Information on Ephedra

(Ephedra Sinica, Ephedra Intermedia, Ephedra Equisetina)

Ephedra, Common name: Ma huang. Ephedra is thought to be the world's oldest herbal remedy. It has been used since ancient times to treat asthma and upper respiratory infections.

The Chinese have used ephedra medicinally for over 5,000 years. Ephedra’s traditional medicinal uses include the alleviation of sweating, lung and bronchial constriction, and water retention. Coughing, shortness of breath, the common cold, and fevers without sweat are all indications for its use.

Ephedra is a shrublike plant found in desert regions throughout the world. The dried green stems of the three Asian species (E. sinica, E. intermedia, E. equisetina) are used medicinally. The North American species of ephedra does not appear to contain the active ingredients of its Asian counterparts.

While the active constituent, ephedrine, was isolated in 1887, the herb did not become popular with U.S. physicians until 1924 for its bronchodilating and decongesting properties. Ephedra’s main active medicinal ingredients are the alkaloids ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. The stem contains 1–3% total alkaloids, with ephedrine accounting for 30–90% of this total, depending on the plant species. Both ephedrine and its synthetic counterparts stimulate the central nervous system, dilate the bronchial tubes, elevate blood pressure, and increase heart rate. Pseudoephedrine (the synthetic form) is a popular over-the-counter remedy for relief of nasal congestion.

Tinctures of 1–4 ml three times per day can be taken. Adults should take no more than 150 mg every twenty-four hours. Pseudoephedrine is typically recommended at 60 mg every six hours.

Special Precautions: Ephedra has a long history of safe use at the recommended amounts. However, abuse of ephedra (and particularly ephedrine)—especially for weight loss or as a recreational drug—can lead to amphetamine-like side effects, including elevated blood pressure, rapid heart beat, nervousness, irritability, headache, urination disturbances, vomiting, muscle disturbances, insomnia, dry mouth, heart palpitations, and even death due to heart failure. Anyone with high blood pressure, heart conditions, diabetes, glaucoma, hyperthyroidism, anxiety or restlessness, impaired circulation to the brain, benign prostatic hyperplasia with residual urine accumulation, pheochromocytoma, and those taking MAO-inhibiting antidepressants, digitoxin, or guanethidine should consult with a physician before using any type of product containing ephedra. Certain medications interact in a positive and/or negative way with ephedra.

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