Ten years ago, ephedra could have been categorized with supplements such as Creatine or Whey Protein Shakes. Today, it is popularly categorized with illegal steroids. While athletic supplements are popular among athletes as a way to physically enhance their performance, supplements containing ephedra have been condemned as dangerous drugs, and have been linked to numerous deaths.
Numerous professional athletic organizations and the NCAA have banned ephedra, so a ruling in a federal court earlier this month which overturned the Food and Drug Administration’s ban on the supplement came as a surprise. Judge Tena Campbell supported Nutraceutical, a Utah-based supplement company, saying the FDA’s ban was far-reaching. The overturned ban now forces the FDA to determine whether ephedra can be used in small, healthy doses.
Ephedra comes from the Ma Huang herb, which contains ephedrine that increases heart and metabolic rates. It works by increasing heat production within the body, heightening the risk of heat stroke. Research has shown that it is one of the most dangerous supplements on the market, particularly for people who suffer from heart disease and high blood pressure. The danger associated with ephedra made national news in February 2003 when Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Belcher collapsed and died during a spring training workout. It was later revealed that ephedra played a role in his death.
The NCAA has taken measures to ensure none of its athletes expose themselves to the risks of ephedra. In 1997, the NCAA placed the drug on its banned substances list. By 2002, the NCAA was testing for it in drug tests.
However, with a federal ban now up in the air, ephedra may become available over the counter. With sports embroiled in an illegal steroid controversy, legalizing ephedra presents a whole new issue to be dealt with. If the drug is sold OTC, what is going to prevent some athletes from possibly using the supplement to gain that competitive advantage?
“There is always a drive for excellence,” said Nyika White, a senior on the men’s gymnastics team. “But this sport [gymnastics] is so fine-tuned that any substance outside of the body is just going to throw everything off. It can throw off a chemical imbalance, an emotional imbalance, and if any one of those are off on game day, your whole game can be messed up.”
“The NCAA requires us to be tested, so we don’t even take the chance with taking anything,” said Dan Berlin, a teammate of White’s. “I strictly stick to strength and conditioning, the old-fashioned way.”
While the “old-fashioned way” may work for some athletes, other athletes feel that supplements are a vital training tool.
“As long as it’s not harmful to your body, I feel you should be allowed to do it,” said Eric Lovelace, a sophomore pitcher on the baseball team. “You are just trying to make yourself better. If it’s available [safely] then I think it should be allowed. Then again, with anything that you take, you can’t overuse and abuse it, and I think that’s when it becomes harmful. That’s what a lot of young athletes don’t understand. They don’t know how to use it.”
The correct way to use these supplements is yet to be determined. There have been numerous studies, like one done by the Annals of Internal Medicine that found 64 percent of all adverse reactions to herbal supplements came from ephedra-related products; even more astonishing, ephedra-related products make up only 0.82 percent of all herbal products sold.
It is astounding that the FDA, which needs to take the proper course of action to ensure the health and safety of today’s young athletes, can claim it hasn’t been given enough evidence to ban the supplement.
The popularity of supplements such as ephedra has created a demand to achieve those goals faster than ever before, and that emphasis has unfairly put the lives of many young athletes at risk.
The Olympic motto, which is supposed to describe the goals of every athlete, reads “Citius, Altius, Fortius:” Faster, Higher, Stronger. It is up to the FDA and the NCAA to examine the safety and educate athletes about the dangers of ephedra so those athletes can add a fourth word to that motto:
Greg Otto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.