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ISSUE 116 VOL 14 PUBLISHED 3/14/2003

Health Watch: Dietary supplement Ephedra sparks debate

By Anonymous
Contributing Writer

Friday, March 14, 2003

The controversy surrounding the use of the herbal drug Ephedra among athletes and dieters is not new, despite its most recent prominence in the media.

From 1999-2001 the New England Journal of Medicine documented 18 deaths connected to Ephedra in California alone. In May 2001, the National Football League banned the drug after experts warned that it could “cause seizures, strokes, and even death.”

Indeed, only three months later Rashidi Wheeler, a Northwestern University football player died during practice. Before practice he and some other players drank an Ephedra-based sports drink along with Xenadrine.

Last month, Steve Bechler, pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, died from heat stroke; he was also taking the Ephedra supplement.

Claims against Ephedra are entering the courtroom: a suit was filed against Metabolife in August 2002 and Doug Hanson is one of many citizens trying to get the drug banned after a personal tragedy. His wife died in Oct. 1998 after collapsing at the gym.

No St. Olaf athletes have had problems associated with Ephedra use, Scott Scholl, assistant athletic trainer, said.

Prompted by ongoing concerns, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) commissioned a series of research studies to determine the potential benefits and harms of Ephedra.

Research studies by the NIH had not been commissioned before because of the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act of 1994. This law states that a herb can be marketed without review from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); the herb is prohibited only if it “presents a significant or unreasonable risk of injury.”

The conducted studies showed that the benefits of Ephedra are minute in comparison to the possible dangers. The drug is particularly dangerous if used during workouts or in conjunction with caffeine or other stimulants because it is an additional stress to the cardiovascular and nervous system, according to a Rand report.

For dieters, the report showed only an additional two-pound loss per month by taking the herb. As yet, no studies answer questions about long-term side effects.

Ephedra has been around for about 2,000 years, used in Chinese medicine to treat respiratory symptoms. Within the last ten years, however, the drug has become especially popular in America as a weight loss aid and performance enhancer.

The Annals of Internal Medicine reported that Ephedra products comprise about one percent of all diet product sales, yet 64 percent of adverse side effects are associated with it. Neurology reported that hemorrhagic, or bleeding strokes are increased for people who take at least 32 milligrams of Ephedra daily. The dietary supplement labels, however, suggest dieters take 100 milligrams.

The Department of Health and Human Services and the FDA plan to reconsider their policy toward dietary products containing Ephedra. Part of this policy change will include stronger warning labels and prohibiting companies from making unsubstantiated claims about the benefits of the supplements such as “a new level of muscle blasting workout intensity.”

Not enough research evidence exists to ban the medicine, but the FDA hopes that new warning labels will educate those who plan to use the supplement.

Synthetic Ephedra is an over-the-counter and prescription drug used for respiratory symptoms in products like Sudafed. This drug is the same as Ephedra, except that the FDA has monitored it closely and provided warning labels concerning its side effects. This suggests to the FDA that warning labels could prevent the dangerous and even grave consequences of Ephedra.

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