Ma Huang - aka - Ephedra

Family: Ephedraceae; other members include broom and horsetail
Genus and Species: Ephedra sinica, E. vulgaris, E. nevadensis, E. antisyphilitica, and other species
Also known as: Ephedra, Mormon tea, whorehouse tea.
Parts Used: Stems, branches
Ma Huang is a powerful bronchial decongestant, and is known as one of the world's oldest medicines. Pseudoephedrine is the herb's laboratory analog which has been used in modern over-the-counter products since the 1920's.

Ma Huang and Mormon Tea

The use of Ma Huang has loosely been traced to around 3000 BC where Chinese physicians began prescribing ephedra tea for colds, asthma, and hay fever. This Chinese variety is known as Ma Huang. When the Mormons arrived inUtah in 1847, the native Indians introduced them to the native American variety of ephedra, a piney-tasting tonic beverage. The Mormons used it as a substitute for coffee and tea, and therefore the name arose - Mormon Tea. Herbalists recommend ephedra today, as it has been for centuries, to treat asthma, hay fever, and the nasal and chest congestion of colds and flu.

Healing With Ephedra

Ephedra's active ingedients (ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, and norspeudoephedrine) are strong central nervous system stimulants, but less potent than amphetamine. Ephedrine opens the bronchial passages, stimulates the heart, and increases blood pressure, metabolic rate, and perspiration and urine production. It reduces the secretion of both saliva and stomach acids. Chinese ephedra (Ma Huang) contains significant amounts of ephedrine, while the American species is richer in norpseudoephedrine.

Be very careful when you buy these products - Mormon Tea is not Ma Huang and there have been problems reported from the use of Ma Huang due the high concentration of ephedrine.


From the late 1920's through the 1940's ephedrine was used in various products as a deongestant and bronchodilator. Ephedrine was generally effective and safe, but it was also known to produce potentially damaging side effects - ie. increased blood pressure, and heart palpitations. It was replaced with a chemical substitute - pseudephedrine which scientists considered equally effective but with reduced side effects. This is the active ingredient in many over the counter products - like Sudafed.

Weight Loss

As a central nervous system stimulant, the ephedrine in ma huang increases basal metabolic rate (BMR), meaning it spurs the body to burn calories faster. I had an email the other day by a person who was almost apologetic about using this great weight loss pill with ma huang in it. He knew of the potential dangers, and spotted reputation, but was happy that he had lost 40 pounds in 3 months and wouldn't think of not using it. Caffeine ( in coffee, tea, cocoa, chocolate, mate, and cola drinks) enhances the performance of Ma Huang. When Ma Huang is taken with caffeine, they cause insomnia, nervousness, irritability, and "speediness." The weight loss effects of Ma Huang may not be permanent. Real weight loss is a combination of reduced caloric intake, high fiber intake, and aerobic exercise.

Smoking Cessation

One study shows ephdrine helps smokers quit by decreasing cigarette cravings. You might want to try this.

Women's Health

Ephedrine causes uterine contractions. Pregnant women should absolutely not use it. It might be useful to initiate menstruation. dead-End File In the Old West, American ephedra also developed a reputation as a cure for syphilis and gonorrhea. It was served at many brothels, hence the name whorehouse tea and the Latin name for one species, E. antisyphilitica. Unfortunately, it has no effect on syphilis or gonorrhea.

Rx for Ephedra

Use a decoction or tincture to take advantage of ephedra's potent healing benefits as a decongestant or weight-loss aid, to help quit smoking, or to initiate menstruation. For a decoction, mix 1 teaspoon of dried ma huang per cup of water, bring to a boil, then simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Drink up to 2 cups a day. In a tincture, take 1/4 to 1 teaspoon up to three times a day. If you are using a commercial preparation, follow the package directions. Ephedra should not be given to children under age 2. For older children and adults under 65 begin with a low-strength preparation and increase strength if necessary.

The Safety Factor

Mainstream medical researchers insist pseudoephedrine, the related chemical usedin commercial cold preparations, is safer than ephedrine. Herbalists will agree with that, but they insist that the whole ephedra plant is safer than either ephedrine or psuedoephedrine. In Herbal Medicine for Everyone, British herbalist Michael McIntyre writes that pure ephedrine "markedly raises blood pressure....but the whole (ephedra) plant actually reduces blood pressure." German medical herbalist Rudolph Fritz Weiss, M.D., maintains that the whole plant " has certain advantages (over psuedoephedrine). Above all, it is better tolerated, cusing fewer heart symptoms such as palpitations."
The ephedra/pseudoephedrine issue remains unresolved. Anyone who has high blood pressure should consult his physician before using this herb. Also, he should invest ina home blood pressure device to self-monitor his condition. If you have one, you can check ephedra's effects. If the herb lowers your blood pressure, your physician will probably give you the go-ahead to use it. If it raises your blood pressure, don't use it. Anyone with heart disease, diabetes, glaucoma, or an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism) should excerise caution and not use ephedra.

Ephedra often casues insomnia. People with sleep problems should not take it late in the day.

Finally, ephedra causes dry mouth. Increase your nonalcohol fluid intake when you use it.

The Food and Drug Administration considers ephedra an herb of "undefined safety." For otherwise healthy nonpregnant, nonnursing adults who do not have high blood pressure, heart disease, glaucoma, or overactive thyroid, and who are not taking other medications that raise blood pressure or cause anxiety or insomnia, ephedra is considered relatively safe when used cautiously for short periods of time.
Ephedra should be used in medicinal amounts only in consultation with your doctor.

If ephedra causes insomnia, nervousness, or stomach upset, use less or stop using it. Let your doctor know if you experience any unpleasant effects or if the symptoms for which the herb is being used do not improve significantly in two weeks. Competitive athletes should be extremely cautious regarding the use of ephedra. For example, it is on the United States Olympic Committee's list of banned substances.

A Weird Plant

Ephedra is not a garden herb. It is an odd-looking botanically primitive, almost leafless shrub that resembles horsetail. It has tough, jointed, barkless stems and branches, with small scale-like leaves and tiny yellow-green flowers that appear in summer. Male and female flowers appear on different plants. Seeds develop in cones.

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