In 2003, there was a death of a U.S. major league baseball pitcher which was thought to be related to ephedra. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has collected more than 800 reports of serious toxicity, including more than 22 deaths. On February 6, 2004, the FDA issued a rule prohibiting the sale of dietary supplements containing ephedrine alkaloids (ephedra). This rule was issued because supplements with ephedra present a serious risk of illness or injury.
In 2005 this rule was struck down in Utah but reversed again four months later. Ephedra is currently banned throughout the United States. It remains unclear whether ephedra will re-appear on the market, despite serious safety risks, including heart events or death.
Ephedra sinica, a species of ephedra (ma huang), contains ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. Ephedra has been found to stimulate the nervous system, increase airflow into the lungs and constrict blood vessels. In combination with caffeine, ephedra appears to cause weight loss. However, effects of ephedra or ephedrine monotherapy have been mixed. Ephedrine has been widely studied for asthma and low blood pressure. However, quality research of commercial supplements with ephedra is lacking.
Major safety concerns have been associated with ephedra or ephedrine use, including high blood pressure, increased heart rate, nervous system excitation, irregular heartbeat, heart attack, and stroke.
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Note: There are approximately 40 species of ephedra.
These uses have been tested in humans or animals. Safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider.
In human research, ephedra caused weight loss when used in combination with caffeine. The research on ephedra alone is limited and results are mixed. The amounts of ephedra in commercially available products varied widely and numerous adverse effects have been reported. Further research is necessary.
Allergic nasal symptoms (used as a nose wash)
Early studies suggest that ephedrine nasal spray may help treat symptoms of nasal allergies. Additional research is needed before a firm conclusion can be made.
Ephedra contains the chemicals ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which are bronchodilators (expand the airways for easier breathing). It has been used and studied to treat asthma and chronic lung diseases in both children and adults. Other treatments, such as inhalers (for example albuterol), are more commonly recommended due to safety concerns with ephedra or ephedrine. Further research is needed.
Athletic performance enhancement
Early research demonstrates mixed findings regarding the effects of ephedra on athletic performance. Further research is needed in this area.
Low blood pressure
Chemicals in ephedra may stimulate the heart, increase heart rate, and raise blood pressure. Ephedrine, a component of ephedra, is sometimes used in hospitals to help control blood pressure. However, the effects of over-the-counter ephedra supplements lack sufficient study. Further research is needed.
Limited research shows that ephedra in combination with other herbs commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) may be beneficial for infections of the upper respiratory tract (nose, throat, and mouth). Further research of ephedra alone is needed before conclusions can be made.
Early research suggests that ephedra may increase sexual arousal in women. Further well-designed research is needed to confirm these results.