects. Major ephedra side effects include heart attack, stroke and death. Consumers are advised to avoid using products that contain ephedra as an ingredient.
Traditional Chinese medicine has used the ephedra plant, also called ma huang, for many years as an herbal remedy for colds and asthma because it opens up the air passages in the lungs. This ingredient also acts as a stimulant, which means that it increases heart rate as well as blood pressure. The boost of energy and lack of appetite caused by ephedra led to its popularity as a weight loss supplement. Many people experience short-term weight loss from ephedra, but experts feel that this benefit is outweighed by the risks of using this ingredient.
The most common ephedra side effects are related to the heart. Ephedra stimulates the central nervous system and speeds up the heart. This can lead to heart palpitations, inflammation of the heart, tightness in the chest and heart attacks. It is particularly dangerous for people who have existing heart conditions. Ephedra often is taken in conjunction with caffeine to enhance its weight-loss effects, which increases the stimulating effect and heightens the possibility of heart complications.
Ephedra side effects are not limited to the heart. It also can have serious adverse effects on the liver and kidneys. Diabetics and those with thyroid conditions can have serious complications from using ephedra supplements. Heatstroke can occur in people who take this supplement while exercising in warmer temperatures. Ephedra’s adrenaline-like effect also can lead to seizures and strokes.
Common psychological ephedra side effects include anxiety, delirium, euphoria and irritability. Some users report feeling an inability to control their thoughts. Patients with psychiatric problems, particularly those taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), should avoid using ephedra products. Ephedra use also has been linked with increased suicidal thoughts.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of dietary supplements containing ephedra in 2004 after the ingredient was linked to at least 155 deaths. Most deaths resulted from overdoses. Dietary supplement labels can be misleading, which means that consumers cannot always determine how much ephedra they are taking. It also has several other names, including ma huang, sinica, Sida cordifolia and desert tea. As a result, consumers who take more than one dietary supplement might be getting much more ephedra than they realize.