Supplements ephedra

Published on April 6th, 2013 | by


Ephedra for Weight Loss: Should You Take It?

Ephedra as a weight loss aid has been banned in many countries, but it’s still easy to get. Here’s why not to take it.

Ephedra is an herb. It comes from a plant. It’s a natural substance. Since it’s natural, it should be just fine to take, right?


Hemlock, mercury, lead and asbestos are also natural, and you wouldn’t ingest them. Okay, ephedra certainly isn’t as toxic as those, but it sure isn’t good for you, and there are plenty of reasons not to take it.

But why bring this up? Wasn’t ephedra banned?

Yes, in the United States. The FDA banned the sale of all ephedra-containing supplements in 2004 after accumulating evidence about its adverse effects, including a number of deaths. However, you can still find it in Canada. If you’re not in Canada, there’s always the Internet.

I actually discovered this by accident. The only supplements I take are Vitamin D in the winter because I live up north, and I get those at a grocery store. However, for the first time ever I wandered into a bodybuilding supplement store to see what was on the shelves to better understand what active people were taking in an effort to build muscle, lose weight, and boost performance. I don’t want to take any of these things, but I do like to write about them.

Holy cow. The place sure had a lot of protein powder in it.

It also had ephedra, with a label affixed that said “For Nasal Decongestion.”

What. The. Hell?

I said to the shopkeeper, “I thought that stuff was illegal.”

“Banned in the US, but not here,” he said.

“Banned in the US, but not here,” he said. “We only sell it as a nasal decongestant. You don’t take it for weight loss.” That last sentence was a blatant ass-covering manoeuvre. “We don’t sell it as an ECA stack either, although there’s nothing stopping you from learning how to make your own stack on the Web.”

An ECA stack is the popular weight loss formulation of ephedra that used to be sold prior to the banning in the US under names like Hydroxycut. The “E” stands for ephedra, and the other two are caffeine and aspirin. The inclusion of caffeine is to enhance and prolong the effect of the ephedra, and it is believed that the aspirin will slow the removal of ephedra from the bloodstream via urination, so it sticks around longer to do its work.

And what kind of work is that? What is it about ephedra that makes you lose weight? Answer: it kicks your sympathetic nervous system into overdrive. (As part of an ECA stack it might suppress appetite as well.) This is the same part of your body that regulates the “fight or flight” response to a stressful situation, ramping up your metabolism to either kick some ass or flee in terror. Effects include:

  • Elevated heart rate
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Increased body temperature
  • Increased blood flow to the brain

And don’t forget about the increased risk of psychiatric and autonomic symptoms, and heart palpitations.

By stimulating the nervous system, ephedra, especially when mixed with caffeine, has the ability to turn you into a twitchy, heart-racing, nervous wreck, and this burns calories.

Here’s a truth in advertising tagline: Spaz yourself thin with ephedra!

But is it really that unsafe?

It depends on how you define “unsafe.” I would define death as unsafe, and this stuff has definitely killed people, including a pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles.

But perhaps I’m exaggerating. After all, when taken at the doctor’s recommended dosages a 2002 article in the International Journal of Obesity said it was supposed to be safe. Besides the fact that the findings were criticized because of the small size of the study, people who take ECA for weight loss likely aren’t all that restrained in using them.

Imagine this scenario: The bottle says take two, twice a day for moderate weight loss.

What it might as well say is: “Take a handful, frequently, for kickass weight loss.”

Tell me you don’t know anyone who thinks that way. I know plenty, and they didn’t just think that way, they acted on it: scarfing ECA pills like they were Skittles and vibrating the fat away. Remember, this was not a pharmaceutical. People just walked into stores and pulled it off shelves to self-medicate. You can get some now at a supplement story and down it with an aspirin and an venti Starbucks to get your quickie ECA stack fix.

Don’t, though.

Did it at least work?

Yup. A bit.

One study found you could lose as much as two pounds a month more than compared with placebo. This is certainly is measurable and prompted many people to take this supplement.

Do you want to know something that works better? Embracing a healthy lifestyle as a long-term strategy for success.

This is the unscientific portion of the article. I think supplements like this take more than they give. I think they cheat you out of the whole Zen mindset of enjoying the pursuit health cleanly which is critical to sustained weight loss. That’s just me, though.

By the way, I phoned three separate pharmacies and asked them if they sold ephedra for nasal decongestion. Even though they were legally entitled to sell it, all of them replied with an emphatic “No.”

You may also be interested to know that Hydroxycut came out with a new version after ephedra was banned, and not only did it not work for weight loss, it did an amazing job of nuking your liver and was eventually recalled. But did that stop them? Hell, no. They’re back again, relying mostly on caffeine as their new miracle ingredient.

James S. Fell, CSCS, is the co-founder of James is a nationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. His book, Lose It Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind is coming from Random House in Fall, 2013.

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