Ephedra is a controversial herb in the US, where it was marketed in many diet pills until recently. Suspicions that it may have caused high blood pressure and heart problems in certain patients saw it taken off the market in 2005. In small doses however, Ephedra is a useful ingredient in many herbal remedies.
Ephedra is only available in the US in other forms now – as an asthma, cold or allergy remedy. It is also available in traditional Chinese remedies, mainly focusing on lung problems and flu. Despite this, it remains hugely popular around the world and is cultivated on a large scale in China for both domestic use and export markets.
Otherwise known as ‘ma huang’ (yellow hemp), Ephedra is a shrub cultivated in China. Its active ingredients are the alkaloids ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. Both China and India cultivate Ephedra, but China is the world’s largest producer and exporter.
Historically, scholars believe that Ephedra may have been concocted into a drink named Soma, drunk in the Persian Empire and renowned for its energy-giving properties. It also appears in Chinese texts dating back 2000 years and more, as a herbal remedy for various respiratory problems.
Ephedra is a stimulant, similar in its effects to caffeine but much stronger. As such, its increases heart rate, aids concentration and increases blood pressure and metabolism. Another primary effect of this herb is a widening of the bronchial tubes in your lungs, making it easier to take in large amounts of oxygen.
Ephedra has long been used for respiratory problems in Chinese herbology. Asthma sufferers who take Ephedra report being able to take greater breaths and do more rigorous exercise. As an asthma remedy it is often mixed with Licorice or Ginseng, expectorants that also help to clear the lungs.
Ephedra’s more controversial use is as a weight loss aid. It increases metabolism, reduces appetite and can be a very effective supplement for those with slow metabolism or weight problems. However, since the FDA banned the use of Ephedra in weight loss supplements, all diet pills containing it have been taken off the market. The manufacturers of pills such as Hydroxycut, Herbalife and Metabolife have since changed their ingredients.
Lastly, the same effects that can make Ephedra dangerous for those with high blood pressure, actually make it a very useful supplement for those with low blood pressure.
Ephedra has also attracted headlines for its role in sport. Due to its ability to increase stamina and improve concentration, Ephedra is classed as a banned supplement in most sports. Sportsmen who have fallen foul of this law include Diego Maradona (at the 1994 soccer World Cup) and NFL punter Todd Sauerbrun.
Ephedra is used as a performance enhancer in other fields besides sport. As a concentration aid it has found favor with many Chinese herbologists.
Most importantly, anyone that takes Ephedra should consult their doctor first. Although the evidence of harmful effects is very limited, its was enough for the FDA to ban it from weight loss supplements.
Ephedra comes in a powdered form, but is usually taken as a pill or capsule in the form of an over-the-counter drug.