In the US, supplements containing ephedra have been banned since 2004 due to safety issues.
The Chinese herb ma huang is a member of a primitive family of plants that look like thin, branching, connected straws. A related species, Ephedra nevadensis , grows wild in the American Southwest and is widely called Mormon tea . However, only the Asian species of ephedra contains the active compounds ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.
Ma huang was traditionally used by Chinese herbalists during the early stages of respiratory infections and also for the short-term treatment of certain kinds of asthma, eczema, hay fever, narcolepsy, and edema.
Japanese chemists isolated ephedrine from ma huang at the turn of the century, and it soon became a primary treatment for asthma in the United States and abroad. Ephedra's other major ingredient, pseudoephedrine, became the decongestant Sudafed.
What Is Ephedra Used for Today?
Although it can still be found in a few over-the-counter drugs for asthma and sinus congestion (in a safer form than the banned dietary supplements), physicians seldom prescribe ephedrine anymore. The problem is that ephedrine mimics the effects of adrenaline and causes symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure, agitation, insomnia, nausea, and loss of appetite. The newer asthma drugs are much safer and easier to tolerate.
What Is the Scientific Evidence for Ephedra?
Evidence suggests that ephedrine/caffeine combinations can aid weight loss and help keep the weight off for up to 6 months. However, the benefits are modest.
A few side effects were seen in this study, primarily insomnia, dizziness, and tremor, but they tended to fade away after a few weeks. Keep in mind that participants were screened prior to the study and were eliminated if they had high blood pressure or any other serious disease, or if they used medications or illegal drugs that might interact with stimulants.
While ephedra is an herb with a long history of use in Chinese herbal medicine, Chinese tradition attaches numerous warnings: It should only be used by very robust people, for certain specific purposes, and only for a short period of time. These ancient warnings seem to have been disregarded in the transition of ephedra use from Asia to the United States, where it had often been sold for continuous use by overweight, relatively unhealthy people. Herbal products containing ephedra caused the majority (64%) of reported adverse effects from herbs in the US. This proportion is particularly impressive given that less than 1% of all herbal products sold in the US contained ephedra. On a per-use basis, for example, ephedra has 720 times the risk of causing harm as ginkgo biloba.
- Cardiovascular disease, including:
- Enlargement of the prostate
- Diseases of the nervous system
- Young children
- Pregnant or nursing women
- People with kidney disease
- People with liver disease
Furthermore, one should never combine ephedra with monoamine-oxidase inhibitors (MAO inhibitors), such as Nardil (phenelzine), or fatal reactions may develop.
Interactions You Should Know About
If you are taking:
- MAO inhibitors : Do not take ephedra.
- Any stimulant drugs (including caffeine): Do not take ephedra except under physician supervision.
- Reviewer: EBSCO CAM Review Board
- Review Date: 08/2013 -
- Update Date: 08/22/2013 -