Nutrition and exercise biochemist Anthony Almada reviews the research behind some of the latest products on the market. Does the product stand up to its claims? Is it built on marketing rather than science? Or are more studies needed before determining if it really works?
The Skinny on Ephedra
Currently, the best-selling products in the dietary supplements market contain this popular stimulant herb. The enchantment with ephedra (Ephedra sinica) — also known by its Chinese name ma huang — comes from the principal active ingredient, ephedrine. The ephedrine component is chemically similar to, but much safer than, methamphetamine — thus the stimulant and appetite-suppressing effects.
Numerous studies with synthetic ephedrine (with or without caffeine, a common ingredient added to ephedrine weight-loss products) have shown dramatic results in decreasing body weight/body fat through appetite suppression and thermogenesis, or heat production in the body, which increases metabolism. Despite some marketing hype, the addition of aspirin to an ephedra/caffeine combination has not been shown to further enhance weight loss in humans.
Three preliminary studies with botanical source products containing ephedra plus caffeine have also shown similar weight-loss results, with one study describing a large number of side effects, including heart palpitations, high blood pressure and irritability.
Also, synthetic ephedrine — with or without caffeine — has been shown to increase exercise endurance. There do not appear to be studies with herbal ephedrine or the ephedra-plus-caffeine combination that show increased endurance. Since herbal ephedrine may behave differently than synthetic ephedrine, more studies are needed. But caution: Recent research indicates that labels on ephedra-containing products may not accurately reflect the actual amount of ephedra in the products, rendering them either too potent or ineffective.
MSM to Juice the Joints
Methylsulfonylmethane, commonly known as MSM, has been a prominent ingredient in the animal feed industry for years and has recently emerged as a human supplement for joint health. To date, no human studies with MSM have been published in biomedical journals. However, a few preliminary studies show promise. Doses used in these studies were less than 3 grams per day. However, proponents of MSM advocate doses of 10-20 grams daily — an expensive habit. Additional studies are needed before MSM can gain the acceptance enjoyed by glucosamine and chondroitin sulfates, which, like MSM, also contain sulfur.
The Postscript on PS
Phosphatidylserine, or PS, has been the subject of a number of clinical studies of older individuals with mental impairment (Alzheimer's disease, age-related dementia), with promising results. No studies have shown PS to improve memory or cognitive function in young, healthy adults or individuals with attention deficit disorders. Virtually all of the published studies on PS have used a bovine brain form, which is not available in the United States. Soy-derived PS (assuredly mad cow disease-free) has been available for several years but differs in its chemical form. Consequently, the effects of soy-derived PS on age-related mental impairment are unknown.
In a preliminary study involving trained athletes receiving 800 mg/day of soy-derived PS, the subjects' perception of well-being improved and muscle soreness decreased compared to those taking placebo. The reason for this is not yet understood.
Clearly, more studies are needed on PS, especially soy-derived PS, as this is the only form available to U.S. consumers.
Anthony Almada, M.S., is a nutrition and exercise biochemist who has collaborated on more than 45 university-based clinical trials. He is the co-founder of Experimental and Applied Sciences (EAS) and founder and chief scientific officer of IMAGINutrition (www.imaginutrition.com).
Photography: Runner by Lori Adamski-Peek; Ephedra by Jeff Padrick.