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What is Ephedra?
Known as Ma Huang, ephedra is a member of the family of herbs known as the Ephedracae. It has been used in China for more than 5000 years to treat symptoms of asthma and upper respiratory infections. Varieties of the herb are also grown in Europe, India, North-America, Australia and Afghanistan. American ephedra, native to the dry southwest, was used as tea by the early settlers, and was known as "Mormon tea" and "Squaw tea". It has also been used in the treatment of headaches, fevers, colds and hay fever. Today, compounds derived from this herb are commonly found in many (over-the-counter) cold and allergy medications.
Ephedra sinica has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for over 5,000 years (Castleman 1995). Related species grow in much other places around the globe, for example, Ephedra antisyphilitica is native to North America, and was introduced by Native Americans to Mormon settlers, who believed that its tea ("Mormon tea") prevented syphilis (Taylor, 1965).
While Ephedra is known to have been used in Chinese medicine for at least five centuries, it may have been used long before that time, since it was also found in a 60,000 year old burial site in Iraq, along with seven other medicinal plants (Chevallier, 1996). "The origins of Chinese medicine are lost in legend, but authorities agree that Chinese physicians began prescribing Ephedra tea for colds, asthma and hayfever around 3,000 BC." (Castleman, 1995).
The first written account of Ephedra sinica's use is recorded in the Pen Ts'ao of Shen Nung, a Chinese herbalist. This was written in 2800 BC, and lists 366 plant drugs, including Ephedra sinica (Griggs, 1982). It is possible that ancient Greeks had knowledge of Ephedra and its medicinal properties. An ancient Roman writer named Pliny described a plant called "ephedron" used by the Greeks.
However, the Greeks used ephedra for the same purposes as the Chinese, but it's unknown if they got this information from them or discovered it themselves (Schultes and von Reis, 1995).
Western medicine's interest in ephedra began in 1923, with the demonstration that the isolated alkaloid ephedrine possessed a number of pharmacological effects. Ephedrine was synthesized in 1927 and since this time both ephedrine and pseudoephedrine have been used extensively in over the -counter cold and allergy medications.
Botanically, ephedra is part of the ephedra family; Ephedraceae.
Ephedra sinica is 30 to 50 cm in height, has long narrow stems, and small leaves that are reduced to scales at the nodes. Stamens and pistils are on separate flowers, and seeds are enclosed in cones (Grieve, 1971). It is propagated from seed in the fall, or by root division in spring or fall. It grows primarily in desert areas, and requires dry soil (Chevallier, 1996). Harvesting of the stems for medicinal use is done in the fall, before the first frost, because late gathering improves the efficacy of the drug (Taylor, 1965).
Related species grow in North America and India, but have slightly different chemical compositions, and, therefore, different medicinal properties (Chevallier, 1996). Ephedra sinica grows best in sandy or rocky deserts and mountains. Warm temperate latitudes with less than 20 cm of annual rainfall are suitable for the growth of ephedra, i.e. Ephedra is a xerophytic plant capable of growing under semiarid to arid conditions.
The jointed green stems of ma huang are the chief photosynthetic organs of the plant. The plant has tiny, scale-like, opposite leaves that only function briefly when first formed, after which they lose their chlorophyll and turn a faded brown. The stems are tough, relatively flexible, and lack bark for several years.
The ephedra alkaloids are similar in structure to epinephrine (or adrenaline). Ephedrine and its diastereoisomer, pseudoephedrine, are believed to be responsible for most of the properties of ephedra. Ephedrine can be used for the illegal synthesis of methamphetamine. Ephedra species that contain alkaloids typically yield from 0.5% to 2.5% alkaloids, of which 30% to 90% is ephedrine. Pharmaceutical trade standards specify that dried ephedra should contain at least 1.25% ephedrine.(11) Ephedra alkaloids have been shown to be highly stable.
Ephedrine is a sympathomimetic drug that stimulates both a- and B-adrenergic receptors. In addition to its direct effects, ephedrine also releases norepinephrine from its storage sites.
This section might better be called 'side-effects', because these effects are based on the qualities ephedra has besides relieving pains or serious complaints. Some decades ago people turned these side-effects into the main qualities of ephedra, suiting their lifestyle.
Various herbal preparations are made of ephedra. They are all containing ephedrine and are used as dietary supplements for weight loss, as well as stimulants. This is because ephedra has a similar effect to the body's own adrenaline or the chemical amphetamine. Many preparations are currently marketed as legal alternatives to 'ecstasy'. What ephedrine does is stimulating the central nervous system, providing energy and also increasing alertness. A higher dose of ephedra can give a nice tingling sensation on the head but also on the rest of your body. Ephedra acts a bit like XTC, it is only milder in its action and less speedy. Ephedra has a slightly different effect on every persons body, but it often provides the same emphatic feeling as XTC.
Ephedrine increases the metabolic rate, so that your body burns fats and sugar more efficiently. By mobilizing stored fat and carbohydrate reserves, ephedrine reduces appetite. The best way to keep unwanted weight off remains reducing your food intake and increasing your daily physical activity. While ephedra is no wonder drug, it can be a valuable aid in helping you get though your chosen diet and exercise regimen.
Ephedrine closely related to adrenalin, which has the following function in your body: the blood vessels are widened and your heartbeat increases. This causes the blood to be pumped through your body at a higher rate. The main function of blood is to supply oxygen to the body cells. These cells need oxygen to make energy by burning body fat. This whole process is fastened by ephedra.
Current herbal uses of Ephedra in China are very similar to what they have been historically. It is often taken to relieve chills, fevers, coughs and wheezing, and also is taken in powder form in combination with Rehmannia (Rhemannia glutinosa) to treat kidney yin deficiency (Chevallier, 1996). Ephedra is currently used as herbal medicine in Western countries in a decoction for asthma, hay fever, acute onset of colds/flu, to raise blood pressure, and possibly to initiate menstruation (Chevallier, 1996). Also it is used in tincture form to alleviate rheumatism and for aches and pains (Chevallier, 1996). Also used in combination with Lobelia, Orindelia and Symplocarpus for asthma; with Echinacea and Uliginosum for hay fever; with Equisetum in enuresis.
Ephedra is available as herb, extract, pills or capsules. The concentration of ephedrine within these latter two may vary.
The herb is used to make 'Mormon tea'. For two cups take 10 grams of ephedra-herb and let it boil for 10 minutes. Then filter out the herb, for instance in a coffee filter. You now have two cups of mormon tea. If necessary add sugar to taste.
Ephedra extract usually contains about 8% ephedrine (which is the maximum legal amount in many countries). To consume it mix ½ gram (¼ to ½ teaspoon) with hot water or food.
Amounts of ephedrine in today's pills and capsules may vary; 850 mg ephedrine per capsule is legally admitted. The usage in the scheme below is based on capsules with this amount of ephedrine.
Ephedra as smart drug or energizer: the recommended dosage is 1 capsule per 24 hours.
Ephedra as weight-loss supplement: take 1 capsule daily before lunch or dinner. To make sure your body doesn't get used to the substances which leads to diminished effects, you'd better follow the on-off scheme: take ephedra for 5/6 weeks, then take a break for 2/3 weeks, etc.
Ephedra can also be used against colds, asthma and allergies. With all of these uses, please keep in mind that there are some side-effects.
Herbal tea is not a strong and easier to dose than caps or pills. Making mormon tea out of ephedra herb is easy. For two cups take 10 grams of ephedra-herb and let it boil for 10 minutes. Then filter out the herb, for instance in a coffee filter. You now have two cups of mormon tea. If necessary add sugar to taste.
Never take ephedra when pregnant or diabetic, if you have a heart-disease or high blood-pressure. Do not combine ephedra with asthma medication or MAO-inhibitors like anti-depressants or yohimbe. Do not use ephedra for longer than two months.
Ephedrine can cause shivers, insomnia, nervousness, palpitation of the heart and high blood pressure.
To enhance stimulating effects, ephedra is often combined with guarana, cafeine (and so coffee and tea), cola nut, green tea, white willow bark and yerba mate. These combinations also work for weight-loss purposes. Studies have proven that a combination of ephedra with aspirin causes more short term weight-loss than ephedra only.
Medicinal combinations are to be read under 'Medical use'.
Seeds for ephedra are planted in the early spring. During the first year of growth, the plants must be watered and kept entirely weed free. Stems are harvested usually after four years of plant growth, and during the blooming season, when alkaloid content is the highest. Ephedra sinica is not harvested during the summer months, because alkaloid content is reduced when stems are fully hydrated from summer rains.
See www.ephedra.nu/uk_botanical2.html for an extended report on the growing of ephedra.
Ephedra can be stored for years if you keep it in a cool and dry place.
Links / Further reading
This article is based on the following pages:
Ephedra.nu (including lower image)
Azarius on ephedra (including upper image)