By Dr. Shawn Messonnier
As many of you are aware, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has removed
ephedra-containing supplements from the shelves. This means that diet pills and
body-building products that contain ephedra (ma huang) and similar "stimulant"
supplements will no longer be available.
As a holistic veterinarian, I understand that some natural products can be
dangerous if not used correctly. Many people equate "natural" with "safe," but
this is not always true. In my practice, while I prefer natural products when
possible for treatment, occasionally a "drug" might work better and more safely
than a natural supplement (I find this to be the case with some deworming
products, for example.) So when I heard of the FDA announcement, I had mixed
Initially, I thought the move was a good one. Ma huang is a Chinese herb
with thousands of years of use. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), ma huang
is a popular treatment for respiratory problems, especially asthma. Using it for
weight loss is a misuse, as there is no indication in TCM for the herb to be
used to control weight.
Second, there are more than 100 deaths and a number of reported and
unreported cases of people exhibiting side effects (increased heart rate,
palpitations, jitteriness, etc.) when using the herb. As far as potentially
dangerous supplements, you'd have to place ephedra supplements in this category.
My second reaction was the opposite of my first, however. While it is true
that ephedra can be dangerous when used incorrectly, it is a helpful supplement
when used under doctor's supervision for respiratory problems.
Keep in mind that while there have been more than 100 reported deaths
attributed to ephedra supplements, there are thousands of deaths and side
effects attributed to prescription drugs (especially non-steroidal
anti-inflammatory drugs) each year and, of course, these very potent medicines
(some available without a prescription) are still legal.
It's hard to know what to make of all of this. I guess for me, the take-home
message is this: Supplements that contain potent ingredients such as ephedra
should either be available by prescription only or at least have clear warning
labels on the products and require identification for purchase to prevent minors
from having access to them.
While some supplements can be dangerous and even fatal if not used correctly,
prescription drugs properly prescribed by doctors cause even more illness and
death than any nutritional supplements reported to date. My recommendation:
Choose supplements over drugs when possible, but only use supplements under a
doctor's supervision to ensure maximum safety and effectiveness. (Editorís Note:
Ma huang is still legal when prescribed and overseen by a licensed TCM
Dr. Shawn P. Messonnier, author of 8 Weeks to a Healthy Dog
and The Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats is a veterinarian and pet care
advocate. Write him at 2145 W. Park Blvd., Plano, TX 75075, or e-mail