Ephedra Alkaloids


Where does it come from?

    The chinese species Ephedra sinica was the original source of the alkaloid ephedrine, a common decongestant in popular allergy and hay fever remedies. Since ephedrine has a chemical structure similar to epinephrine (adrenalin), it works like a powerful cardiac stimulant that may cause cardiac arrest in infants and heart patients. New synthetic drugs based on the ephedrine/epinephrine ring structure are now marketed as effective and safer bronchodilators. Pseudoephedrine, an isomer of ephedrine, also occurs in species of Ephedra, and may be produced synthetically. Compared to ephedrine, it causes fewer heart symptoms such as palpitation, but is equally effective as a bronchodilator. It is used in over-the-counter drugs such as Sudafed©. Ephedra sinica and other species are also marketed under the name of "ma-huang," a popular herbal stimulant and decongestant.


Sudafed©: A common over-the-counter nasal decongestant containing the alkaloid pseudoephedrine.

How do you take it?

    Since it is an herbal supplement, it is usually taken by mouth. Usually, it will come packaged with other herbal supplements such as L-Caritine, Chromium Picolinate, and Guarana Extract to name a few. Used together they act as an energy booster and a reducer of carbohydrate cravings, thus to lose weight. Ephedra reduces appetite and stimulates fat metabolism, making it very effective as weight-loss supplement. The active compound in Ephedra (Ma Huang) is ephedrine. Ephedrine increases the metabolic rate, so that your body burns fats and sugar more efficiently. By mobilizing stored fat and carbohydrate reserves, ephedrine reduces your appetite. An example of such a product is Hydroxycut by Muscletech which markets their product as a "pharmaceutical quality dietary supplement". As well they indicate that ephedrine the maximum dosage for a healthy adult is no more than 100mg in a 24 hour period for no more than 12 weeks.

 What are the dangers of ephedra?

    Ephedrine -- the chemical that gives ephedra its kick -- stimulates the heart and nervous system and can raise blood pressure, sometimes to dangerous levels. Over the last five years, the Food and Drug Administration has learned of more than 1,000 serious reactions, including 38 deaths, that may be linked to "natural" supplements containing ephedra. Users
have experienced soaring blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, insomnia, tremors, seizures, heart attack, and stroke.
    A case in point from the FDA's files: A previously healthy 23-year-old male college student who'd taken a strength-building product containing ephedra for two years was found dead by his sister in the apartment they shared. The medical examiner ruled that ephedrine from the supplement had destroyed large portions of his heart.
    In a recent legal case, a 30-year-old woman experienced insomnia and symptoms of mania shortly after she began taking diet supplements containing ephedrine and caffeine. Within a week, she was admitted to a medical center's psychiatric ward for and spent 10 days there.  Before taking the supplements, she had no history of a psychiatric condition.

Testing on the Body in Sports

    Problems with Ephedrine Alkaloids arise when the chemical structures are compared. Like several other potent alkaloids, such as the alkaloid mescaline found in the peyote cactus, ephedrine contains a nitrogen atom that is not contained in a carbon ring. Mescaline has a chemical structure similar to the brain neurotransmitter dopamine. It is also structurally similar to the neurohormone norepinephrine (noradrenalin) and to the stimulant amphetamine. In the peyote cactus, mescaline is formed in a complex pathway from the amino acid tyrosine. A similar pathway in humans produces epinephrine (adrenalin) and its demethylated precursor norepinephrine from tyrosine. Dopamine and its precursor L-dopa are also derived from a tyrosine pathway.








    Since there is such a likeness between the banned drugs amphetamine and norepinephrine with that of ephedrine, it is easy to see the concern that both athletes and drug regulating committees have. As well, with the ephedrine acting like a "natural amphetamine" should it be banned as well? The herbal supplement causes the same reactions in the body as the illegal drug amphetamine.

Is it appropriate to exclude athletes from competition?

    Several athletes have been disqualified after testing positive for ephedrine which is a banned substance in sports competition. This came as a surprise to the athletes who were not aware that the supplements they were taking contained ephedrine. In 1988, Jimmy Martin, a leading American judo champion, used Sunrider's Vitalite Action Caps before the U.S. Olympic trials because he said they gave him terrific energy. He was disqualified after testing positive for ephedrine.
    British sprinter Solomon Wariso faced being banned from the Olympics after testing positive for ephedrine. He took Chinese herbal pills containing Ma Huang which he believed to be a "health food." Canadian weight-lifter Jim Dan Corbett was stripped of three bronze medals won at the 1994 Commonwealth Games after testing positive for banned stimulants. Testing done by the Canadian Center for Drug-Free Sports backed up Corbett's claim that his positive test was due to a vitamin supplement Nature's Nutrition Formula One that contained three banned stimulants none of which were listed on the label. Corbett was reinstated as an athlete but did not get his medals back because the drugs may have helped his performance. Dr. Andrew Pipe, center chairman said that Corbett's case put the spotlight on the larger problem of the improper labeling of vitamin supplements.  Canada's Center for Sports warned Canadian athletes in the 1996 Olympic Games at Atlanta not to use dietary supplements because their labels could not be trusted.

Government regulation

    Keep in mind that the federal government doesn't regulate ephedra or other herbs and supplements as it does prescription and over-the-counter drugs. The Food and Drug Administration doesn't require that manufacturers test herbs or supplements for safety or effectiveness, as it does drugs. For this reason, the quality and potency vary greatly from product to product, with some supplements containing too little (or too much) of the active ingredient. Some supplements may be contaminated with traces of toxic materials and other drugs. In addition, some herbs may interact in risky ways with drugs or supplements, so it's important to talk with your doctor or pharmacist before taking them.


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