The FDA banned the herb ephedra on April 12, 2004, based on reports of deaths in individuals taking it is excessive amounts. To date, there have been a total of only 155 deaths from ephedra abuse, compared to the annual figures of 440,000 deaths from cigarettes, or 110,000 from alcohol. You can still purchase products designed for thermogenesis which may contain ephedra in small quantities.
Now, consumers are turning to bitter orange as a natural replacement for ephedra to keep their weight under control. Bitter
orange contains synephrine as its active ingredient, which is in the same family as ephedrine and other stimulants. Currently, it is still on the FDA list of herbs considered generally safe but such was once the case with ephedra.
There's no doubt that bitter orange should be used under the supervision of a physician, because it does have the potential for side effects, and also because it is the type of herb that some people will over-do in their quest to lose weight.
Products containing ephedrine, the synthetic form of ephedra, remain on the shelves and in pharmacies in many forms of over-the-counter remedies for allergies, asthma, and other forms of nasal congestion in addition to weight loss supplements. This is because ephedrine does not meet the definition of a "dietary" ingredient.
Chinese ephedra (Ephedra equisetina), also known as desert herb or Ma Huang, is a plant with a PR problem. Ephedra is a powerful herb which grows mainly in Mongolia and the bordering regions of China. It has been used in Chinese medicine for at least 5,000 years. It is the herb from which scientists have extracted ephedrine, one of the most effective treatments known for the symptoms of asthma, allergies, and sinus problems.
The Chinese employed ephedra for many uses, including the treatment of asthma and as a natural decongestant and antihistamine. Herbalists in the West have also discovered these benefits and ephedra has become a popular ingredient in herbal combinations for the respiratory system. Since it also has a thermogenic effect (increases basal metabolic rate, slightly raising body temperature and causing calories to be burned at a faster rate), it has also proven to be an effective aid for weight loss. An added bonus for those who use the herb for weight management is its appetite-suppressing effect.
The active ingredients in ephedra are naturally occurring ephedra alkaloids, the most important one being ephedrine. Because it has a stimulating effect, many believe that it contains caffeine. The truth is, the herb ephedra by itself contains no caffeine.
Many herbalists and health practitioners believe ephedra, when taken according to a specific protocol, can safely and effectively help you lose weight - despite its reputation as a troublesome herb. When taken irresponsibly, though, ephedra may cause health problems. Therefore, when considering ephedra as a weight loss aid, it's critical that you consult a health practitioner who's aware of the proper protocol to follow in taking this herb.
Research at Harvard University Medical School [International Journal of Obesity, Feb., 1993] shows that the combination of Ma Huang and caffeine can increase effectiveness and reduce the negative side effects for most people. If caffeine were not used, more of the Ma Huang would be needed to get the same desired effect.
The only kind of thermogenesis directly related to fat management occurs in brown adipose tissue (BAT), tissue that's specialized for converting calories into heat energy. Scientists are beginning to believe that many obesity problems are caused by improper thermogenic metabolism in BAT. BAT is the only tissue in the body that contains a protein called thermogenin, or the "uncoupling" protein. This protein allows BAT cells to convert calories into heat rather than storing them as fat. It also allows BAT cells to burn white fat (fat stored in the body as a result of excess calorie intake).
Heat generated in BAT metabolism of fat-derived calories simply radiates away from BAT into neighboring tissues. Thus, some people experience sensations of heat when consuming BAT-stimulating thermogenic products.
When BAT is active, most if not all excess dietary calories can be burned off in this tissue. Although all humans begin life with adequate BAT, it may gradually decrease in quantity and activity as we mature. Recent research shows that several genes are implicated in the amount and effectiveness of BAT. As BAT disappears or ceases to function, excess dietary calories can no longer be incinerated in the BAT furnace and are stored as body fat instead. This brings us to the simple realization that a primary difference between many overweight and thin people might be healthy, functioning BAT.
The ban on ephedra in the US does not pertain to traditional Chinese herbal remedies nor to products like herbal teas that are regulated as conventional foods. Acupuncturists, herbalists and other practitioners of Oriental medicine will still be allowed to dispense teas, pills and powders containing ephedra for the purpose of treating colds, asthma, persistent cough, headache, water retention and other maladies. Dispensing ephedra for the purpose of weight loss, muscle building and athletic performance will be prohibited.