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Move Over Monster – Far More Deaths Linked To Ephedra

Monster energy drinks
(Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

From all the hysteria over the recent deaths reported from alleged over-use of energy drinks, including Monster,  it seems we’ve forgotten a far more tragic dietary situation from not that long ago.

Who remembers “Stacker?”  The famous dietary supplement that was consumed in numbers exceeding millions of pills, and was hawked on TV by professional wrestlers.   Turns out ephedra ended up being banned in the U.S. by the FDA in 2004, after it was linked to nearly 100 deaths.  While it was banned for use in diet pills or nutritional supplements, it is still found in certain medications.

Stacker was but one of a number of diet drugs available over the counter that originally carried a mix (or “stack”) of caffeine, ephedra, and other substances.   When the FDA banned the drug,  Stacker and other companies removed it, and replaced it with other reportedly successful metabolic enhancers to help people burn calories and lose weight. The original Stacker was a powerful supplement, even my wife and I used it before the ban.

However,  ephedra was tied to numerous deaths across the country.  The FDA began to issue warnings about the drug as early as 1996, but little was done.  It was not really until a number of professional and college athletes deaths were reportedly linked to the drug that it became a household news story.  Ultimately, the FDA banned the drug in 2004.

Much of the reason for the ‘ban’ on the pills was because ephedra caused many of the same symptoms as epinephrine, a drug used to treat severe, life threatening allergic reactions. Epinephrine, like ephedra, stimulates the heart, raises dropping blood pressure and opens constricted airways.  When you’re watching a medical show, and you hear the doctor say “epi-stat!”, that’s what he’s referring to.

According to many health professionals, too many people were abusing ephedra based products, often people in moderate to poor health.  The drug would (when combined with caffeine and other elements) artificially stimulate the heart, blood system, and metabolism and when combined with vigorous exercise, could over-stress a person’s body.    That’s why many of the 100 deaths linked to ephedra use involved the heart.

In 2005, a lower court judge overturned the FDA ban on the drug, but it was later upheld in 2006.   If you want to, and search hard enough, you can still find ephedra based diet-related pills or products, but for the most part they are not commercially available to the average person who is looking for an everyday, over-the-counter supplement to help them lose weight.

While we are NOT downplaying the recent stories about alleged health issues resulting from reported abuse of energy drinks,  we seem to forget in general that when we start trying to play “chemist” with our bodies, or do things to ourselves with diet, food and other chemicals, we can often end up hurting ourselves.  There is NO substitute for consulting with your doctor before you decide to diet, begin to exercise regularly, or undergo any other potential significant change in your physical lifestyle.  That’s just being smart!

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