What Is Ephedra, the Weight Loss Drug Driving the 'Biggest Loser' Scandal?

Sure, the herbal extract is known for suppressing appetites, but at the steep cost of potentially fatal heart problems.

The Biggest Loser is on a losing streak. After being called out by scientists for dangerous human experimentation last month, the NBC reality weight-loss rubberneck-fest is now under fire for allegedly forcing its contestants to take ephedra, a notoriously dangerous diet drug. If the allegations from Season 2 contestant Suzanne Mendonca are true — the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department is heading an “inquiry” into the claims — the showrunners better prepare for one hell of a lawsuit. Ephedra, which has been banned by the FDA for over a decade, is no joke. The drug was blamed for poisoning over 10,000 people in 2002, when abuse hit its peak.

The compound, extracted from Ephedra sinica plants, used in traditional Chinese medicine (the plant is also known as “Ma Huang”), is a stimulant that tightens up blood vessels and opens up the lungs, which is why it’s commonly been used for treating low blood pressure and asthma. It’s also known to cause a boost in energy and suppress the appetite — hence, its widespread use and abuse — among dieters. Before it was banned, it was sold as an herbal supplement and was used by an estimated 12 million people.

The problem with stimulants like ephedra is that they fuck with your cardiovascular system when taken in high enough doses. The problems increase when the compounds are mixed with caffeine, another stimulant and a common drug pairing. Because the body isn’t used to its veins and arteries artificially constricting and blood pressure skyrocketing, bad things happen. In 2004, the drug was banned by the FDA because of its connection to heart attacks, strokes, seizures, high blood pressure, and alterations in heart rhythm. The year before, the death of a potential Baltimore Orioles pitcher, Steve Bechler was blamed on ephedra abuse.

Since it was banned, the number of deaths caused by the drug has dropped by 98 percent, but that hasn’t stopped the drug from circulating underground. Yellow Jackets are a brand of energy pills containing ephedra and caffeine that are technically banned by the FDA but, like many supplements, easy to find online (side note: manufacturers have tried replacing the ephedra with other active ingredients, like bitter orange, but these aren’t much safer). That’s probably how The Biggest Loser’s Joelle Gwynn, a contestant in 2008, wound up with the yellow and black pills she claimed her on-screen trainer gave her. While it’s likely that the drug did help her lose weight — ephedra does, like caffeine, decrease hunger pangs — it was immensely dangerous to dose an obese person, whose cardiovascular system was already at risk.

The Biggest Loser, like ephedra, falls short of being complete trash because it teaches that oldest of lessons: Weight loss never comes easy. Former contestants, already struggling to keep the pounds off, are learning that the hard way. But considering the danger their trainers purportedly put them through, they should be lucky just to be alive.

Related Tags