Dying to Lose Weight

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Want to lose weight? You bet. Want to lose weight with ephedra? You bet your life.

Ephedra is advertised as an energy booster and a weight-loss aid. A natural product that occurs in plants, its active ingredient is ephedrine, a stimulant and decongestant. A traditional Chinese medicine, ephedrine was used for thousands of years to treat breathing disorders, like asthma. Western doctors used ephedrine for those problems early in the 20th century, but use declined in the 1930s. Safer medicines became available. Ephedrine is still in many over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines.

Your body runs hotter and faster on ephedrine so you burn more energy. Ephedrine increases the rate at which you break down fat stored in fat cells – again increasing the heat your body produces. Ephedrine constricts blood vessels, reducing blood flow, which reduces appetite. In the short term, it causes weight loss.

There is a price. Ephedrine increases the heart rate while constricting the blood vessels. This increases both blood pressure and body temperature, as you pump more blood through a smaller area. Because it increases blood pressure, a man in his forties – like your dad – using ephedrine to lose weight risks haviing a stroke. A teen – especially an athlete – can easily become overheated, and cook from heatstroke.

Even if you (or your dad) do not end up bursting a blood vessel or cooking yourself through heatstroke, ephedrine has other undesirable side effects. Ephedrine can cause dizziness, headaches, and stomach distress. You might feel heart palpitations, restlessness or be unable to sleep.

Many supplements also contain caffeine. Combining caffeine and ephedrine can make the side effects worse. Caffeine boosts the stimulant effect, and dilates blood vessels, which may counteract the constricting effect of ephedrine.

Died of Heatstroke

In 2001, Minnesota Vikings lineman Korey Stringer died of heatstroke during training camp. A dietary supplement containing ephedra was found in his locker. Sean Riggins, a 16-year-old high school wrestler and linebacker from Illinois, bought a bottle of pills containing ephedra. A few weeks later Sean died of heatstroke. According to the Food and Drug Administration, at least 17 people – possibly as many as 88 – have died because of dietary supplements containing ephedrine since 1994. Over 800 became seriously ill because of reactions to these pills.

Dietary supplements often do not list ephedrine as an ingredient. The ingredients list ma huang, Chinese ephedra, or sida cordifolia – herbs containing ephedrine. If you did not know what these herbs contain you might be completely unaware that you are taking ephedrine.

Being "all-natural” or a medical herb does not guarantee a safe product. Poison ivy is all-natural but makes a nasty skin lotion. Nightshade, hemlock, and foxglove were once used as medicinal herbs. All three are deadly. Tobacco, an herbal product, is also used as insecticide.

Dietary supplements promise painless weight loss. Some people use them without injury. Others get hurt – or die. Use dietary supplements and you are betting your life on a ten-pound weight loss.

Some win that bet. Many lose.

How lucky do you feel?

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Written by Mark N Lardas, copyright 2006, Mark N. Lardas, all rights reserved. Portions reprinted with permission from Listen, January 2004. Copyright © 2007 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines.