This herbal supplement is extremely popular in sports and recreation, but is more commonly used in its drug form ephedrine hydrochloride. Ephedra is extracted form the Ma Huang plant in China and is very effective as a fat-burner due to its thermogenic action. It was first used thousands of years ago by the Chinese to treat respiratory ailments due to its bronchodialatary effects, for which it is effective as ephedrine hydrochloride is now in conventional medicine.
Ephedra is used all over the world as a slimming aid, a nasal decongestant and as a stimulant. Here, I'll ignore its respiratory effects and focus on its use in sport and bodybuilding. Ephedrine is really the main active component in ephedra. There are different strains of the ephedra herb of varying potency.
Ephedrine is a beta-adrenergic agonist; i.e. it targets the same receptors as the hormone adrenaline. The effects of ephedrine are to raise heart rate and thermic production all over the body. This is why it helps burn fat. Ephedrine also releases noradrenaline to the brain, exerting its stimulatory effect. Upon stimulation, adrenaline is secreted from the adrenal medulla gland into the blood, and in turn, the brain releases noradrenaline. This causes body temperature to rise and fat cells to break down, for immediately ready fuel for a fight or flight situation.
Ephedrine and ephedra are being used in the club scene as a stimulant to party and dance all night, or some drug dealers sell crushed ephedrine off as a cheap version of amphetamine sulphate (speed). This illustrates how big a demand there is for the supplement and the drug.
Studies have shown that 25mg of ephedrine can increase metabolic rate by nearly 10% (Astrup, et al 1992). Ephedra and ephedrine are very effective on their own for the above reactions (Pasquali & Casimirri 1993), but the effects are even more potent when combined with other stimulants including caffeine, guarana and white willow bark. Of particular interest is the ephedrine-caffeine-aspirin stack (eca), where all three compounds work synergistically to produce a very effective and strong effect. The eca stack is available as a drug containing ephedrine hydrochloride or as a herbal preparation (supplement) containing ephedra. The use of eca is also quite wide.
The effects of ephedrine and ephedra on muscle sparing during low calorie intakes are also well documented (Pasquali, et al 1992). Unfortunately, there is little documented evidence on the direct performance enhancing effects of ephedrine and ephedra in sports. This is due to the fact that ephedrine is on the International Olympic Committee's (IOC's) banned list, and the reluctance for more than minute doses in approval of studies, even of ephedra. However, you have only got to use ephedra or eca once to know that ephedrine works as a stimulant.
Ephedrine's effects as a slimming aid are threefold:
1. It is a thermogenic aid, i.e. it burns fat
2. It suppresses appetite
3. It is a stimulant providing more energy to perform even when you are on a very low calorie intake
Like ephedrine, ephedra too has side effects, despite being 'natural'. These include shakiness, disorientation, excessive thirst, perfuse sweating, wakefulness, polyuria and dull headaches. These are all dose dependant, and its appetite suppressing effects may also be negative if you are the type of bodybuilder who struggles to eat sufficient food in order to gain weight. Ephedra use can also make some people a bit short fused and aggressive, and this is even more so on the eca stack; avoid ephedra it if this is the case. As with any supplement, some people just don't get on with it very well, and don't like the way they feel on it; again, if this is the case with you, don't use it.
As ephedrine/ephedra tend to increase blood pressure and heart rate, avoid ephedra if you are diabetic, have heart problems, have thyroid problems or suffer with high blood pressure. Also, people with nervous conditions or those who are highly stressed or depressed should avoid it. Even if you are perfectly healthy, do not exceed the recommended dosage, or you'll suffer with insomnia (for the same reasoning, don't take it too late in the evening), anxiety or even panic attacks.
Also, with chronic use of ephedra, you build resistance to it very quickly. One study showed that one week using ephedra significantly depressed the beta-adrenergic response (Nelson, et al 1975), and the suppression was still apparent 36 hours after the last ephedra ingestion. Therefore in order to optimise its use a regimen of cycling is in order.
Using ephedrine alone, the amount needed to initiate an effect varies from 25mg to 100mg, but some users claim they need even more for an effect. This demonstrates reliance, and why I recommend ephedrine/ephedra are not used every day. For an effective safe dose, take between 420mg - 840mg of ephedra standardised to 6% ephedrine alone, which equates to the above in ephedrine hydrochloride. Take this a maximum of three times a day, though once may suffice, 30 minutes before exercising or before meals (as food lessens the stimulatory effect). If you use the eca stack, the doses I've suggested above can come right down.
Some supplement companies suggest one day on, one day off; I would disagree with this. It is better to use ephedra irregularly, and I would have at least two days free from it each week, and also suggest periods of a few weeks where you do not use it at all. Please do not overuse ephedra, I've seen so many people overdo it, and the true long-term effects of chronic use are not really known, but are likely to be liver problems. Using it the way I have suggested will minimise any chance of problems.
As you've probably noticed, I'm raving about ephedra, and so why haven't I included it in the Top 10 Supplements chapter? It certainly has a role in bodybuilding, for bodybuilders trying to lose fat, whether it is pre-contest or for general weight control, or as a stimulant for a great workout. It's also extremely useful to take ephedra after a hard days work when you have to go to the gym, because if you're too tired, you cannot train with true intensity. The reason why I don't consider ephedra to be a useful supplement, is simply because it is used much more in its drug form ephedrine hydrochloride, and is cheaper in this form, even on the black market. This is an illustration of the fine line of difference between a 'supplement' and a 'drug'. Essentially, ephedra and ephedrine are exactly the same, but as one is viewed as a 'herbal supplement' it is therefore legal. In eca formulas this is also the case.
Currently, the laws in many countries, including the UK and USA, are vague concerning ephedrine, but it is banned. The control of the herb ephedra is now being looked into, as it is essentially the same. We may
"I do consider ephedra and the eca stack well worth using for many bodybuilders and athletes."
I do consider ephedra and the eca stack well worth using for many bodybuilders and athletes. As I will not condone the use of drugs in sport, ephedra-based formulas are the only effective natural alternative, but bear in mind that the effects are the same as taking banned ephedrine hydrochloride.
see it too becoming illegal in the not too distant future. This is really likely in the USA.
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