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Doctor Doctor: Is it really safe to take diet pills containing ephedrine?

Dear Doctor How does ephedrine work and is it safe to use to help with weight loss?

Can you tell me is it safe to take diet pills that contain ephedrine. I have heard that they can help you lose weight but that they are banned in America?

Ephedrine is the active ingredient found in many diet pills and supplements sold to help with weight loss, as well as improving athletic performance or body-building.

When used in combination with caffeine, ephedrine appears to cause weight loss. However, due to concerns over safety, it has been banned in America.

It is a plant alkaloid that acts in a similar way to adrenaline. It raises blood pressure and is a cardiac stimulant, a bronchodilator (expands the airways to help in easier breathing) and contracts the nasal mucosa.

Ephedrine in any dose may over-stimulate the central nervous system, leading to potentially life-threatening results such as heart attack, seizure, stroke. Also, it can cause psychological side effects such as depression, psychosis, insomnia and anxiety. It should not be taken with other stimulants such as caffeine, or cough and cold products .

People with a history of heart disease, high blood pressure, glaucoma, mental disorder, diabetes, seizures or strokes should avoid taking ephedrine.

Can ephedrine be taken for some medical conditions?

Yes, epinephrine, which is similar to ephedrine but shorter-acting, is a conventional prescription treatment for breathing problems such as severe asthma, as a decongestant for hay-fever and sinusitis, and for low blood pressure problems and myasthenia gravis. This drug has also been used to treat certain sleep disorders such as narcolepsy.

How can you tell if an ephedrine product is safe?

In commercial or herbal products containing ephedrine the amounts of this substance can vary widely. The main concern is that these products have not been thoroughly tested and safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. There can be no guarantee of strength or purity of the ingredients used in the products.

Any supplement containing ephedrine should not exceed 8mg in a single dose, or 24mg of ephedrine per day, or be taken for longer than seven days.

Check the labels on all medicines you take (prescribed and over-the-counter) because they may contain ingredients that could increase your heart rate or blood pressure and could be dangerous if taken with ephedrine.

Remember, ephedrine in any dose can cause serious side-effects especially when combined or used with products containing caffeine.

Also, ephedrine shouldn't be taken for two weeks before or after surgery.

Ephedrine-based diet pills can be expensive and don't address the basics of sensible weight loss. Like other diet pills, once you stop taking them the weight almost always comes back.