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U.S. health officials said December 30th, 2003 they will ban the weight-loss herb ephedra because it poses unreasonable risks such as heart attacks and strokes.

The move marks the first time the government has outlawed a dietary supplement and will set a legal precedent for action against other risky products, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said.

"For too long, dietary supplements containing (ephedra) have been heavily promoted and widely used. They are simply too risky," Thompson said at a news conference.

The ban will take effect 60 days after publication of the new rule, which is expected in the coming weeks. Thompson said he anticipated a legal challenge and officials were prepared to defend the ban in court.

Makers insist ephedra, also known as ma huang, is safe when taken as directed.

But FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan said ephedra is a stimulant that raises blood pressure and stresses the circulatory system, effects that have been linked to serious heart problems, strokes and deaths. The FDA has reports of 155 deaths of people who took ephedra and more than 16,500 complaints.

McClellan and Thompson urged consumers to immediately stop taking ephedra products.

Ephedra is an ingredient that is used in over-the-counter herbal medicines and dietary supplements to promote weight loss and boost energy levels for bodybuilding. It can cause catastrophic complications, including heart attacks, stroke, seizures and death, researchers say.

They conclude the popular dietary supplement, also known as ma huang and often also containing caffeine, poses a risk that far outweighs the small benefits, if any, the supplement offers.

Types of Ephedra

Ephedra, also known as ephedrine, comes in several forms:

  • Ephedra herb powder

  • Ma huang

  • Psuedoephedrine

  • Epitonin

  • Chinese ephedra

  • Ma huang extract

The FDA does not regulate dietary supplements and, as a result, the manufacturers of herbal medications and dietary supplements can market these products without prior approval or subsequent monitoring. Because of this, the incidence of harmful or deadly side effects may be higher.

The Food and Drug Administration is warning consumers not to purchase or consume ephedrine-containing dietary supplements with labels that often portray the products as apparent alternatives to illegal street drugs such as "ecstacy," because these products pose significant health risks to consumers. These products contain botanical, or so-called "natural," sources of ephedrine. Ephedrine is an amphetamine-like stimulant that can have potentially dangerous effects on the nervous system and heart.

Side effects

Possible adverse effects of ephedrine range from clinically significant effects such as heart attack, stroke, seizures, psychosis and death, to clinically less significant effects that may indicate the potential for more serious effects (for example, dizziness, headache, gastrointestinal distress, irregular heartbeat, and heart palpitations). Other side effects include Insomnia, dry mouth, nervousness, general weakness, poor digestion and irritability. If any of these symptoms develop, stop using ephedra immediately and consult your physician. Do not take ephedra if you are pregnant, nursing or have heart disease, anxiety disorder (panic attacks), high blood pressure, diabetes, glaucoma, or an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism). If you are taking any medication, consult your physician before using this herb. Do not take ephedra if you are taking monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitor drugs, commonly prescribed for depression.  It has been linked to the deaths of at least 44 people.

The dangers and widespread use of dietary supplements containing ephedra have been well-documented, and include mania, psychosis, hypertension, racing heart beat, stroke, and heart attacks. Many reported deaths have been attributed to this herbal substance, and other adverse effects have produced permanent disabilities. The users of products containing Ma huang are increasing in number, owing in large part to the fact that it is an herbal, or natural, drug and thus is perceived as being safe, and advertised by its promoters as same. Some individuals tend to exceed the recommended dose when they are self-medicating, and this can contribute further to adverse effects. The molecular configuration of ephedra is identical to that of amphetamine drugs, and probably just as expensive.

Ephedra is found on sandy seashores and in temperate climates of both hemispheres. The plant has stamens and pistils on separate flowers--staminate flowers in catkins and a membraneous perianth, pistillate flowers terminal on axillary stalks, within a two-leaved involucre. Fruit has two carpels with a single seed in each and is a succulent cone, branches slender and erect, small leaves, scale-like, articulated and joined at the base into a sheath.

Do not administer to children under the age of 18 or to adults over the age of 65.

Outgoing California governor Gray Davis, acting on a final batch of bills before leaving office, signed legislation banning the sale of the diet supplement ephedra. This has made California the third state, along with Illinois and New York, to do so. This legislation, which became effective January 1, doesn't prohibit the sale of ephedra by a pharmacist if it's actually prescribed by a health professional for anything other than the purposes of weight loss, body building or athletic performance enhancement.

For more information:
Weight Loss, Body Building Ephedra Can Be Deadly

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