Ephedra, also called mahuang, is primarily a central nervous system stimulant commonly used in fat burners and energy supplements, first appearing on the market in the early 90’s. Actually, the origin of this type of product as a fat burner is tied into research (Astrup A, Toubro S. Thermogenic, metabolic, and cardiovascular responses to ephedrine and caffeine in man. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 1993;17 suppl 1:S41-S43 – this is one example of this type of research)from that time that used aspirin, caffeine, and ephedrine as a thermogenic. The results were impressive enough that it led to supplements that used natural versions of the main three ingredients used in the original research. In fact, the original “Diet Fuel” by Twinlab was the first product to hit the market based on this research and used a naturally occurring caffeine source, mahuang, and white willow, the herbal basis of aspirin. As a matter of fact, TwinLab was the forerunner of the thermogenic category with products like Diet Fuel and Ripped Fuel, soon to be followed by numerous competitor products like Hydroxycut and Xenadrine, to name two, and developing into one of the bigger categories in the supplement business.
It wasn’t long, however, before numerous abuse cases of this type of product prompted the FDA to clamp down on the thermogenic market and ephedra in particular, resulting ultimately in a ban of ephedra containing products in 2004. One year later, on April 14, 2005, a district court in Utah overturned this decision. Judge Tena Campbell of the US District Court for the Central District of Utah issued the ruling. While Campbell agreed that the FDA did prove that some ephedra supplements were harmful, she also said that there was no evidence to ban supplements containing low amounts of ephedra. Campbell ordered that supplements containing 10 mg or less of ephedra be allowed to return to the market. To this date the sales of weight loss products containing ephedrine alkaloids are prohibited regardless of the daily dose! Wait a minute! If ephedra is still banned, how come I can still buy it, you might ask! Well, Ephedra Products are now being formulated from Ephedra viridis, also known as Mormon Tea. This is actually a North American species of ephedra. So, ephedra products that are labeled as Ephedra viridis, Mormon tea or Ephedra extract are legal to buy and sell. When the FDA enforced the Ephedra Ban, it was for products containing ephedrine alkaloids from the ephedra sinica plant – the popular Chinese version. There are several different species of ephedra plants and the FDA did not ban all of them. In reality they didn't even ban the plant ephedra, just products containing ephedrine alkaloids.
Now, with all of that said, let’s take a closer look at where exactly ephedra comes from: Ephedra is an extract of the plant Ephedra sinica and has been used as a herbal remedy in traditional Chinese medicine for the treatment of asthma , hay fever and the common cold for thousands of years. In traditional Chinese medicines, ephedra contains ephedrine and pseudoephedrine as its principal active constituents. The same is true of other herbal products containing extracts from Ephedra species. The drug Ephedrine, which is commonly used as a stimulant, appetite suppressant, concentration aid, decongestant, and to treat hypotension associated with anaesthesia, is an alkaloid derived from various plants in the genus Ephedra (family Ephedraceae) and is very common in modern OTC remedies. Now, remember I just said that the Chinese version is the one banned by the FDA? Ephedra plants also occur in dry climates over a wide area mainly in the northern hemisphere, across southern Europe, north Africa, southwest and central Asia, southwestern North America, and, in the southern hemisphere, in South America south to Patagonia. In fact, there are approximately 40 different species of ephedra plants.
Ephedra plants yield at least 6 chemicals: the first 2 below are major, while the remaining 4 are minor: ephedrine, pseudoephedrine (more commonly known by the brand name "Sudafed “,norephedrine (a component of phenylpropanolamine, PPA), norpseudoephedrine (a controlled substance in the US; also known as "cathine"), methylephedrine and methylpseudoephedrine. Of these 6 chemicals, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine represent about 90% of the total alkaloid content in ephedra plants. So, we see that there are numerous variations to the commonly used Chinese version. Are other versions as effective? Initial feedback suggests they are. The bottom line is, for those that used the original products and had great success with them, you now have a similar choice available!
- Ephedra acts as a central nervous system stimulant that can increase energy and increase the metabolic rate, resulting in greater fat loss.
While historically ephedra’s claim to fame was as a thermogenic, it was almost as big as an energy product. This correlation exists to this day as most stimulant based thermogenics can be easily switched to pure energy products by removing the various fat burning elements and leaving only the stimulant properties. Having said that, the responsible use of an ephedra based thermogenic as part of a total fat loss program can be a very effective fat loss addition.
While not the category it once was, there are still numerous choices available, mostly falling under the energy and fat loss categories. Typically available as tablets and capsules, you can find products containing only ephedra and also formula products geared mostly towards fat loss. The biggest thing with this type of product is to closely follow label directions. It should be noted here that the original products resulting in the FDA ban were often abused – meaning the suggested dose was exceeded to an unsafe level. Safe use of this type of product means taking only as directed, no excess dosages! Timing is typically 2-3 times per day, usually separated by 4-6 hours. You can take these with or without food, but they will absorb easier when taken with food. I advocate only twice per day with your second dose in the early afternoon so you can sleep at night – why take a third dose late in the day? You do want to sleep, right? As always, read the labels of the products you are considering and follow all label directions.