Extracted from plants or created synthetically, ephedrine is an ingredient that is often used in over-the-counter respiratory medications. Besides medicinal uses, nonprescription ephedrine HCL, or ephedrine hydrochloride, is often used as a stimulant, for added energy, or as an appetite suppressant, for weight loss. The potentially fatal side effects associated with ephedrine HCL prompted the medical community to issue warnings against recreational consumption. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has deemed it illegal to manufacture the substance with inadequate labeling.
Joint fir, sea grape, and yellow horse are some of the plants from which ephedrine alkaloids are extracted. Other common sources include Chinese ephedra, ephedra, and the Chinese herb, ma huang. Ephedrine is usually only one of the ingredients used in cold, asthma, and allergy medications. Laboratories synthesize ephedrine HCL and combine the substance with other ingredients, such as cetirizine HCL, chlorpheniramine maleate, and guaifenesin. Manufacturers sometimes refer to ephedrine as methylephedrine, norephedrine, or pseudoephedrine.
Ephedrine HCL belongs to a group of medications known as sympathomimetics because they resemble the chemicals released by the sympathetic nervous system during a “fight or flight” situation. The drug attaches to the alpha and beta-adrenergic receptors, causing nerve tissue stimulation similar to a rush of adrenaline. This effect relieves congestion and swelling of nasal and sinus passages in addition to dilating the bronchioles. Ephedrine is sometimes taken to replicate the adrenaline rush, enhance alertness, increase energy levels, or suppress appetite.
The vasoconstrictive properties of ephedrine can produce side effects, such as increased heart rate and blood pressure as well as disruptions in normal heart rhythms. Persons using ephedrine frequently experience anxiety, nervousness, and insomnia. Medical professionals caution that these effects can increase the likelihood of heart attack, stroke, or seizures. The danger increases when the medication is combined with physical exercise or other stimulants, and if it is taken for extended periods of time. The risk also increases with excessive daily dosages.
The FDA generally requires specific labeling of diet pills containing ephedrine HCL. Labels must state that each dose should not contain more than 8 milligrams of ephedrine and that individuals should not consume more than 24 milligrams within a 24-hour period. The agency generally requires warning labels that adequately relay the potentially fatal side effects of the drug.