INTRODUCTIONThis study was completed to examine the history of ephedra and the problems with ephedra in weight loss supplements. It analyzes the medicinal purposes of the plant, the issue with these supplements in the sports industry, and in the weight-loss industry. EARLY HISTORY OF EPHEDRAEphedra is also referred to as ma-huang. It is a Chinese plant that has been used for more than 5,000 years in Chinese medicine.
Many years ago, it was known to assist blood flow, to induce perspiration, to reduce fever, and to reduce or prevent coughing. The stems of Ephedra were the main ingredient in common antitussive remedies. There are different species of Ephedra across the world. Each species produces different amounts of ephedrine alkaloids. (Lee, M. R.
, 2011) Ephedrine alkaloids are located in the stem of the plant, along with many other components, including pseudoephedrine. Ephedra plants in North America contain little to no ephedra alkaloids, while plants found in China and India contain a more potent amount of alkaloids. Ephedrine alkaloids raise the heart rate, raise blood pressure, suppress appetite, and stimulate the Central Nervous System. (NIH Office of Dietary Supplements, 2004) The ephedra plant was overlooked for a period of time until it was rediscovered in the early 1920’s.
Studies of ephedra were completed on cats and dogs, and the physicians determined it was similar to adrenaline. They determined that the effects of ephedra lasted longer than adrenaline. At the time, this information was revolutionary. Adrenaline was used to treat asthma but it could not be given orally since enzymes in the stomach would destroy it at a rapid rate. Adrenaline also did not help with the treatment of asthma attacks. By the mid-1930’s ephedra was recognized as a treatment for asthma. Shortages of ephedra occurred in 1937 when Japan invaded northern China.
Due to this shortage, South Dakota State College in the United States learned how to grow ephedra. At the same time, India made ephedra more widely available by expanding their crops. After many unsuccessful attempts, scientists discovered how to synthesize ephedra. This discovery made it less necessary to obtain the plant from China and India. Ephedra sales increased in the 1940’s and 1950’s as an oral bronchodilator. It was commonly used in conjunction with other bronchodilators such as caffeine. The most common tablets taken at this time were Franol and Amisec.
(Lee, M. R., 2011)EPHEDRA IN THE SPORTS INDUSTRYEphedra has proven to be a very versatile plant. Its components have been used to treat allergies, hay fever, asthma, bronchitis, colds, flus, and a variety of other ailments. The use of ephedrine as a therapeutic drug decreased in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
At this time, ephedra began to get the reputation of a recreational drug since it was easily accessible and cost-effective. It began to be used by athletes since they believed it increased their performance. Ephedra was easy for athletes to abuse. If it was detected in their urine, they could indicate that they were taking medication for a bronchial condition. In reality, they would obtain ephedra on the streets in very high and possibly fatal quantities.
There were many cases in which professional athletes tested positive for ephedrine. (Lee, M. R., 2011) In 1994, Diego Maradona, a famous soccer player in the 1980’s, tested positive for ephedrine after a random drug test during the World Cup. He insisted that he had a prescription from his physician due to an asthma condition. (New York Times, 1994) After failing the second test, Maradona was sent home from the World Cup and was later banned from the team for 15 months.
(Williams, B. 2008). After this story, it became a requirement to test athlete’s urine routinely for ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, and other components of the plant that may act to enhance the player’s performance. Another famous story, one that ended tragically, is the story of Steve Bechler.
Steve Bechler was a 23-year old baseball pitcher from the Baltimore Orioles. In 2003, while searching for a dietary supplement, he discovered one that was later determined to contain ephedra. Bechler was doing training drills on a hot day and collapsed on the field. He was rushed to the hospital and was pronounced dead the following day. An autopsy was performed and determined that Bechler had a high concentration of ephedrine in his blood. The cause of death was an abnormally increased fever, which is a common problem with ephedrine overdoses. Since Steve Bechler was a young and fit athlete, his death caused outrage across the country.
(Lee, M. R., 2011) Bechler had been taking a dietary supplement called Xenadrine RFA-1, which contained ephedra. (The Baltimore Sun, 2003) Regardless of whether or not Bechler was trying to cut corners, or if he was taking a dietary supplement to genuinely try and get into shape, this company was marketing to a vulnerable individual who had his life taken from him far too soon. Before the Bechler incident, it was legal to purchase dietary supplements that contained ephedra. Not long after this incident, ephedra was banned for use within the sports industry.