Jan. 16, 2004 -- Last month the Food and Drug Administration announced plans to ban the popular herbal weight-loss supplement ephedra, citing potential health threats. But the FDA may not have expected ephedra users' reaction to the move. People from all over the country are stockpiling ephedra before the ban takes effect.
Watch 20/20's full report on ephedra and herbal supplements tonight.
Caroyln Cacciotti of Bridgeport, Conn., 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," 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 Cacciotti. "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 because they say it works like nothing else for short-term weight loss. They're quick to point out that ephedra is not a drug. The active ingredient, ephedrine, comes from a plant. But it's a stimulant that increases the heart rate, raises blood pressure, and speeds up brain activity.
Citing 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 of upstate New York 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, a mother of three from Alabama, 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 ephedra.
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, a competitive body builder in Minnesota, 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."
Salitros says the adverse effects cited by the FDA and the deaths of some athletes who used ephedra don't concern him. He says the supplement has simply been misused by a few people who had health problems that put them at risk for negative side effects from ephedra.
Of course, many users may not know they have health problems that may put them at risk if they use ephedra supplements.
Dr. Tieorana Low Dog, an expert in herbal medicine, is well aware of the popularity of ephedra and other herbal weight-loss products.
"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."
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.
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."
But that's not stopping Robin Schultz 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."