Ephedra extract is an ingredient in some dietary supplements used to boost energy or aid in weight loss. While ephedra has been banned in supplement form, its active alkaloid, ephedrine, still is used in some asthma medications. Ephedra and ephedrine share many similarities and carry slightly different health risks. Before using ephedra or ephedrine, talk to your physician.
Ephedra sinica is a Chinese plant that contains ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, both of which have stimulant properties. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, Ephedra sinica may contain 1 percent to 3 percent active alkaloids, with up to 90 percent of these being ephedrine. Additional active compounds in ephedra include norpseudoephedrine, norephedrine and pseudoephedrine. Other species within the Ephedra family, such as Ephedra nevadensis, also contain these alkaloids in much smaller quantities.
Ephedra sinica was once a common ingredient in over-the-counter energy boosters and diet supplements. In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration removed ephedra from the supplement market after numerous reports of serious adverse health effects. According to Mayo Clinic.com, ephedrine has been proved to help manage asthmatic airway constriction and low blood pressure, while ephedra has not. For this reason, ephedrine is still used in some pharmaceutical preparations for respiratory conditions like asthma, though it has been largely replaced by safer drugs.
While ephedrine is capable of causing harmful side effects, ephedra supplements carry additional risks. Ephedra extract has been linked with heart arrhythmia, stroke, high blood pressure and heart attack, according to Mayoclinic.com. Unlike pharmaceutical ephedrine, supplemental ephedra may contain unknown levels of active alkaloids due to looser FDA regulation of dietary supplements in general. Some ephedra supplements also contain additional stimulants like caffeine or yohimbe, which can magnify their harmful effects.
Because of the serious health risks associated with ephedra supplements, itís best to avoid using them altogether. Ask your doctor before using ephedrine or ephedra, especially if you suffer from a cardiovascular condition like hypertension. Use ephedrine only as directed and avoid combining it with caffeine or other stimulants. Stop using ephedrine and seek medical help immediately if you develop side effects like irregular heartbeat or chest pain. If you choose to take ephedra supplements, start with the lowest effective dose and follow instructions for its use carefully.