New workout supplements, similar risks

Alternatives can have side effects like those of discredited ephedra

December 07, 2003|By Julie Deardorff | Julie Deardorff,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO - Searching for a legal way to speed up her metabolism and burn fat, Chicago fitness competitor Beth Horn, 29, turned to an ephedra-free supplement. Though she found the effects less potent than with ephedra, she didn't get the adrenaline kick she wanted for her intense workouts.

"Without ephedra, it's just caffeine to get you going," said Horn. "I don't think it's enough."

Six months after Illinois led the nation by banning the sale of supplements containing the herb ephedra, new products are promising better results.

The products might be less potent and perhaps easier on the system, but researchers say an "ephedra-free" label doesn't guarantee safety or efficacy.

Many of the products contain synephrine, a weaker relative of ephedra that has undergone far less scrutiny. Synephrine, found in the herb citrus aurantium - commonly known as bitter orange - has been used for centuries by Chinese herbalists to treat allergies, digestive problems and colds.

Charges up system

It works much as ephedra does - by charging up the metabolism and stimulating the central nervous system - but has some of the same potential side effects, such as increased blood pressure, said Christine Haller, a clinical pharmacologist at the University of California at San Francisco.

Products with synephrine can cause hypertension, heart attacks and strokes, especially when mixed with concentrates of other caffeine-rich herbs such as guarana and mate.

Studies also have shown that bitter orange has an effect similar to that of grapefruit: It can prevent a specialized enzyme from working and metabolizing certain medications.

"Thus, like grapefruit juice, it can cause an alarming increase in the blood levels of many drugs," said Sidney M. Wolfe, director of the Health Research Group for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group pushing for a nationwide ban on ephedra products.

"From a policy standpoint, getting rid of ephedra won't take care of the problem," said Haller, who studies ephedra-free products. "The law allows for these snake-oil medications to be put out as food products and lets the consumer be guinea pigs. It just means there is less known" about new products.

The lucrative ephedra market crashed this year after the herb was implicated in the deaths of professional, college and high school athletes, including Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler and 16-year-old Sean Riggins, who suffered a heart attack.

Ephedra challenges

Petitions to the Food and Drug Administration to ban the substance, class action lawsuits against manufacturers and ephedra bans in Illinois, New York and, most recently, California alarmed consumers.

Another blow to ephedra, also known as ma huang, was the skyrocketing insurance premiums for companies that make and sell it.

Scrambling to fill the dietary supplement void, many companies developed products to increase thermogenesis, the production of heat in the body. When a person's metabolic temperature rises, the body taps more of its fat stores for energy.

In addition to caffeine and bitter orange extract - also found in orange marmalade - new ephedra-free formulas include green tea extract, yerba mate, kola nut and guarana.

For bodybuilders and fitness competitors who loved ephedra for its powerful ability to suppress appetite and cut fat without cannibalizing body mass, the new products are, at best, "ephedra light."

"It's like drinking six cups of coffee, and that doesn't work near as well as ephedra because it had the combination of ephedra, caffeine and aspirin for a synergistic effect," said Ottawa's Jeff Johnson, vice chairman of the National Physique Committee, which oversees amateur bodybuilding.

Athletes will just have to work harder, he said, adding, "Ephedra products are one of the few supplements that actually work."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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