Ma Huang, an ancient Chinese stimulant

Ma huang (Ephedra sinica)

Ephedraceae, Ephedra family

Ma huang (Ephedra sinica) is a cone-bearing shrub, 30 to 50 cm in height, which is native to China but now found also in the Mediterranean region, India, Persia, and the western portion of South America. This species 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 ma huang, i.e., ma huang 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.

We know that ephedras have been used at least for 5000 years in China, probably elsewhere. Beverage made with the ephedra plant have been referred to under many names, e.g., yellow river, mormon tea, and whorehouse tea. Ancient Chinese physicians prescribed ephedra tea and pills for the common cold, coughs, asthma, headaches, and hay fever. Ephedra comforts asthma patients by acting as a bronchial dilator. Honey is often added to the ephedra.

Ten species of Ephedra are known to exist in North America, and many were popular in folk medicine and as a daily beverage. After the Mormons had arrived in Utah, the native tribe introduced them to a species of Ephedra, and they used the stems as a substitute for coffee and tea. However, this was considered to be a bitter-tasting tonic beverage. In the Old West, the same species used by the Mormons gained a reputation as a cure for syphilis and gonorrhea, although this cure was never actually proven to work.

The stimulants, or uppers, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, are the two widely used alkaloids of ma huang. These alkaloids are found in highest concentrations in internodes, and in thin stems with fewer nodes (i.e., long internodes), especially less fibrous stems that snap most easily, and they are absent from roots. All the alkaloids are less potent than adrenaline, yet more effective than caffeine. Caffeine--contained in coffee, tea, cocoa, chocolate, yerba mate, and cola drinks--when combined with ma huang enhances the performance of ma huang, and the results are insomnia, irritability, and nervousness.

Seeds for ma huang 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.

Stems less than 1.25 cm in diameter are cut, dried in the sun for 15 days, and then artificially dried at 120 degrees F for three more hours. Afterwards, the stems are beaten with sticks to break their great jointing, and then screened to separate unwanted joints from the internodes. Packed in bags or covered in containers, the stems must be stored in a dry atmosphere awaiting shipment.

Ephedrine can be obtained in nonprescription forms. A 24-25 mg capsule containing ma huang comes in a hydrochloride or sulfate salt form. Typically, only 5 mg of ephedrine is contained within this capsule, but ephedrine alkaloid content is not regulated due to its difficulty in being measured as a constant amount. Extreme variability in ephedrine content is associated with different ephedrine species and their places of origin.

Many herbalists agree that the intact ma huang stem is much safer to use for medicinal purposes than its alkaloid extracts. As an example, pure ephedrine raises blood pressure, whereas ephedra stems reduces it. Comparing the alkaloid pseudoephedrine with the entire plant, the entire plant causes fewer heart symptoms. When comparing alkaloid to alkaloid for commercial cold preparations, pseudoephedrine is less risky than ephedrine.

Ma huang and its alkaloids have various medicinal uses, of which only some of the more widely used purposes will be mentioned here, but especially ma huang acts as a bronchial dilator to dry up the sinuses. Pseudoephedrine HCL, an isomer of ephedrine, is claimed to have a longer bronchial dilating effect than ephedrine. This use is especially helpful in treating hay fever, allergies, and asthma. Bronchial dilation also aids in decongesting the chest from the cold and flu. Synthetic ephedrine compounds are widely used in cold and allergy remedies, such as Sudafed.

Jill Block. Winter 1998. Botanical english

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