Alternative Names: Desert herb.
Becoming increasingly popular, Ephedra (Ephedra sinica) and Chinese ephedra (Ephedra equisetina), also known as Ma Huang, is a plant with a PR problem. When taken irresponsibly, ephedra can cause health problems; it is coming under strict regulation because of past misuse in the supplement industry.
Because it has a stimulating effect, many believe that it contains caffeine. The truth is, the herb ephedra by itself contains no caffeine.
The use of ephedra in combination with other herbs (Guarana, Tea, caffeine) for the use in weight-loss, energy or "feel-good" products is irresponsible and has been under FDA scrutiny.
Ephedra has been used in Chinese medicine for at least 5,000 years and is the herb from which scientists have extracted ephedrine, one of the most effective treatments known for the symptoms of asthma, allergies and sinus problems.
Ephedra is a powerful herb which grows mainly in Mongolia and the bordering regions of China. Ephedra extracts are available that contain 6-8% ephedrine. 200-400mg of such an extract is sufficient to dilate the bronchial tubes of most individuals for several hours. Extracts containing more than 10% ephedrine are often adulterated with synthetic ephedrine.
Ephedra plants contain about 2 to 3% naturally-occurring ephedra alkaloids, mostly ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. These are the active ingredients in ephedra, the most important one being ephedrine.
These alkaloids have been the primary focus and misuse of these plants. Both alkaloids stimulate the alpha and beta-adrenergic receptors, and in general act similarly to norepinephrine (adrenaline). This in turn will act to dilate the bronchial tubes (for asthma, hay fever etc) as well as increase CNS and cardiac activity. The only safe recommended use of ephedra is for short-term bronchodilation. This is its "Approved" use under the German Commission E.
The Chinese employed ephedra for many ailments, including the treatment of asthma and as a natural decongestant and antihistamine. Herbalists in the West have also discovered these benefits and ephedra has become a popular ingredient in herbal combinations for the respiratory system. Since it also has a thermogenic effect (increases basal metabolic rate, slightly raising body temperature and causing calories to be burned at a faster rate), it has also proven to be an effective aid for weight loss. An added bonus for those who use the herb for weight management is its appetite-suppressing effect.
Many herbalists and health practitioners believe that ephedra, when taken according to a specific protocol, can safely and effectively help you lose weight – despite its reputation as a troublesome herb. When considering ephedra as a weight loss aid, it's critical that you consult a health practitioner who's aware of the proper protocol to follow in taking this herb.
Research at Harvard University Medical School [International Journal of Obesity, Feb., 1993] shows that the combination of Ma Huang and caffeine can increase effectiveness and reduce the negative side-effects for most people. If caffeine were not used, more of the Ma Huang would be needed to get the same desired effect.
The only kind of thermogenesis directly related to fat management occurs in brown adipose tissue (BAT), tissue that specializes in converting calories to heat energy. Scientists are beginning to believe that many obesity problems are caused by improper thermogenic metabolism in BAT. BAT is the only tissue in the body that contains a protein called thermogenin, or the "uncoupling" protein. This protein allows BAT cells to convert calories into heat rather than storing them as fat. It also allows BAT cells to burn white fat (fat stored in the body as a result of excess calorie intake).
Heat generated in BAT metabolism of fat-derived calories simply radiates away from BAT into neighboring tissues and thus some people experience sensations of heat when consuming BAT-stimulating thermogenic products.
When BAT is active, most – if not all – excess dietary calories can be burned off in this tissue. Although all humans begin life with adequate BAT, it may gradually decrease in quantity and activity as we mature. Recent research shows that several genes are implicated in the amount and effectiveness of BAT. As BAT disappears or ceases to function, excess dietary calories can no longer be 'incinerated in the BAT furnace' and are stored as body fat instead. This brings us to the simple realization that a primary difference between many overweight and thin people might be healthy, functioning BAT.
Ephedra preparations are considered addictive and use should be limited to short-term treatment.
Contrary to commonly reported stories, 3 months of intermittent or continuous treatment with an ephedra-containing weight-loss product containing ephedra (but not caffeine) had no ill effect on heart rate or blood pressure and there were no cases of serious adverse effects reported in a well-controlled study of 279 healthy, overweight people. 33% of patients on intermittent treatment and 48% on continuous treatment experienced adverse effects deemed non-serious such as dry mouth, headache, insomnia, nervousness, agitation, constipation and/or diarrhea. [Experimental Biology 2002, April 20-24, 2002, New Orleans, LA, USA. Abstract]
Ephedra contains ephedrine and variable quantities of pseudoephedrine. These components are still widely prescribed and effective drugs in the treatment of asthma, particularly in chronic cases.
Ephedrine is an approved over-the-counter (OTC) treatment for bronchial tightness associated with asthma. OTC drugs containing ephedrine can be safely used by adults in the amount of 12.5 to 25mg every four hours. Adults should take a total of no more than 150mg every 24 hours and refer to labels for children's dosages. Ephedra sinica continues to be a component of traditional herbal preparations for asthma, often in amounts of 1 to 2gm of the herb per day.
Ephedra (the active ingredient in Ma Huang) and pseudoephedrine have been used with clinical success in Chinese studies. [Pharmacology and Applications of Chinese Materia Medica, Vol 2, pp.1119-24, World Scientific Publishing.]. Dosage: 500-1,000mg of the crude herb tid, or ephedrine 15-25mg tid.
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