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For over four millennia, the Chinese enjoyed good health by using a little panacea called ma huang. Then as now, they have used it to treat upper respiratory infections and asthma.

Ma huang is the extract of Ephedra sinica, one in a genus of gymnosperm shrubs called Ephedra (family Ephedraceae). Aside from China, ephedra plants grow in parts of Australia, Afghanistan, India, and even the US. They are also found in Europe.

America’s British settlers relied on the local variant of ephedra for tea. Eventually, this practice lent the plant the names of Squaw tea and Mormon tea. The British colonists also used American ephedra to treat colds, flu, headache, and hay fever. True to form, the compounds derived from this herb are found in countless OTC (over-the-counter) cold medicines and anti-allergy drugs.

But these are not the only conditions for which ephedra is indicated. Apparently, ephedra is the source of alkaloids called ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.

A bronchodilator, ephedrine acts as a nervous system stimulant. In addition, it is known to provide relief from swollen mucous membrane, because ephedrine is antispasmodic. Pseudoephedrine, on the other hand, is known to decongest the nasal passages.

It is little wonder then that doctors, like the Chinese before them, recommended ephedra to treat a gaggle of respiratory conditions, e.g. cough, bronchitis, asthma, emphysema, and wheezing. Ephedra can also relieve fevers and clear sinus blockages. It can even be an effective medication for rheumatism, narcolepsy, body pains, and low blood pressure. It is also good for treating hives and other allergic reactions.

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Eventually, the medical community discovered ma huang to be just as potent a fat burner. Scientists were giddy about ma huang’s thermogenic properties. As research would show, ma huang exhibits ability to burn fat from diet. That made ma huang a good candidate for use as fat burning weight loss products.

Indeed, ephedra can suppress the appetite. And with its stimulating effect on the nervous system and thyroid gland, ephedra can be an effective metabolism booster.

Because ephedra is a stimulant, many energy product makers have added it to sports drinks. Athletes have reported becoming more alert after taking ephedra-containing sports beverages. Manufacturers often pair ephedra with a caffeine-containing ingredient like guarana or kola nut in making energy products.

Yet ephedra is not off the hook of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, let alone the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These agencies were tremendously concerned by the safety of ephedra, for it had been the subject of many consumer complaints. It turned out that ephedra was linked to a long line of adverse side effects, including cardiac stimulation, high blood pressure, and peripheral vasoconstriction. At first FDA was satisfied with slapping contraindications on ephedra products, particularly against arrhythmia, heart disease, high blood pressure, indigestion, insomnia, nervousness, and weakness. Ephedra was also contraindicated against pregnancy and breastfeeding mothers.

Then the death knell rang. Reports of deaths associated with consumption of products containing ephedra or its alkaloids emerged across the States. Faced with pent-up proof of ephedra’s risks, the FDA banned the selling, marketing and importation of ephedra-containing weight loss supplements in April 2004. A year later, an ephedra diet supplement maker managed to overturn the ban with an appeal to a federal judge in Utah. Inevitably, the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit upheld the ephedra ban.

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To date, one could not avail of weight loss supplements containing ephedra or its isolated alkaloids in the US. Nevertheless, the FDA continues to review their safety.

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