The ephedra plant has been used in traditional medicine for over three millennia, but it was not until the 1970’s that it became associated with fat burning and weight loss.
Ephedra refers to a genus of 60 plants which have long been recognized for their medicinal effects.
The Ma Huang (Ephedra Sinica) herb is one of the 50 foundational herbs used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It was historically prescribed to treat lung and breathing issues, relieve fever and used as a diaphoretic and diuretic.
Ephedra extract is a source of two alkaloids which are now used in pharmaceutical drugs: ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. Both are used to relieve nasal congestion, breathing conditions, asthma and the common cold.
While the ephedrine alkaloid does appear to reliably produce weight loss and boost metabolism, its use is also linked to serious adverse reactions. Ephedra plant alkaloids have been banned in dietary supplements around the world. Click here to buy ephedra supplements online legally without a prescription.
Ephedra Plant Overview
For thousands of years, ephedra has been used in traditional folk medicine for the treatment of breathing and lung conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, allergies, sinusitis, and rhinitis.
It was not originally used for weight loss, energy enhancement, or athletic performance although these uses have largely eclipsed its traditional use in the West.
There are over 60 different species of the ephedra plant and some are more potent than others. All belong to the family of plants known as Ephedraceae.
The factor that determines how effective ephedra extract is for various medicinal uses is its alkaloid content. Some of the species recognized for their high alkaloid content include Ephedra em>sinica, E. major and E. distachya.
These species contain high amounts of ephedra alkaloids which act as bronchodilators and help to open airways and nasal passages. The primary active alkaloids in this plant are:
These alkaloids behave as sympathomimetic agents, meaning that they stimulate a sympathetic nervous system response in the body.
In particular, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are capable of activating alpha and beta-adrenergic receptors in the body.
These receptors are involved in constricting or widening (dilating) blood vessels or dilating airways in the lungs including the bronchi and the bronchioles.
Ephedrine also promotes the release of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that increases alertness, energy levels and metabolism.
Different Species of Ephedra
Some species of ephedra contain more alkaloids than others. Some American sub-species have little to no alkaloids, such as the Ephedra nevadensis plant.
Below are three species that are identified as providing a high content of alkaloids:
- Ephedra sinica
- Ephedra intermedia
- Ephedra major
According to some online sources, the stems of the Ephedra Sinica plant contain between 0.5-2.5% total alkaloids with 30-90% of that consisting of ephedrine.
The total alkaloids content (TAC) and the profile of those alkaloids measured in different species varies widely. Below is the alkaloid content measured in milligram per gram of dry weight of several species: :
- Ephedra distachya (sub species Helvetica): approximately 15.8 mg/g
- Ephedra major: approximately 14.8 mg/g
Below is the content of ephedrine and ephedrine isolated from two species: :
- Ephedra monosperma: ephedrine 9.5 mg/g, pseudoephedrine 25.2 mg/g. Total combined is 34.7 mg/g
- Ephedra fragilis: ephedrine 21.0 mg/g, pseudoephedrine 6.1 mg/g. Total combined is 27.1 mg/g
In addition to which species is used, the resulting pharmacological effects will also depend on the parts of the plant used. For example, the leaves, roots and fruit of this plant contains a different mix of alkaloids compared to the stems.
The ephedra major species contains ephedrine in the stem, but not in the root.  According to some historical sources, preparations made from the root were believed to have opposite effects compared to Ephedra tea brewed from the stems.
This plant is also a source of other bioactive components including:
- Fatty acids
- Amino acids
Effects and Benefits
The alkaloids in the ephedra plant have stimulatory effects. Of these alkaloids, ephedrine has received the most research attention.
In research studies, this alkaloid has been observed to increase heart rate and blood pressure, promote dilation of the bronchial airways and to constrict blood vessels.
It stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and can affect changes in metabolism, digestion, mood, alertness, vigilance and more.
Ephedra alkaloids are able to stimulate alpha and beta-adrenergic receptor activity. These are receptors that normally react to the presence of adrenaline, the hormone that regulates our fight or flight response.
Ephedrine also promotes the release of norepinephrine from nerve terminals. This catecholamine neurotransmitter is released in times of stress to prepare the brain and body to take action.
It increases arousal, motivation, attention, focus and triggers the release of glucose in the body. It also increases blood flow to muscle tissue, providing your muscle with more energy and oxygen to react to potential threats.
Additional effects linked to norepinephrine include suppression of the appetite and inhibition of digestive processes.
Many of these mechanisms of action can indirectly support short-term weight loss. Consuming ephedra supplements is associated with greater energy metabolism, thermogenic activity and hunger control.
When you have a higher metabolic rate, burn more calories and consume less food, weight loss is a natural byproduct. In studies of ephedra and caffeine stacks, users have seen their Total Caloric Expenditure increase between 4-10% over a 24-hour period following consumption.
Some studies have shown that individuals using ephedrine on its own or with caffeine, can lose one to two pounds a month more compared to someone not using the product.
However, the same mechanisms that can promote fat loss can also lead to dangerous cardiovascular side effects. Overuse of ephedra can cause your heart to work harder and put excess strain on metabolic functions.
In people who are obese or who have a pre-existing tendency for high blood pressure, this can be especially dangerous. Ephedrine alkaloids have been banned in the US since 2004 due to this risk of serious side effects.
Ephedra Plants for Sale Online
Ephedra is illegal in dietary supplements, but only in certain forms. The raw ephedra herb is still legal if prepared as an herbal medicine and sold by a licensed Chinese medicine practitioner.
Regulators recognized the medicinal value of the herb and continue to allow ephedrine and pseudoephedrine to be sold in over-the-counter cough and asthma remedies. Herbalists also argued that the way this herb was used traditionally is much safer than the way it was used in dietary supplements.
You can buy a number of ephedra plant products legally online. However, not all sources of this plant are trustworthy and reliable. It is important to buy the plant from an authentic supplier than can verify the source and that provides a Certificate of Authenticity.
Not all versions of this plant contain the ephedrine alkaloid. Among species that do contain this alkaloid, there can also be significant differences in the phytochemical make-up of different products.
It is difficult to control for the specific dosage of ephedrine provided in an extract. Look for standardized extracts where possible from the ephedra sinica, ephedra vulgaris or ephedra equisetina species.
Some people decide to buy seeds online to grow their own ephedra plant at home. You may also be able to purchase the live plant, depending on where you live.
Before buying seeds on your own, be aware that some individuals have had challenges in getting the seeds to germinate. Furthermore, it can take several years for the plant to reach maturity and to be ready to harvest.
Although this plant does grow in a diverse number of locations around the world, it tends to prefer dry, arid environments. Growing conditions, such as geographical region, environment, temperature, and cultivation season can affect the potency of the alkaloids.
In Iran, the ephedra major species will have the highest alkaloid content if harvested between May and October. Ephedra major tends to grow in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Central Asia.
The American species (E. viridis, E. nevadensis, E. californica and E. americanus) typically grow in southwestern states such as Texas and New Mexico and along the western coastline. This plant also grows in in drier climates including those of Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California.
The ephedra sinica species (Chinese Ma Huang) tends to prefer temperate climates and sandy soil with more direct sun exposure. This plant prefers the regions of Mongolia, Manchuria, and Siberia. Other species grow better in hot and dry locations such as Mexico, the Middle East, while others prefer warmer climates of Asia.
Preparing Ephedra Tea
Historically, the ephedra plant was used as a raw herb, ground into a powder, made into a liquid tincture or prepared as a topical poultice.
It was also commonly brewed into a tea. Depending on the desired effects, different parts of the herb would be used to make the tea recipe.
The roots, flowers, leaves and stems would commonly be mixed with other herbs to form concoctions to treat specific ailments. The fruits of this plant are edible and used as food in some cultures. 
Some recipes recommend collecting the dry parts of the plant and crushing them to form a powder can be sprinkled on food or into beverages.
Before consuming ephedra plants in their raw form, consult with a trained herbal medicine practitioner to learn about the risks and safe use. Consuming too much of this herb or not preparing it in the right way could result in toxicity and other adverse effects.
Potential Side Effects
Use of products made from any species of the ephedra plant may contribute to a number of side effects for some users.
It is recommended to use this herb under consultation with a trained and licensed herbal medicine practitioner. It should be used for no more than four to six weeks at a time, although some users will take it for between 12-24 weeks under direction from a medical practitioner.
Temporary and mild side effects associated with use may include:
- Faster heart rate
- Jitters or restlessness
Individuals who have a history of severe headaches or migraines should avoid this plant. It can sometimes cause migraines by affecting constriction or dilation of blood vessels in the scalp.
Some individuals who are sensitive to stimulative products may react more severely. Some complain of changes in behavior or mood, such as an increased sense of agitation or irritability, mania, euphoria, depression and others.
Among the more dangerous physical manifestations of ephedra and ephedrine usage is its potential effect on the cardiovascular system. Some potentially life-threatening issues include:
- Tachycardia (racing heart)
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Arrhythmia (irregular heart rate)
- Increased risk of heart attack
- Increased risk of stroke
Side effects should not be underestimated, even when taking this herb as directed by a trained herbalists or Chinese medicine practitioner.
The misuse, overuse, and abuse of ephedra diet pills in the 1980s and 1990s is what spurred the ban of ephedra alkaloids in the US 2004. This resulted in hundreds of products being removed from store shelves around the world.
While many argue that use of the whole ephedra plant is less dangerous than use of synthetic forms of ephedrine or consumption of dietary supplements, there is still a considerable risk of adverse effects.
Be aware of the legal rules and regulations governing the sale of ephedra products where you live. The legal status of ephedra plants and ephedrine alkaloids differs by country.
- Saida Ibragic and Emin Sofić. Chemical composition of various Ephedra species. Bosn J Basic Med Sci. 2015 Aug; 15(3): 21-27. Doi: 10.17305/bjbms.2015.539
- M. Aghdasi, M. Mofid Bohnoordi, M. Mianabadi, M Nadaf. Chemical components of the Ephedra major from Iran. Natural Product Research. Vol. 30, 2016-Issue 3
- The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Ephedra major