Ephedra is an herb that is commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine under the name ma huang. It grows as an evergreen shrub in Central Asia and Mongolia. The active ingredients in ephedra are ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which are both stimulants that act on the central nervous system including the heart.
Why ephedra is used
Ephedra has a long history in China and India. It has been used to treat nasal symptoms including nasal congestion, wheezing, asthma, colds, flu, fever, headaches, and asthma. The herb is known to act as a decongestant.
More recently, ephedra has also been marketed as a diet aid featuring a natural stimulant and appetite suppressant. It was considered to be a natural source of the weight loss drug fen phen. Fen phen, which is actually a combination of two drugs, is believed to cause serious heart valve abnormalities in approximately 30 percent of all patients taking the drug. Based on a recommendation by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), fen phen was removed from the market in 1997.
Ephedra has also been linked to serious heart problems and strokes. Although ephedra accounted for only 5 percent of all diet supplements, it was associated with 45 percent of all bad reactions to diet aids. In 2003, the FDA banned ephedra as a diet or weight loss aid due to serious health risks. This ban does not include the use of ephedra in traditional Chinese medicine.
How ephedra is used
Ephedra is still popular in Chinese medicine. The dried stems and leaves of the plant are used as a tea and to make extracts, tablets, or capsules.
Caution for ephedra
Research shows that ephedra is the cause of more calls to poison control centers due to side effects than any other herbal products. Possible side effects include anxiety, dry mouth, difficulty urinating, headaches, high blood pressure, nausea, heart damage, kidney stones, and others. Cautions for ephedra include:
• Heart problems – Higher doses of ephedra used in diet aids increased the risk of heart problems, stroke, and sudden death.
• Health conditions – Ephedra may make certain health conditions worse, including cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and diabetes.
• Seizures – Ephedra has been known to cause seizures, even in people who do not have a seizure disorder.
• Pregnancy – Ephedra can stimulate contractions of the uterus. Women who are pregnant or breast feeding should not take ephedra.
• Heatstroke – Ephedra is known to increase the metabolism, which causes the body to generate more internal heat. At the same time, ephedra also makes it harder for the body to lose excess heat.
• Caffeine – Combining ephedra with caffeine can make side effects worse.
Be sure to tell your doctor about all supplements you chose to take, including ephedra. To reduce your risk of side effects from ephedra, talk to a qualified herbalist before using the herb for any reason.