NFL's warning label on ephedra

Stimulant: A Chinese herb found in dietary supplements has become increasingly popular among athletes, but its dangers are so great that the league now forbids its use.

Pro Football

July 07, 2002|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Like scores of players in the NFL, Jonathan Ogden sought the advantage that dietary supplements could afford him.

Unlike many of those players, however, the Ravens' All-Pro left tackle didn't need last year's ban of ephedrine products to persuade him to abandon them.

Ogden did that on his own, giving up Ripped Fuel - his supplement of choice - once his heart began to race and after he began to feel "jumpy."

"I used it for three or four years," he said, indicating its use was commonplace among Ravens players. He said they would take one or two ephedra capsules "on game day. And sometimes [for] practice."

"I stopped using it," Ogden said, "because I felt the gains I was getting weren't worth it, the way it made me feel sometimes."

The NFL came down hard on dietary supplements in September, just one month after the Minnesota Vikings' Korey Stringer died from heatstroke.

It banned all supplements that contain ephedra, a Chinese herbal stimulant that has been highly popular inside NFL locker rooms the past decade.

The league set last Monday as the date when it would begin random testing for use of the substance that has been called "legal speed." The NFL plans to suspend players who violate the policy.

Ephedra is an ingredient found in some 200 supplements, including Xenadrine RFA-1, Ultimate Orange, Ma Huang and Ripped Fuel. Those products are used for weight loss, to raise energy levels or for building muscle mass. It is also contained in cold and allergy medications.

When used in excessive dosages or in hot weather, ephedra can lead to severe problems. From January 1993 to February 2000, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recorded 1,400 adverse effects associated with the use of ephedra, including 81 deaths and 32 heart attacks.

Side effects range from nervousness, insomnia and hypertension to heart palpitations, seizure, stroke and death.

The Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog organization, has called ephedra "the most lethal dietary supplement" and has urged the FDA to ban it. The FDA was unsuccessful in its attempt even to impose dosage limits.

Tragedy prompts action

Unregulated dietary supplements remain a source of concern to the NFL.

Last year, three college football players died while undergoing various conditioning drills. Two of the three had traces of ephedra in their system at the time of their death.

More highly publicized was the shocking case of Stringer, the Pro Bowl left tackle of the Vikings who died Aug. 1. Stringer collapsed on the field after a steamy morning practice at training camp July 31. By 1:50 a.m. the next day, he was dead.

While a toxicology report showed no evidence of supplements, Stringer's locker that day reportedly held an empty bottle of Ripped Fuel, a vial of an anti-inflammatory prescription drug, an unopened bottle of the weight-loss product Xenadrine, and the herbal supplement Mo Power.

According to league and team officials, ephedra had been on the NFL's radar screen before Stringer's death. But the tragedy prompted the league to re-examine the issue of supplements.

Individual teams like the Ravens have long cautioned players on the dangerous combination of stimulants and heat.

"We've taken a stand on it," Ravens trainer Bill Tessendorf said. "Use of stimulants and ephedrine substances, especially in hot weather, is counterproductive. What it does, it causes your metabolism to increase, which heats your core temperature, which limits the ability of the body to cool, and in a long and hot environment can probably just cook your brain."

Tessendorf said the Ravens have had one incident in practice - sometime in the past two years - in which a player had a reaction to a dietary supplement. The unnamed player suffered from a racing heart but no long-term symptoms.

"Sometimes it happens because of underlying medical problems," Tessendorf said. "In this case, there was no underlying medical problem. It was a case of the use of a supplement that has a stimulant in it, in a hot condition. I was told that `I just took the normal dose,' whether that was true or not."

Dosage is part of the problem. Players would sometimes increase their dosage to achieve a new heightened state, believing that more is better. It is not.

"It's a safety issue," said Sue James, a registered dietitian and consultant to the Ravens. "If you take too much of it, you're going to get yourself in trouble."

Ogden didn't have any adverse effects when he first began taking Ripped Fuel capsules. Those came later.

"I took one before [kickoff] and one at halftime," he said of his game-day regimen. "I felt it gave me a slight edge, kind of got you going, ready to play. But it really wasn't worth it."

Ogden said he became jittery: "You kind of get the shakes. ... That didn't happen originally. It's not like I was getting chills for three years."

Those symptoms notwithstanding, Ogden frowns at the NFL ban.

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