Ephedra, what is this herb?

By: Franda Vaughan, Natures-Herbs dot Com Key uses of Ephedra: General description
Ephedra species are erect, branching shrubs found in desert or arid regions throughout the world. Ephedra sinica (Chinese ephedra or Ma Huang) is found in Asia; Ephedra distacha (European ephedra) is found in Europe; Ephedra trifurca or Ephedra viridis (desert tea), Ephedra nevadensis (Mormon tea), and Ephedra americana (American ephedra) are found in North America; and Ephedra gerardiana (Pakistani ephedra) is found primarily in India and Pakistan.
The 11/2- to 4-foot shrubs typically grow on dry, rocky or sandy slopes. The many slender, yellow-green branches of ephedra have two very small leaf scales at each node. The mature, double-seeded cones are visible in the fall.

History and folk use
The medicinal use of Ephedra sinica in China dates from approximately 2800 B.C. Ma Huang refers to the stem and branch, whereas Ma Huanggen refers to the root and rhizome. Ma Huang was used primarily in the treatment of the common cold, asthma, hay fever, bronchitis, edema, arthritis, fever, hypotension, and urticaria. Ma Huanggen's effect is believed to oppose that of the stem and branches. Its use was limited to the treatment of profuse night sweating.
Western medicine's interest in ephedra began in 1923, with the demonstration that the isolated alkaloid ephedrine possessed a number of pharmacological effects. Ephedrine was synthesized in 1927 and since this time both ephedrine and pseudoephedrine have been used extensively in over the -counter cold and allergy medications.

The pharmacology of ephedra centers around its ephedrine content. Ephedrin has been extensively investigated and are used in prescription and other-the-counter medications for asthma, fever, and rhinitis. In 1973, more than 20 million prescriptions contained either of these alkaloids.

Ephedrine's basic pharmacological action is similar to that of epinephrine (adrenaline), although ephedrine is much less active. Ephedrine also differs epinephrine in its ability to be absorbed orally, its longer duration of and its more pronounced effect on the brain and central nervous system (CNS). The CNS effects of ephedrine are similar to those of amphetamines, but again much less potent. The cardiovascular effects of ephedrine are also similar to those of epinephrine, that is, ephedrine increases blood pressure, cardiac output, and heart rate, but lasts longer (about ten times longer).
Like epinephrine, ephedra will also increase heart, brain, and muscle blood flow at the expense of kidney and intestinal blood flow. Bronchial muscle (the muscles of our airways), and uterine muscles are relaxed by ephedrine.

Clinical applications
Ephedra is used to treat asthma, hay fever, the common cold, and as a weight loss aid. Each of these applications is discussed below.

Asthma and hay fever
Ephedra and its alkaloids are effective bronchodilators in the treatment of mild to moderate asthma and hay fever. The peak bronchodilation effect occurs in 1 hour and lasts about 5 hours after administration. Many believe that the therapeutic effect of ephedra will diminish if used for a long period of time, owing to a weakening of the adrenal glands caused by ephedrine. But, according to the American Pharmaceutical Association, "there is far more discussion of ephedrine tachyphylaxis [rapid decrease in effectiveness] or tolerance than is evidenced as a significant problem in the scientific literature." A 1977 study of ephedrine therapy in asthmatic children, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, concluded: "Ephedrine is a potent bronchodilator that, in appropriate doses, can be administered safely along with therapeutic doses of theophylline without the fear of progressive tolerance or toxicity. Nonetheless, many practitioners of natural medicine prescribe ephedra in combination with substances that support the adrenal glands, such as licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) and Panax ginseng and/or supplemental levels of vitamin C, magnesium, zinc, vitamin B6, and pantothenic acid.
The old-time herbal treatment of asthma involves the use of ephedra in combination with herbal expectorants. Expectorants modify the quality and quantity of secretions from the respiratory tract, causing the user to spit up the secretions and ultimately improving respiratory tract function.

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