Ephedra is an herb that was used extensively by tribal members thousands of years ago for its medicinal properties. Ironically, today the herb is in deep controversy for its side effects. The following article details about the perceived health benefits of this herb apart from covering the factors responsible for its rise and subsequent fall.
What Is Ephedra?
Ephedra is an herb that has been used since ages for improving breathing and resolving conditions related to the lungs. The herb is botanically known as Ephedra Sinica and in Chinese as ma huang. As an herb with medicinal properties Ephedra was first used in traditional Chinese medicine 5000 years ago.
The Chinese used this herb for treating hay fever, asthma and common cold by using Ephedra along with cinnamon, licorice and almond. The herb also has been used in folk medicine in Germany, India and Japan for fighting common cold and lung disorders. The medicinal parts of this plant include the following – roots and branches. The herb grows predominantly in arid desert grasslands of the western United States and in China.
Ephedra is the reason behind amphetamine drugs being discovered by the scientific community. In 1924, Chinese experts found ephedrine from the extract of Ephedra and very soon ephedrine was marketed as a synthetic drug by Merck Pharmaceuticals for treating asthma. Ephedrine is an important alkaloid as it stimulates the heart and the nervous system.
There has been a lot of talk, legal appeals and press reports about the safety of Ephedra as an herbal supplement. All these controversies surrounding Ephedra is because of Ephedrine, the chemical present in the herb. Ephedrine is often used as a recreational drug that gives herbal ecstasy, and in many cases has been abused by unsuspecting individuals leading to their death or life threatening side effects.
Based on circumstantial evidences, the US FDA banned Ephedra from the market and the ban was successfully appealed by the herbal industry. However, after more deliberations the herb was again withdrawn from the market in the USA and currently stands banned since 2006.
Ephedra has been significantly abused by sportsmen and is banned by leading bodies such as the Olympic committee and National Football league. In the sports world, the herb has been abused by leading sports men such as Diego Maradona (1994 FIFA World Cup), Noriyuki Haga (Japan), Todd Sauerbrun (Denver Broncos) etc.
However, supporters of the herb claim that Ephedra is relatively safe and side effects including death occur only when it is abused for its performance enhancing effects.
How Does It Work?
Ephedra has gained significant popularity in the herbal industry due to the chemical ephedrine. Ephedrine is known to stimulate the lungs, heart and the central nervous system. Apart from Ephedrine, another active component present in Ephedra is pseudoephedrine which works as a decongestant.
Health Benefits Of Ephedra
Traditionally, Ephedra has been used in treating nasal congestion and respiratory tract infections. In Chinese Medicine, the herb has been used to treat asthma and bronchitis. Ephedra also helps in effectively fighting the following – cold, flu, chills and fever. The Ma Huang tea is a popular herbal supplement used by the Chinese. Some even say the herb is effective against swine flu.
It is said that the thermogenic properties of Ephedra is due to the presence of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. Some experts claim that Ephedra works by stimulating the brain that leads to increase in the heart rate which constricts the blood vessels and increase the BP. These actions subsequently make the bronchial tubes to dilate thereby making breathing regular and easy.
Another benefit for which Ephedra is extensively used is for weight loss and for enhancing physical performances. This is the reason why the herb has been extensively abused by sports men. The herb is effective in reducing weight when it is used along with exercise and controlled diet.
However, many experts now recommend that the herb should not be used for weight loss as it can give serious side effects even in healthy adults. A study highlights the finding that the herb can produce weight loss of approximately two pounds per month for a period of six months.
Ephedra also has been used for the following issues – bone and joint pain, less urine output, allergies etc.
There is no recommended dosage level for this herb. However, to be on the safer side due to the recent controversies per day dosage of 25 mg may be considered effective and safe.
Side Effects, Overdose & Other Considerations
Herbal products containing Ephedra are banned in the USA as it is found that the herb or its active ingredients can be harmful for use in adults and children. Those taking this herb should do so at their own risk. Side effects of using Ephedra at high doses and for a long duration are serious and severe in nature, such as – muscle disorders, seizures, heart attack, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure and even death.
One study even claims that a dosage level higher than 32 mg per day may lead to hemorrhagic stroke. In any case, Ephedra should not be used along with caffeine or other stimulants.
Ephedra as a drug has been used since ages by Chinese and Native American tribal members. The herb was not linked to any controversies at that time. However, the debate whether the herb is safe or unsafe has started very recently when it was found that some of those who abused the drug either died or suffered serious health conditions.
The herbal industry and supporters of Ephedra claim that the herb has been unnecessarily targeted by regulators such as US FDA. Ephedra was also used by Native Americans in the form of a tea known as Mormon Tea or Indian Tea. However, Mormon tea is not exactly derived from Ephedra Sinica but from a related herb known as Ephedra nevadensis. Mormon tea is not banned by the US FDA as it does not contain the major active component of Ephedra Sinica known as Ephedrine.
Ephedra should not be taken with the following – QT interval-prolonging drugs (that can cause irregular heart beat), dexamethasone, Ergot derivatives, Antidiabetes drugs, Anticonvulsants, Methylxanthines and other stimulant drugs.