Psychology Department

Health Psychology Home Page

Papers written by students providing scientific reviews of topics related to health and well being

Search HomeWeight LossAlternative Therapy | Supplements | Eating Disorders | Fitness | Links | Self-Assessment | About this Page |


Ephedrine and It's Effect on Weight Loss?

Oliver Jolis

The Dilemma

It is dilemma that affects the world over, its scope nothing short of the earth's 25,000 mile circumference. However, in certain cultures it is a more significant issue than in others. Nevertheless, it can affect every aspect of our lives, driving many even to suicide. Few, if any, are naturally invincible to its hidden wrath. This invisible, yet potent dilemma is obesity, or simply weight control.

In countries, such as the United States, weight control is a common, yet, dire issue. Especially, in a society where thin is in, but for many, so are fatty foods and infrequent exercise, there is a huge and growing demand for quick, easy schemes to lose weight. However, the true importance of being overweight, is often misconstrued. For the majority, being overweight is frightening because of it's social ramifications, while the many important health risks are often overlooked. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, being overweight is a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and several types of cancer. Thus, the weight loss business has skyrocketed over the past decade, becoming a multi-billion dollar industry. Despite the seemingly countless 'magical' diet schemes available to the public, a product and/or method has yet to emerge which allows for quick, easy and physically safe weight-loss. One chemical in particular, however, has showed increasingly promising signs regarding this issue. The chemical is ephedrine.

Ephedrine and It's Uses

Derived from the Chinese plant ma huang, ephedra or better known as ephedrine, is found both naturally and synthetically in various dietary supplements, over the counter herbal stimulants, prescription cold and flu remedies, asthmatic aid products, as well as several illicit drugs. Ephedra has been used for over two thousand years to treat "bronchial asthma cold and flu, chills, lack of perspiration, headache, nasal congestion, aching joints and bones, cough and wheezing and edema. In Western terms, ma-huang is considered to have diaphoretic, diuretic, central nervous system stimulating and antiasthmatic activity. The stem (herb) of ephedra contains a number of active compounds, including small amounts of an essential oil, and most important, one or two percent alkaloids composed mainly of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, with ephedrine ranging from thirty to ninety percent depending on the source."

Alone, ephedrine is a very powerful amphetamine-like compound. However, as "Mark Blumenthal editor of HerbalGram and executive director of the American Botanical Council, was saying that he has used the stems and twigs of the Chinese herb ma-huang as a cold remedy for twenty years. He pointed out that the effects of ephedrine, a stimulant alkaloid in ma-huang should not be confused with the whole herb itself. This is a good example of how the effects of a whole herb and its isolated constituents must be considered separately. One should not confuse ephedrine and pseudoephedrine with ephedra, just like one shouldn't confuse pure caffeine with coffee." It's Side Effects "The effects of ephedra are generally attributed to the alkaloid ephedrine which"... "may induce aggressiveness, anxiety and tremor which can lead to poor judgement, potentially placing the individual at risk of injury. Heart rate and blood pressure can be increased causing dehydration and decreased circulation. Complications from these adverse effects may result in cerebral hemorrhage, (stroke), and cardiac arrhythimies, (heart irregularities), that can result in cardiac arrest and death."

Ephedrine's Effects on Weight Loss

Despite its many potentially harmful side effects, ephedrine is for the most part, dangerous only if abused. Nevertheless, it offers a variety of positive qualities in terms of its beneficial effects on particular aspects of the mind and body. One of its more significant qualities is its potential effect on weight loss. Ephedrine has the unique ability to stimulate thermogenesis in the human body. It works by, essentially, speeding up the heart rate, thus inducing a faster metabolism. "To lose body fat, you must burn more energy than you eat so that your body has to draw upon the fuel stored in fat cells. The only way to lose weight is to increase the amount of fuel you burn, decrease the amount you consume, or do both at the same time. The rate at which you can lose weight is limited by how fast the body burns energy." (Is there any Magic?)

Over the past three or four years there has been a flurry of studies regarding ephedrine and its current and potential effects on weight loss. For the most part, these particular studies are conducted on laboratory rats under strictly supervised conditions.

"Ephedra is sometimes combined with other stimulants like caffeine or ginseng. Phenylpropanolamine is a related compound that is sold over the counter, often in combination with caffeine, as a weight loss aid.... These stimulants are effective aids in inducing small to moderate weight losses. Animal studies suggest that they work by both reducing appetite and by stimulating fat metabolism(Wellman & Sellars, 1986). When taken at the recommended dosages, they often lead to few adverse symptoms or side effects."

1993 issue of the International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders states, "The purpose of the present study was to establish the effectiveness of ephedrine and/or theophylline on alimentary obesity...It also seems suitable for establishing whether thermogenic drugs affect the activity of plasma and adipose tissue lipoprotein lipase. This enzyme is known as a 'metabolic gatekeeper' and may play a key role in the pathophysiology of obesity."

According to a similar study in the November 1992 issue of Metabolism: Clinical and Experimental, "Although in acceptable doses, the thermogenic effects of these methylxanthines seem to be too mild for obesity therapy, current interest focuses on their ability to potentiate the thermogenic effect of ephedrine-a sympathomimetic with both anorectic and thermogenic properties-which has been shown to enhance weight loss in diet-restricted patients. The interaction between ephedrine and caffeine on whole-body thermogenesis has now been confirmed in man, and combinations of these drugs have been shown to be safe and more effective than either ephedrine or caffeine alone in facilitating weight loss."

The Real Problem with Ephedrine

The real problem with ephedrine is directly related to its powerful side effects and the fact that products containing ephedrine are easily obtained and sold with "little federal oversight." A published report dated October 12, 1995 reveals that the FDA is just beginning to make an attempt at "stringently" regulating the drug. "Prompted by growing concern that these (dietary supplement) products contain enough ephedrine to cause serious and sometimes fatal heart and nervous system side effects,...the advisory committee on Wednesday began reviewing research into about 100 ephedrine-containing supplements, to help the FDA decide how far to go in regulating them. A key question is whether certain people could be warned that they are at particular risk or if the substance is too dangerous to stay on the market." The same report stated that "more than 330 Americans have suffered side effects from ephedrine-containing products, including 12 deaths." A more recent article dated August 28, 1996, states that more than 800 have suffered serious side effects and 17 have died because of ephedrine related complications.


In short, ephedrine has shown promising signs in terms of its generally positive effects on the human body, especially on the reduction of fat and body weight. Studies have shown that ephedrine is most effective as a weight loss stimulant when used in conjunction with other drugs, such as caffeine. Research has also shown that is is virtually impossible to achieve weight loss without a healthy diet and regular exercise. Therefore, it seems that the optimal solution to lose weight must involve the proper combination of diet, exercise, and drug interaction. Ephedrine may hold the key to fill in for the drug portion of the equation, but as with practically all drugs, there are risks involved. Whether ephedrine is too dangerous to be sold in over the counter products, is still under debate. Ephedrine does have great potential, yet is it worth the risks?


"Effect of ephedrine and theophylline on weight loss, resting energy expenditure and lipoprotein lipase activity in obese over-fed rats." The International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, June 1993. Malecka-Tendera, E.

"Is there any Magic" Dr. David Schlundt, 1996.

"Potentiation of the thermogenic antiobesity effects of ephedrine by dietary methylxanthines: adenosine antagonism or phosphodiesterase inhibition?" Metabolism: Clinical and Experimental,

November 1992. Dulloo, A.G., Seydoux, J., Girardier, L.


Psychology Department

The Health Psychology Home Page is produced and maintained by David Schlundt, PhD.

Vanderbilt Homepage | Introduction to Vanderbilt | Admissions | Colleges & Schools | Research Centers | News & Media Information | People at Vanderbilt | Libraries | Administrative Departments | Medical 

  Return to the Health Psychology Home Page
  Send E-mail comments or questions to Dr. Schlundt


Search: Vanderbilt University
the Internet
  Help  Advanced
Tip: You can refine your last query by searching only the results by clicking on the tab above the search box
Having Trouble Reading this Page?  Download Microsoft Internet Explorer.