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Study Prompts Exchanges To Pull Performance Drug Shelves
By Sgt. Skip Osborn
MCB Camp Pendleton

MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON (January 25, 2001) — Weight loss, enhanced performance, and increased energy levels. These are common claims made by many of today's dietary supplements.

According to a recent Federal Drug Administration, one supplement in particular, ephedra, has had no good studies, no regulations, over 800 documented negative effects, and at least 17 deaths directly associated with it since 1994.

In 1994, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) was passed, which caused the deregulation of dietary supplements. It is because of this act that there has been an increased risk of misuse for individuals who commonly use ephedra, and other supplements.

That's why the Department of the Navy, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery recently requested that the Navy Exchange Command discontinue the sale of all ephedra-based products.

"The FDA does not regulate it, so there are no guidelines for supplement use, and I think that points to the risk of it," said Lt. Cmdr. Gregory Jones, Staff Family Physician, Naval Hospital, Camp Pendleton. "What the optimal dose is; what a dangerous dose is; those things are not defined."

When seen on a label, ephedra promises among other things, to speed up the metabolism for weight loss, to help counter asthma, to act as a nasal decongestant, and to increase energy. What the label doesn't tell you is that according to FDA studies there is a great potential for negative side-effects.

"It has some negative effects obviously," said Lt. Paul D. Allen, registered dietician, United States Navy Medical Service Group. "It increases blood pressure, raises the risk for strokes and heart attacks, and gives the false sense of being more powerful, of having more energy."

Ephedra, more commonly called ephedrine, is an alkaloid derived from the Chinese herb ma huang, and is found in many dietary supplements. The Navy Exchange Command has identified 24 items containing ephedra currently being sold at various exchanges worldwide. All 24 will be removed from the shelves starting Feb. 1.

Individuals take ephedra for a variety of reasons, but mainly to enhance workouts and lose weight, however, there have been no studies that prove the long-term effectiveness of ephedra-based products.

"Many people who take these, take them before they work out," said Jones.

"Ephedra does produce a sense of euphoria or well being. It makes you feel revved up, and that often makes you have a good workout. When you have a good workout you get in shape quicker. That may be the real effect rather than any intrinsic effect on energy, metabolism, weight loss, or strength gain. That's the basis of these products that promise a so-called 'legal high.' They make you feel good, that's it." Ephedra, or ma huang, has a long history.

"Chinese herbalists claim to have been using ma huang for more than 4,000 years as a cure all," said Allen.

More recently, ephedra was prescribed in the 60s and 70s for asthma, but it was replaced by drugs with fewer side effects.

"It's because of the potential risks of ephedra-based products and the marginal benefits, that physicians do not prescribe them. However, you can buy them over the counter," said Jones. "Among the minor side effects, the most common are nausea, vomiting, anxiety, sleep loss, and personality changes."

Allen said most of the people he deals with choose ephedra in order to lose weight. They combine it with other weight-loss programs as a substitute for good eating.

"They think that their walking or running or weight loss program isn't enough because everybody wants the quick fix," said Allen. "They want the weight loss in a snap. They want to lose their excess weight in two weeks and look like the models that are in the fitness magazines or on TV advertising ephedra based products."

Allen said that's why the ephedra-based products are so popular. That when you get down to it is takes the place of healthy eating and healthy exercise. Ephedra can pose even greater risks when it's taken with other supplements or pain killers.

"When you mix these things with items people normally take, like aspirin or caffeine, it has a bigger negative effect on your heart and kidneys," said Allen. "So when someone asks me if they should take ephedra-based products, I tell them no, as a registered dietician and a nutrition professional."

That is also the consensus of the FDA's most recent study. They recommend that all people avoid taking products containing ephedra. red ribbon icon

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