Last month the Food and Drug Administration announced a ban of ephedra — the popular herbal weight-loss supplement, citing potential health threats. But the FDA may not have expected ephedra users' reaction to their move. People from all over the country are stockpiling ephedra before the ban takes effect.
Caroyln Cacciotti [WHERE FROM?] says ephedra helped her lose 40 pounds. When news of the ban came down, she was in the right place at the right time. She works at a health food shop that sells the supplement. She says she cleaned out the store. "I went to the shelf, grabbed all the liquids, all the individuals, went through the books," she says.
She's already got 12 bottles in her not-so-secret stash. At two doses a day, that's about a year's supply. And she's not sharing. Not even with her sister-in-law, Jeannie Cacciotti, who lives down the street.
"She was my supplier, you know, because she worked at the store," says Jeannie. "I would say pick me up a bottle, here's the money. And now she's saying, 'No, there's no more left,' because she has it all!"
Dieters Credit the 'Ephedra Stack'
They're desperate to get ephedra quite simply because it works like nothing else for short-term weight loss. But they're quick to point out, ephedra is not a drug. The active ingredient, ephedrine, comes from a plant. But it's a stimulant that increases your heart rate, raises your blood pressure, and speeds up your brain activity.
However, with 16,000 reports of palpitations, heart attack, stroke and other adverse events, including 155 associated deaths – professional athletes among them — the FDA is warning consumers to stop taking ephedra immediately.
Justin Varuzzo [FROM WHERE?] has lost more than 100 pounds. He worked out, but credits ephedra with the drop in pounds. He says combined with diet and exercise, ephedra gives him that extra little something. "Most of the stuff that you buy at the store, like Xenadrine, it's usually ephedra, caffeine, and aspirin mixed together, which they usually call the "ephedra stack," says Varuzzo.
It's that powerful combination — or stack — ephedra users say, that gives them the best results.
Mary Beth Schultz,[FROM WHERE] a mother of three, has been struggling with her weight ever since the birth of her second child. "I used to work out like crazy, and then I had children, and I got married, and I have a job, and I don't have time to work out like I used to," she says.
Schultz lost more than 30 pounds — but says she couldn't have done it without Metabolife, [WHICH HAS EPHEDRA AS KEY INGREDIENT?]
A Staple for Many Athletes
Ephedra works by suppressing the appetite and boosting energy. That's why it's not only popular with people trying to lose weight – it's a staple for many athletes.
Jonathan Salitros is a competitive body builder in Minnesota who says he uses ephedra to help him in his competitions. "If I take one ephedrine pill, stacked, through a Xenadrine product, it'll last about five to six hours," he says. "That's the difference between first and fifth place for me."
"Ephedra was being sold as a performance enhancer not just a weight-loss product. And that's why a lot of athletes were flocking to it," says David Zenczenko, editor in chief of Men's Health Magazine. A surprising 46 percent of men take dietary supplements…[..? DO WE KNOW WHAT TYPES?/ multivitamins or ephedra-related stuff?]
Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler was just 23 years old when he died in spring training last February. His wife filed a $600 million dollar lawsuit against the makers of Xenadrine, the product Bechler was taking – the same product Jonathan Salitros relies on for his competitions. He says Bechler was a poster child for people who shouldn't be taking ephedra in the first place.
Salitros says of Bechler, "He had had high blood pressure, he came in overweight. He was in the heat of southern Florida. He was on a diet that was nothing but liquids. You add that all up, ephedra wasn't made for that kind of situation."
Of course, many users may not know they're at risk. Still, Salitros and the others say it's the misuse of ephedra by some that has resulted in denying the product to everyone else.
But with the bad publicity from Bechler's death, and that of Minnesota Vikings lineman Corey Stringer in 2001, the industry was already scrambling to replace a product that generated $1.3 billion in sales last year.
Dr. Tieorana Low Dog, [WHERE IS SHE] an expert in herbal medicine, knows all about the overwhelming number of weight-loss supplements on the market. "This is a huge business," she says. "And I think that there's a very willing population out there who's very frustrated. And who will pay a lot of money in their attempt to lose weight."
But so far, she says, the industry hasn't been able to find any combination of herbal ingredients that work as well as the ephedra stack.
"There are a lot of products out there that claim to be miracle weight-loss cures. And the majority of them just simply do not deliver what they promise."says Low Dog.
The top ephedra brands have all rushed to replace their old ephedra-laced/based? products with supplements containing a combination of new ingredients — like green tea, or hoodia, a cactus extract.
Anna Nicole Smith, the former plus-sized model turned reality TV star says she's lost 30 pounds on Trimspa, an ephedra-free weight-loss product.
Low Dog says Trimspa and a new ephedra-free Hydroxycut, both of which cost about $40, show promise and should be studied further.
However, she says, "I don't see anything in there that's very impressive. And certainly the product itself with all of the ingredients has not been subjected to any rigorous clinical trial."
While these products may be a waste of your money, she says, they're probably safer than ephedra. But there's one new ingredient to watch out for— bitter orange. It contains synephrine – a compound very similar to ephedra. And it's in lots of products, like Dexatrim.
"We're probably gonna see the same kind of problem that we saw with ephedra… So, we may have just traded one problem for another," she says.
The bottom line is not good news for anyone looking for a safe substitute for ephedra.
Low Dog advises instead, "Invest some of that money that you're spending on these products, some of them which are costing $150 a month, spend that money on a gym membership and go see a nutritionist."
No magic pill has yet emerged to rival the benefits of diet and exercise. Health care professionals say that even with ephedra, weight loss averages just two pounds per month.
But that's not stopping Robin Shultz from finding a supply for his wife. "I'm going to find it. It is out there," he says. "And then there's always Canada. Canada is there for a reason."