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One herbal supplement is getting a lot of attention from the Food and Drug Administration and many State Departments of Health. That product is Ephedra vulgaris. Marketed as Ephedrine or Ma Huang, ephedra is under intense scrutiny for regulation by the Food and Drug Administration.

Ephedra is used medically for the treatment of asthma and allergies. It has been used in Asian medicine for centuries for these reasons. Supporters of uncontrolled ephedra sale and use often cite this as proof that the preparation is safe. Yet in the U.S., ephedra is largely marketed not for its ability to treat allergy and asthma but as a weight loss product.

Ephedra’s primary action on the body is to open up the breathing passages, which is why it's used for lung diseases and conditions. But it could be called natural speed because it affects the body in much the same way amphetamines do. Ephedra is classified as a sympathomimetic, as are amphetamines. This class of drugs acts on the body like adrenaline, a hormone that stimulates the heart, increases blood pressure, and constricts blood flow. At the same time, this kind of drug or hormone will release stored sugars from the liver, significantly reducing appetite.

The reduced appetite effect is what interests most ephedrine manufacturers. Weight loss and weight control products and services are $30 billion a year industries. The concern about ephedra lies in its effects on the heart and blood pressure. Increased heart rate, irregular heart beat, heart attack, elevated blood pressures, and stroke are all serious problems. Overweight consumers are more likely to have some of these conditions already and are the target market for these products.

Those seeking an energy boost find that ephedra products give them that extra energy. Some athletes use ephedra in the form of power shakes, energy bars, and drinks. The ephedra products for this market often contain caffeine as well.

Until very recently, ephedra and caffeine combination pills were being openly sold as replacements for amphetamines under names like black beauties, e-ludes, and herbal koke. Since March 2000, this practice has been outlawed when the FDA made public their compliance guidelines that eliminated this kind of marketing. Since the products were being sold for recreational effect rather than dietary supplement, this particular marketing strategy brought the product into the regulatory scope of the FDA.

The FDA has received in excess of 800 reports of serious reactions connected to ephedra use including psychosis, heart attack, stroke, and death. These possible effects should outweigh any benefit one may derive from the use of any of the products, but they remain extremely popular.

Probably the single greatest concern about these products is the industry's inability to control the actual dosage of any given lot of the products. A recent study reported in the American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy found great variation in the amount of ephedra supposed to be in the products and the actual amount found. The disparity ranged from no ephedra at all to 154% more than the label indicated.

Considering the potential side effects of ephedra, this disparity is alarming. But no regulation of this kind of discrepancy is in force in the U.S. The FDA is evaluating the data concerning serious side effect reports and it's possible that they will soon move to control the marketing and use of ephedra.

Keep in mind that the dose reported on the label may not be what you actually get; a wide margin of discrepancy exists. Never exceed the recommended doses or daily limits. The potential side effects of ephedra include irritability, restlessness, insomnia, increased blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, heart attack, stroke, and death. Those with high blood pressure, history of heart disease, glaucoma, diabetes, kidney or liver disease, history of stroke, high cholesterol, and any other chronic condition should not use these products. At the very least, consult your physician first. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should not use these products. Use of many herbal supplements may be beneficial, but the risks involved with ephedra far outweigh any benefits.

Exercise extreme caution if you use these products and report any side effects to your physician. Weight loss and extra energy are not worth risking your life.