Ephedrine and Ephedra Alkaloids for Weight Loss [Side Effects & Benefits]
Ephedra alkaloids refer to the bioactive constituents found in the ephedra plant extract.
Of these alkaloids, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are believed to contribute most of the medicinal effects.
Not all species of this plant contain alkaloids and some species contain more than others. The Chinese ephedra sinica (Ma Huang) species is considered to be one of the most potent, with the highest ephedrine and total alkaloid concentration.
Ephedrine functions as a stimulant and is used in weight loss stacks to boost energy, increase metabolism and reduce appetite. The presence of ephedrine alkaloids has been banned in dietary supplements due to the risk of side effects.
Bodybuilders and dieters often turn to other legal sources of ephedrine pills to use instead or they take ephedra extract supplements that do not contain any alkaloids.
What are the ephedra alkaloids and what are their purported effects for weight loss? This article will review how this plant extract works, how it can affect the body and the risk of negative effects. Click here to buy ephedra supplements online legally without a prescription.
Ephedra has had a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine for the treatment of lung and breath conditions.
A number of phenylalanine-derived alkaloids have been isolated from this plant and shown to exhibit physiological effects. Of these alkaloids, ephedrine is the most widely recognizable.
An alkaloid is a type of naturally occurring nitrogenous organic chemical compound that has a pharmacological effect when consumed by humans. Many plants are sources of alkaloids with bioactive effects, some of which include caffeine, nicotine, morphine, strychnine and quinine.
Ephedrine isn’t the only alkaloid found in the ephedra plant and not all species of this plant contain the same profile or concentration of alkaloids. Among the most commonly identified ephedra alkaloids include:
- Norephedrine (also known as phenylpropanolamine or norpseudoephedrine)
Collectively, the ephedra alkaloids have a stimulatory effect on the central nervous system. They have an influence on heart rate, lung function, brain function, urinary function, digestion, mood regulation, appetite control, energy metabolism, fat oxidation and more.
This plant is also a source of amino acids, tannins, proanthocyanidin compounds and a number of other phytochemicals with physiological effects. However, it is the alkaloids that are usually viewed as the source of ephedra’s stimulant mechanisms.
Some of the above alkaloids have been isolated and developed into synthetic pharmaceutical drugs for the treatment of bronchial spasms, asthma, allergy symptoms as well as for use in cough and cold medications today.
The ephedrine alkaloid is a sympathomimetic amine, which means that it increases activation of the sympathetic nervous system.
Ephedrine works in part by enhancing activation of alpha and beta-adrenergic receptors in the body and by increase catecholamine neurotransmission.
According to one study published by the NIH, “Of the ephedra alkaloids, ephedrine is the most potent thermogenic agent. It may function as an anorectic by acting on the satiety center in the hypothalamus.”
It produces many of the same effects that we associate with an adrenaline rush, in part because it has a similar chemical structure to adrenaline (epinephrine). This hormone is typically released in periods of high stress or excitement to ready the body to take action in response to some threat.
Alpha receptors are typically found throughout the arteries. Alpha receptors trigger the constriction of vascular arteries. This increases blood pressure as well as blood flow.
Beta-1 adrenergic receptors have an influence over the heart muscle, increasing not only heart rate but also force of contractions. These receptors also have an effect on kidneys, increasing secretions of renin.
Beta-2 receptors have an influence on smooth muscle tissues, primarily those that line the lungs. They can trigger the bronchi and bronchioles and other smooth muscle tissues to dilate or relax, increasing flow of oxygen.
Use of ephedrine results in an energy boost, greater mental alertness, physical stamina as well as increased metabolism. Bodybuilders, athletes, and people who want to lose weight are interested in these properties because this alkaloid can cause your body to burn more calories and fat.
However, these same mechanism can also contribute to side effects, which is why this ingredient is now banned in products labeled as dietary supplements.
Effects of the Other Ephedra Alkaloids
What is the role of the other alkaloids in this plant on the human body? While ephedrine remains one of the best-studied alkaloids, there are other components in this plant that exert an effect on metabolism.
The Ephedra Sinica plant contains the highest concentration of Total Alkaloid Content out of the species that have been analyzed so far.
According to one source, the stems of this plant contain 1-3% total alkaloids, with 30-90% of that consisting of the L-ephedrine alkaloid. This means that 10-70% of the remaining alkaloids will consist of the following:
Pseudoephedrine – Primarily found in decongestant medications today, pseudoephedrine has the ability to dilate and widen airways, increasing oxygenation and relieving symptoms of asthma that restrict airflow.
Methylephedrine – A derivative of ephedrine, methylephedrine also has the potential to stimulate the nervous system. Because of its mechanism of action, it has the potential to cause negative side effects ranging from anxiety to changes in heart function, hallucinations, lack of appetite, and for some, the inability to urinate.
Norephedrine – Has an impact on the body as a sympathomimetic amine, triggering the release of norepinephrine (noradrenaline) and also behaves as a blood vessel constrictor as well as appetite suppressant.
Norpseudoephedrine – Classified as belonging to the family of amphetamines and acts as a psychostimulant. It also triggers the release of norepinephrine (noradrenaline).
All of the ephedra alkaloids have been observed to increase activation of the nervous system. They are all structurally related to amphetamines and may stimulate thermogenesis and contribute to weight loss.
Ephedrine Alkaloids for Weight Loss
According to research studies sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), ephedrine and ephedra supplements are “associated with a modest but statistically significant increase in weight loss over a relatively short time.”
Users often take ephedrine to increase metabolism and burn more calories. When you naturally burn more energy throughout the day even at rest, it may become easier to achieve a negative calorie balance which is necessary for weight loss.
Ephedrine alkaloids stimulate a faster heart rate, greater oxygen delivery throughout the body and overall energy production. Much of this energy production comes in the form of thermogenesis, which refers to the burning of calories to produce body heat.
This alkaloid also causes users to feel less hungry and may inhibit appetite signaling in the brain. While users often view this as a secondary benefit, it may be that most of the body weight reduction associated with ephedrine comes from its effects on appetite suppression.
While ephedra diet pills have been shown to work for fat loss, the total reduction body weight is typically minimal. According to one meta-analysis, this product can contribute to anywhere between 1-2 pounds of additional weight loss per month over a placebo.
This product may primarily be of benefit to individuals with an already lean body mass. Long-term results for individuals who are obese or overweight will require changes in lifestyle including diet and exercise.
Ban on Ephedrine Alkaloids
Products containing ephedrine are no longer legal in the USA when sold as dietary supplements for weight loss. In 2004, the FDA issued a ban on the sale of ephedrine alkaloids as ingredients in diet pills, energy boosters or weight loss supplements.
This ban is often reported as an “ephedra ban”, but it only restricted the sale of the ephedrine and pseudoephedrine alkaloids. Other alkaloids in this plant were not covered by the ban and other species of ephedra that do not contain ephedrine were also not covered.
As a result, there are a number of ephedra extract products sold legally in the USA today. These products contain species of ephedra plants with low or no alkaloid content.
Often, manufacturers will replace the ephedrine alkaloids with other botanicals such as country mallow or bitter orange (a source of synephrine). These natural alternatives may function as sympathomimetic amines and mimic some of the effects of ephedrine for fat loss.
Some bodybuilders and dieters have switched to these legal versions of ephedra extract supplements. However, many still but ephedrine HCL pills which are sold over-the-counter as asthma remedies and nasal decongestants. These products are not approved for use as weight loss aids.
Potential users of any product that contains ephedrine or pseudoephedrine should be aware that combining more than one type of stimulant in the body at a time can trigger a number of adverse reactions.
Athletes and dieters often combine the ephedrine alkaloids found in some medicinal products with caffeine or other herbal stimulants to enhance benefits. This increases the risk of dangerous side effects including heart attack, stroke, seizure, mental health issues and more.
Anyone taking ephedrine or ephedra alkaloids should be aware of the potential dangers of misuse, overuse, or abuse. Consult with a doctor first and use these products with caution and discretion to minimize the potential for negative results.