January 23, 2004

Cardiovascular concerns and the ephedra ban affect dieting techniques

By Joseph Peña

With the Food and Drug Administration’s December ban on the dietary supplement ephedra, linked to 155 deaths and more than a dozen strokes and heart attacks, dieting isn’t as simple as consuming supplements. The ban, effective after a written notice is issued to retailers, will force Americans to consider new dieting techniques.

Alex Salas, a personal trainer and employee at 24-hour Fitness in Point Loma and a dietary supplement store in Mission Valley, said products containing ephedra have not been pulled from shelves yet and has noticed a run in sales.

“I think people are stocking up now, but it [the products] won’t last forever,” said Salas. “People are going to find alternatives—hopefully healthier alternatives.”

With concern over ephedra, derived from the Chinese herbal Ma Huang, Salas said customers have also inquired about the safety of other supplements.

Natural Balance, an herbal dietary supplement supplier in Colorado, is pushing Green Tea as a comparable alternative to ephedra based products.

Natural Balance began offering ephedra-free alternatives after the FDA raised concerns about the stimulant in February 2003.

Green Tea and Korean Ginseng extracts replace ephedra in many of the new products that New Balance offers.

The natural extracts are “healthy and energizing” alternatives to ephedra, said Scott Smith, a spokesman for the company.

“There are a slew of products that can be used as alternatives to ephedra,” said Smith, who also claimed Natural Balance’s ephedra-based products contained less than the allowed amount (90mg) of ephedra in supplements.

The FDA’s decision to ban ephedra followed an investigation into the safety of the stimulant. According to the National Institutes of Health, ephedra is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat respiratory problems. In recent years, it had been marketed to aid weight loss, enhance sports performance and increase energy.

A study by RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, commissioned by the NIH concluded that ephedra is associated with higher risks of heart palpitations, psychiatric and gastrointestinal effects, and symptoms of autonomic hyperactivity such as tremor and insomnia.

Concern was also raised in the investigation of Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler, who used ephedra-based products to supplement his workout routine.

In related news, a new report by the American Heart Association’s Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics 2004 Update, released January 1, shows that cardiovascular disease is the leading killer of Americans, killing more African-Americans and Latinos than other major causes of death (including cancer, accidents, strokes and HIV).

Cardiovascular diseases include high blood pressure, coronary heart disease (heart attack and angina), congestive heart failure, stroke, and congenital heart defects.

Exercise and a healthy diet are still the best recommendation the American Heart Association has for a healthy heart and avoiding the complications dieting and dietary supplements can have on the heart.

According to the NIH, the study also examined 16,000 adverse event reports, including two deaths, four heart attacks, nine strokes, one seizure and five psychiatric cases involving ephedra and no other contributing factors. RAND said the stimulant was not directly responsible for the adverse events but may indicate a safety problem.

Joseph Peña is an intern with the UCSD San Diego EXPORT Center and is a journalism student at Point Loma Nazarene University. The San Diego EXPORT Center is a partnership of organizations focusing on community minority health and health disparities research.

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