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Ephedra is an herbal drug used as an over-the-counter energy enhancer and weight loss aid. Also known as “herbal ecstasy,” dietary supplements containing ephedra have been sold under the names pennyroyal and ma huang.

People may use ephedra recreationally to enhance their energy and help them stay awake to party or study. Due to its performance-enhancing and weight-loss effects, ephedra use by athletes on campus is becoming more prevalent. A national survey by the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) (.pdf file requiring Adobe Acrobat)suggests that almost 4 percent of college athletes used ephedra in 2001, compared to about zero percent of athletes in 1993. The same study found only about 1 percent of the general population used ephedra in 2001.

Because ephedra is plant-derived, many users believe ephedra-containing supplements are not harmful. However, the 1999 ephedra-related death of Baltimore Orioles' pitching prospect Steve Bechler is a tragic example that ephedra can be dangerous and even deadly. Ephedra products may cause psychiatric disorders, dizziness, personality changes, memory loss, rashes, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, heart attack, stroke, angina, heart arrhythmia, and seizures.

Due to the many adverse effects of ephedra, the FDA banned sales of ephedra as a dietary supplement in April 2004, citing research proving ephedra presents an unreasonable risk to users. While supplements containing ephedra can no longer be sold, traditional Chinese medicines, herbal teas, and medications containing synthetic ephedra are not affected by the ban.

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