Mad About Metabolife

So you're feeling a little thick around the middle and you've heard enough about abstinence and exercise. Wouldn't it be nice if you could pop a pill, stretch out in the BarcaLounger and incinerate calories like a long-distance runner? That's the idea behind a hot herbal supplement called Metabolife 356. Americans are downing it like candy, and some are claiming remarkable results. "Metabolife has been absolutely amazing for me," says 43-year-old Anna Hamersly of Woodbridge, Ill. Hamersly says she weighed about 270 pounds when she started using the product last year. She's now down to 200--and expecting to drop an additional 20 pounds by New Year's. "I feel like a new person," she says.

Launched four years ago by a former San Diego cop with no formal medical training, Metabolife is now one of America's best-selling herbal products. Enthusiasts peddle it from living rooms and kiosks, as well as retail shops. And Metabolife International, the privately held company that produces the stuff, says its sales will approach $1 billion this year--a figure that places Metabolife in the same league as such blockbuster pharmaceuticals as Prozac and Viagra. The catch is that the stimulants it contains can be dangerous: the Food and Drug Administration has warned that products like Metabolife can cause "cardiac arrhythmia and death." Several states have moved to ban or restrict their use, and a few users have filed lawsuits claiming injury. Yet consumers continue to down an estimated 225,000 pills every hour.

Metabolife is just one of several popular supplements--others include Therma Pro, Diet Pep and Diet Fuel--that combine caffeine with the stimulant ephedra. Derived from a Chinese herb called mahuang, ephedra constricts the blood vessels while speeding the heart and nervous system. It also helps suppress appetite. What worries some experts is that it's chemically identical to ephedrine, a synthetic compound regulated for safety. Asthmatics take ephedrine to shrink swollen tissue in their airways. Until the 1980s, it was also used in over-the-counter cold and allergy pills, as a nasal decongestant. But when states started restricting sales, manufacturers switched to a gentler chemical called pseudoephedrine. "Ephedrine had too much potential for abuse," says Dr. Darrell Hulisz of the University Hospitals of Cleveland. "It was used as cheap, legal speed."

Why is ephedra still so easy to come by? Under a federal law passed in 1994, naturally occurring substances can be sold freely as dietary supplements unless they're proved dangerous. Marketers aren't supposed to make overt therapeutic claims, but they come awfully close. A flier for Metabolife says the product "will increase your energy level and assist in weight loss" by "increas[ing] the metabolic rate in your body."

Michael J. Ellis, the effusive 47-year-old who launched Metabolife, says he developed the potion in the early 1990s while trying to help his late father counter the fatigue brought on by cancer treatment. "My father thought it was the greatest thing in the world," he says. Ellis had worked as a cop in National City, Calif., during the late '70s and had later done stints as a chauffeur, a private investigator and a real-estate agent. He was convicted in 1990 on charges linking him to a methamphetamine lab (meth is an illegal street drug chemically related to ephedrine). "I made an error in judgment," he says. "I wish I could turn back the hands of time."

He was still on probation when he launched his first product. In 1992 he started stocking gyms with a body-building formula called Fosslip, which contained 18 vitamins, minerals and herbal extracts, including caffeine and ephedra. Fosslip flopped, but in 1995 Ellis renamed the potion Metabolife 356 and began selling it as a weight-loss aid. He also set up a multilevel marketing program whereby any happy customer could become an independent dealer. That's when business took off. Sales jumped from 4,800 bottles in 1996 to 9 million in 1998, according to Ellis--and this year's total is expected to top 22 million.

The scientific record on Metabolife is still sketchy. In one small experiment, researchers at Vanderbilt University clocked the metabolic rates of 17 patients--once while they were taking the supplement and once while they were taking a placebo--and found that the rates picked up slightly on Metabolife. In another small study, researchers at Columbia University and New York's St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital found that volunteers who took Metabolife for eight weeks lost more weight than those taking a placebo. But the study was neither large nor long enough to prove the treatment effective, and it raised questions about safety. The patients on Metabolife were more likely to experience jitteriness, insomnia and heart palpitations, as well as increased blood pressure. "In my mind, you treat obesity to lower blood pressure," says Dr. Steven Heymsfield, an obesity specialist who helped conduct the study (and who serves as a trustee for Slim-Fast). "So anything that raises it is at least an orange flag." Other orange flags include "adverse events" reported voluntarily to the FDA. Those reports don't establish cause and effect, but they document dozens of seizures, strokes and heart attacks--and at least nine deaths --among ephedra users.

Ellis concedes that ephedra can be dangerous, but he insists his product is safe when used as directed. The Metabolife package carries a voluntary warning, advising users to "reduce if nervousness, tremor [or] nausea occur." And the company's promotional fliers warn against taking more than eight tablets a day. The FDA favors regulations limiting the amount of ephedra in one pill to 8 mg (Metabolife contains 12 mg per tablet, and many other products contain 20). Though he opposes those rules, Ellis says he would welcome laws barring sales to kids under 18 and forcing his competitors to follow his lead on doses and warnings. The alternative, he fears, is to have herbs regulated as drugs. "Costs would rise," he says, "and millions of people would be left without these products." Some might even have to take up exercise.

One Metabolife caplet contains:
12 mg of ephedra (from ma-huang concentrate) and 40 mg of caffeine (from guarana concentrate). That's roughly the amount of caffeine you get in a shot of espresso or cappuccino.