Each year, between 12 and 17 million servings of products containing ephedra are consumed in the United States.

When mixed with a person’s usual daily dosage of caffeine, the effects can be lethal and may soon make ephedra illegal.

When broken down, ephedra turns into amphetamines in the system, a chemical considered a controlled substance by the United States government.

Ephedra, or Ma Huang, is a product widely promoted and used in the United States as a stimulant to increase exercise and lose weight. Products such as Metabolife, Ripped Fuel and Xenadrine all contain ephedra, a chemical derived from plants. Since the ephedra used in these products is herbal, these kinds of brands have not been required to gain approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

For athletes, however, this drug can pose a serious threat to their career, since the NCAA bans the stimulant. Tests showing traces of ephedra could lead to disqualification from events or from competing altogether.

Dr. Neal Benowitz, a UCSF professor of medicine, psychiatry and pharmacy sciences, reviewed 140 adverse event reports to the FDA for ephedra products and found that combined with caffeine, these products “raised concern for public health risk.” Of the 140 reports, 31 percent of cases were definitely or probably related to ephedra and 31 percent were possibly related. Hypertension was the most common adverse effect, followed by cardiovascular problems, strokes and seizures. Ten events resulted in death and 13 events in permanent disability.

“The findings indicate a need for better understanding of individual susceptibility,” Benowitz’s report states.

The FDA wants to ban these products or regulate its dosage to consumers. Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, the FDA can put manufacturing standards on the dietary supplement industry.

“We will move as aggressively as the law and the science allow us to protect the public from the potential dangers of ephedra and other products, including taking actions to stop unlawfully marketed drug products,” Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said in a statement.

Benowitz also said there has been a severe lack of education on behalf of the industry in regards to the side effects.

“There needs to be a case-control study to determine the magnitude of risk,” he said.

Whatever the health risks may be, however, the NCAA bans ephedra.

“It breaks down to amphetamines,” UCSB Physical Activities Adviser Art Gilbert said. “Players can be disqualified from games or the whole season.”

Gilbert teaches Nutrition for Health and Physiology of Exercise, and considers ephedra products to be “part of the endangered species list” – that is, he expects the supplements to soon be criminalized.

Someone who takes a product like Xenadrine before they exercise may experience racing heart rate, constricted blood vessels and dehydration. Although the products are labeled for “short term use,” the results are short lived, causing consumers to take more than the recommended dose.

“What’s ironic is that diet pills only work when you continue to take them,” Benowitz said.

“[Ephedra] sets you up to overeat,” said Louise Ousley of the Student Health Service Eating Disorder Program. “If you are taking it to help with exercise, you are taking a lousy, unregulated version of speed.”

Besides an aid to exercise, ephedra can also be used as a “party drug,” said Dave Towes of NutriSport in Goleta. “It makes it harder to gauge how much you’ve been drinking.”

People who take more than the specified amount can build a tolerance, which produces adverse effects.

“Unless taken ’round the clock, you will withdraw,” Ousley said.

Changes in personality and troubled sleep patterns are some symptoms of withdrawal.

“People with anxiety disorders may get panic attacks,” Ousley said. “Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Arsenic is natural. Horse shit is natural, and we don’t go bottling that.”