Herbal Speed

This past spring, a 23 year old Major League baseball pitcher keeled over and died in the heat of the Florida sun. From published reports, it appears that the athlete in question had used a “natural supplement” containing the herbal stimulant ephedra to get down to an ideal playing weight in a hurry. His death elicited a lot of news coverage and commentary while once again bringing attention to that dark side of professional sports: the use of drugs and stimulants to enhance performance by increasing strength, increasing endurance or losing weight.

Now, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, in response to this and other incidents, is asking that Major League Baseball ban the use of ephedra and is suggesting that perhaps it would be best that it be banned nationally.

The logic behind this idea is understandable, but it sure would be a shame. It reminds me of an ornery elementary school teacher I had who would punish the entire class for the misdeeds of a single kid. In this case, there are a few naughty parties that clearly need to be disciplined, beginning with the player’s union.

The Major League Players Association, hiding behind the issue of personal privacy and infringement of personal rights, will not agree to a ban for professional baseball players. The priorities seem a tad skewed, but onlly in proportion to the salaries of the ballplayers.

The companies that market and manufacture ephedra supplements bear a large part of the blame, too. They take advantage of the absence of regulation in the industry to sell something as “natural”, thus implying it to be safe. Safer perhaps (than steroids), but not necessarily safe.

The shame of it is that lost in all the hoopla, is the fact that ephedra is an herb that has been used in China for somewhere going on four thousand years. Known in China and often written on the side of the supplement bottles as “ma huang” (meaning yellow hemp), its most common traditional application has been to stimulate the respiratory tract.

Properly used it enables people to get over flus, allows asthmatics to breath, and reduces the discomfort of allergies. It also has both a diuretic (increasing urination) and a diaphoretic (increases sweating) effect. Today, it is known that the active ingredient of this herb is the chemical compound ephedrine and many related derivatives.

Pure ephedrine is a powerful stimulant, currently used as a bronchodilator and decongestant in conventional medicine. It stimulates the release of chemicals from the nerve endings, the adrenals and the entire sympathetic nervous system. Thus ephedrine or ephedra effects the body systemically. Basically, it puts the entire body on alert — into a fight or flight mode. It stimulates the cardiovascular system, constricting the blood vessels and thus increasing blood pressure. Digestive activity is slowed down, the pupils are dilated, and increases the flow of blood to the muscles.

The herbal combinations containing ephedra in Oriental Medicine have been well tested over time having passed down to us through the centuries. They are formulas that I have regularly used with patients for years without untoward side effects. But, as with any type of prescription, the medicine needs to fit the patient.

The ancient chinese texts warned against using “ma huang” with people who were too weak or don't have symptoms that fit its usage. Even when they prescribed the herb, it was always in a carefully crafted formula that usually consists of four or more other herbs. This combination of ingredients creates a a synergistic effect and balance which lowers the possibility of side-effects.

But recent commercial products for performance enhancers and weight loss enhancers are a totally different animal. They are designed to do one of two things, neither of them particularly healthy. One is to push the body beyond its natural capacity for physical activity, the other is to remedy a complex metabolic imbalance by through overstimulation of the body.

Using stimulants in this way, whether they are natural or not, is a very questionable idea. In a pinch, a crisis when you can't breath or you’re escaping from a charging grizzly, using stimulants in this way, whether they are natural or not, is a very questionable idea. This is a wonderful effect in a pinch, in a crisis when you can't breath or you’re escaping from a charging grizzly, it is helpful to be able to turn to a stimulant. Otherwise, it is not such a wonderful thing to do to your body on a continual basis.

In the old days, amphetamines were the pharmaceutical industry's contribution to the war of the bulge. They too had the capacity to fires up the metabolism and they were appetite suppressors to boot. Like many other wonder drugs, they were all the rage until it was discovered how dangerous and addictive they could be.

It is disappointing to walk into a health food store and see how the nutritional supplement industry has succombed to the same irresistible lure of profit making. It almost makes one sympathetic to the FDA’s efforts.

And, by the way, what happens when the person stops taking herbal speed anyhow? One can only assume that the metabolism will slow down — maybe to an even lower rate than before. The weight will come right back. The muscles will turn to flab.