Ephedra

Ephedra Sinica Plant Benefits, Uses, Effects Plus Health Dangers

Ephedra SinicaEphedra products, including Ephedra sinica, are noted today as being one of the most beneficial for promoting weight loss and energy boosting effects. But do they really provide results?

Use of ephedra in products is controversial, especially after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned ephedra alkaloids in dietary supplements. Other countries allow the alkaloids, so what’s the big deal?

What is ephedra and how does it work? Is it safe or not?

Ephedra sinica is merely one of over 60 species of recognized ephedra plant-shrubs that grow in specific locations around the world. It belongs to the family or genus known as Ephedradeae.

Ephedra grows around the world, throughout Asia, Western and Central Europe, some African nations, and portions of the Americas. In North America, it generally grows in the arid deserts of the southwest including Texas, Arizona, and the Southern California high desert in dry inland regions. It also grows on the western boundaries of South America.


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Ephedra sinica Species

The Ephedra sinica plant is the species more commonly known as Ma Huang or Chinese Ma Huang. This species typically grows in northwestern Chinese provinces, as well as Mongolia and certain regions of Russia.

It also happens to be ranked as one of the most potent forms of the ephedra family of plants and has been used for thousands of years in indigenous medicinal practices.

Chinese Ma Huang or Ephedra sinica, known in some native Chinese dialects as cao ma huang, has been used by Asian cultures mainly for the treatment of symptoms associated with lung disorders. In most cases, the plant, used in a variety of teas, formularies, or herbal mixtures, has been used as a treatment for or as a:

  • Relief of asthma symptoms
  • As a bronchodilator
  • Relief of symptoms of sinusitis
  • Relief of symptoms caused by cold or flu

Potential users of ephedra may me interested in the fact that the plant – Chinese Ma Huang – was never used as a weight loss or energy- producing treatment.

Today, any product that contains ephedra or its primary stimulative alkaloids (ephedrine and pseudoephedrine) are among the most popular weight loss and energy-boosting supplements found in thousands of brands and available online today.

Today’s consumers of ephedra products often confuse one species or version of the plant with others, but they are not all created equal. Ma Huang or ephedra sinica is listed as among the more potent species of the family of plants over those found in the United States, for example.

In folklore medicine Ma Huang, or ephedra sinica, was most commonly harvested, dried, and then ground into a combination of leaves and stems or a fine powder designed to be used in tea or beverage concoctions.

It wasn’t until the mid-1880s that the ephedra alkaloids were discovered. One of the primary alkaloids found in the ephedra sinica species is ephedrine. In the 1920s, the mechanism of action of ephedra as an adrenergic receptor (alpha and beta) were noted and the component became a common ingredient in decongestants as well as asthma bronchodilator medications. [1]

It wasn’t until the 1950s that newer and safer drugs were developed for such treatments, and products containing ephedrine were discovered for a new purpose: weight loss and energy enhancement.

Consumers, depending on geographical location, may still find bronchodilator products containing the ephedra alkaloids, but for most, those will be prescription only.

The popularity of ephedra and its primary alkaloids (ephedrine and pseudoephedrine), spread to the western countries around the world, and by the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was used by athletes, bodybuilders, and overweight individuals as the “go-to” drug for accelerated weight loss and energy boosting effects.

Since the late 1960s ephedra and its alkaloids – found in asthma medications – have been used and misused by athletes as a stimulant and weight-loss drug. This use continued well into the 1980s and 1990s. At that time, the FDA and other health agencies began to notice to increasing reports of adverse side effects and reactions, some serious, and a few that were deadly.

Such began the controversial banishment (in the U.S.) of ephedra alkaloids in dietary supplements and products in the United States by the US Food and Drug Administlegration which went into effect in 2004.

The banishment of ephedra in the US and other countries around the world caused a surge of disagreements and disgruntlement within the dietary supplement industry and among consumers using ephedra products by the thousands. In Western countries, ephedra weight loss drugs were among the most popular supplements available on the market.

Today, ephedra extract and ephedra with the alkaloids removed are considered legal for sale in the U.S. Products containing the alkaloids ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are not.

In other countries, the ephedra alkaloids are permitted in dietary supplements, although ephedra extract may not be. Individuals interested in using ephedra, ephedra sinica, or any component of the ephedra sinica plant found for sale online or in traditional store locations, should be aware of the legalities of use in their country of origin.


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Mechanism/s of Action

As mentioned, the Chinese Ma Huang, also well known as the ephedra sinica plant, contains as one of its primary components, ephedrine. Ephedrine is known as a phenethylamine while pseudoephedrine, the other primary alkaloid, is classified as an isomer.

Ephedrine is defined as an adrenergic agonist or trigger – with both alpha (α) and beta (β) activities- perceived to encourage the release of norepinephrine, a hormone found naturally in the body, mainly acting as a neurotransmitter. This neurotransmitter stimulates the central nervous system and promotes a number of changes in autonomic functions over which we have no control. Some of these include:

  • Metabolism
  • Cardiovascular function
  • Brain function
  • Respiration rate
  • Sympathetic nervous system activities

Acting both as an alpha and beta-adrenergic agonist receptor and a releasing agent of norepinephrine, ephedrine specifically targets and activates post-synaptic noradrenergic receptors [2] that result in dilation or constriction of vessels such as those found inside the lungs (bronchi and bronchial walls) as well as peripheral blood vessels.

That being said, a number of benefits have also been associated with use of ephedra sinica (Ma Huang) when used appropriately.

Historical medical usage and benefits of portions of the ephedra sinica plant differ from modern usage of Ma Huang and ephedra as well as ephedrine products found on the market today focused on weight loss and energy production.

Benefits Associated with Ephedra Sinica

Historically, the benefits associated with ephedra sinica and various portions, concoctions, and formularies as used by traditional Chinese medical practitioners have been researched and reported for thousands of years.

It should be repeated that in traditional Chinese medicine, usage of any portion of the ephedra sinica plant were not for weight loss. In traditional Chinese medicine, overseen by a knowledgeable and licensed herbalist or physician, ephedra usage is considered safe Historically, no therapeutic formulas (and used with adherence to instructions overseen by herbalists) have been associated with serious or even deadly adverse reactions. [3]

In traditional Chinese medicine, use of ephedra sinica or Ma Huang, is also found in much lower dosages than those found in dietary supplements today. Knowledgeable practitioners incorporate other Chinese herbal ingredients in their Ma Huang concoctions to reduce risk of side effects of the ephedra sinica. [4]

The same cannot be said of the majority of ephedra products manufactured today, whether they contain the ephedrine and pseudoephedrine alkaloids or not. Today’s dietary supplements often contain numerous additional stimulative ingredients on top of that found with the ephedra extract – most commonly with high doses of caffeine.

In medical research, the benefits of ephedra sinica as well as various components of the ephedra sinica plant, have been studied and reported. Among them, its treatment for inflammatory conditions, and its primary activity in triggering anti-inflammatory responses in pulmonary inflammation scenarios, with the potential as a treatment for COPD. [5]

However, usage of the ephedra sinica plant in traditional Chinese medicine in locations around the world is rarely used in order to decrease the risk of combinations of prescription-based medications.

One of the most prevalent and claimed benefits of usage of ephedra sinica in any form is its ability to promote weight loss. However, most of the studies involving ephedra also involve other ingredients, primarily caffeine, or components like Bitter Orange (Citrus aurantium), and its component, p-synephrine.

Small studies on the weight-loss benefits associated with ephedra are disappointing. While an obese or overweight individual may experience a more drastic and initial drop in weight than someone who is leaner, long-term results in weight loss management are definitively lacking.

In fact, multi-ingredient dietary supplements that contain caffeine, ephedra, and ephedrine alkaloids or other stimulants are difficult to assess due to the different milligram strengths of its components as well as the individual’s lifestyle habits and diet involved in such small studies.

These difficulties include but are not limited to:

  • Species of ephedra used
  • Presence of ephedra alkaloids
  • Combinations with other herbal ingredients such as Bitter Orange
  • Caffeine usage, and amount
  • Age
  • Height versus weight
  • Presence of obesity

Following the removal of ephedra alkaloids (ephedrine and pseudoephedrine) from products market in the U.S. and other countries, the substitution of other ingredients can and often do contain questionable ingredients in regard to safety.

According to one 2000 study, 36 products were marketed as ephedra-free, but the majority of them contained other stimulants such as Theobromine or caffeine, while approximately 58% contained synephrine as a stimulant, while 56% of them contained a mixture of caffeine, theobromine, or synephrine. [6]

The combination of such stimulants can be dangerous for some. Marketing a product as “ephedra-free” therefore, does not necessarily negate the potential for negative side effects and adverse reactions.

A number of stimulants can trigger thermogenic effects, but such effects should always be weighed against the potential for negative side effects.


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Where to Buy Ma Huang (Ephedra Sinica)

Where can you buy ephedra sinica, or the part of the ephedra sinica plant that contains the ephedra alkaloids? The most common answer is online, and specifically from Asian manufacturers and sellers.

However, some versions are also available in other countries, but always be aware of the laws and regulations regarding import/export of such substances as well as the shipping regulations.

Is ephedra sinica available on eBay and Amazon? Consumers will find a variety of Ma Huang/Mormon tea/Ephedra sinica products on eBay, mostly from China-based sellers. Potential users may also find Ephedra sinica seeds available for sale, designed for use in planting in gardens or outdoor landscaping.

Note: Some species of ephedra have been deemed toxic to livestock. If interested in planting ephedra seed in your yard or garden, and you have animals, including dogs and cats, talk to your veterinarian about potential toxicity.

Prices of ephedra sinica online from Chinese sellers will vary depending on what it is, the the form it takes, and the size/weight of the product.

For example, natural (raw) ephedra sinica tea (Ma Huang) sells for approximately $20 (with free international shipping from some sellers) for approximately 250 grams of product.

Another version sells for approximately $30, with shipping charges ranging from $1-$8 or more, depending on the seller. Do be aware that international sales and items/packages may be subject to customs processing and after that, general or domestic mail services may also inspect questionable packages from various destinations.

A quick search on Amazon found a few products labeled as Mormon tea extract or recombination as ephedra sinica protein, but not nearly as many options as that found on eBay or other online stores.

A number of dietary supplements also claim legal sales of ephedra sinica but always be sure that you can read the label specifying ingredients. One claims legal, ephedra sinica for sale in the U.S., and mentions its proprietary blend of ephedra sinica extract (aerial parts) – which are often known as exudates, or a liquid substance that literally oozes or “sweats” out of plant pores when exposed to air, after which it’s solidified.

A number of sports nutrition shops list products containing ephedra sinica more prevalently outside of the United States. Some of the most common ephedra selling stores that rank high in “buy ephedra sinica” search bar queries include:

  • Ephedra Warehouse
  • Ephedra Outlet
  • Herbal Fire
  • Bouncing Bear Botanicals

A number of these sellers claim to be selling real ephedra diet pills, but when looking for ephedra sinica pills, tea, or powdered form, take the time to research the seller, their reputation, and of course, compare costs.

Usage Recommendations

In traditional Chinese medicine, dosage of ephedra sinica or usage in tea brews manufactured from various parts of the ephedra sinica plant ranged from 1.5 to 9 g, and this is utilized by taking dried green stems and boiling them in water. Chinese medical practitioners typically use caution and start at the lowest dosage to avoid side effects.

Side Effects Associated with Ephedra

Among the most common side effects associated with ephedra sinica, and other forms of ephedra that are more potent, or contain the alkaloids, include:

  • Racing heart/accelerated heart rate (tachycardia)
  • Nausea, sometimes accompanied by vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Heart palpitations
  • Increased anxiety or nervousness, accompanied by “jitters”

In many cases, ephedra products that have the alkaloids removed are common with many dietary supplements on the market today, contain other substituted and stimulative ingredients, including but not limited to:

  • Relatively high doses of caffeine anhydrous (dry, powdered caffeine)
  • Bitter orange (Citrus aurantium) – a component found in this herb is p-Synephrine, a powerful stimulant of the central nervous system

Some may be very sensitive to these combinations of one or more stimulants. In most cases, the side effects are transitory and disappear within an hour, but if cardiovascular side effects linked to the stimulative or sympathomimetic components of products don’t disappear, a potential visit with a physician or healthcare provider is recommended.

Some reports have noted potential for liver damage, depending on frequency and length of use. The ephedra alkaloids (mainly ephedrine) can potentially cause liver damage within a few weeks to longer than six months of use.

Symptoms of potential liver toxicity include:

  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal pain
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the white part of the eyes or yellow skin)

Following discontinuation of ephedra, the liver tends to recover within one to six months, although some acute liver failure scenarios and death, as well as a requirement of liver transplants have been reported. [7]

The severity of potential liver toxicity and/or damage depend on not only the milligram strength or potency of the ephedra used, but also length of use.

While side effects and liver damage or injury is rare between use of Ma Huang as well as other herbal weight-loss agents or preparations, those containing ephedrine can increase such risks.

Some studies have been conducted on many of the ingredients found in ephedra products, including that of Bitter Orange extract that contains p-Synephrine, in the treatment of weight-loss or enhanced athletic performance, energy promotion, or as an appetite suppressant.

Some of these studies have determined that while the participants did not experience any cardiovascular issues at “commonly used doses”, the stimulative effects in regard to weight-loss or energy enhancement were also lacking. [8]

Contraindications

As with any drug or herbal supplement, and even “harmless” over-the-counter products, contraindications to apply in many situations. It is strongly recommended that a woman who is pregnant or planning to become pregnant avoid use of any stimulative weight-loss or energy promoting products, especially those that contain ephedra.

The same is true of those who are nursing, as the effects on the developing fetus or breast-fed infant are unknown.

Individuals diagnosed with any medical condition, including cardiovascular, metabolic, or hormonal dysfunctions, disease processes, or conditions should consult with a physician prior to taking ephedra sinica or components containing any part of the ephedra sinica plant.

These warnings are typically precautionary in nature, although the more stimulants found in dietary weight loss or energy promoting products, the greater the risk of experiencing negative side effects.

Potential users of ephedra sinica should also be aware of drug interactions. According to drugs.com, Ma Huang can trigger over 400 moderate drug interactions – 98 of them are major in nature. Approximately 535 drugs (brand and generic) have been reported to or at least have been determined to trigger major interactions in combination with Ma Huang. [9]

Prescription, as well as over-the-counter drug interactions, can include items considered as harmless as aspirin or acetaminophen to antidepressants, caffeine, anti-anxiety drugs, cold and cough medicines other weight-loss products (prescription and over-the-counter), and cardiovascular, metabolic, and hormone products.

Of course, not everyone is going to experience adverse reactions or interactions, but the warnings are “out there”.

Conclusion

Ephedra sinica can be found from numerous sellers online, and depending on geographical location, from traditional brick-and-mortar stores and locations. Caution is always advised with any type of stimulant, as individual reactions can and do vary even among individuals with similar weight, height, and body composition.

Studies are lacking regarding results of significant benefits in aspects of weight-loss and energy performance enhancement that lasts more than very short term, meaning within a couple of hours of use, and don’t tend to outweigh the risks and side effects.

While side effects and adverse reactions in regard to the cardiovascular effects of ephedra sinica, components of the ephedra sinica plant, Bitter Orange, or synephrine used separately are rare, combinations of these stimulants in one product does drastically increase the risk of negative side effects and potentially adverse reactions.

Individuals purchasing ephedra sinica from foreign sources are encouraged to research the drug components, how they behave in the body, and in regard to rational expectations in regard to weight-loss or energy enhancement benefits.

The majority of dietary supplement and energy promoting products today do recommend a balanced and nutritious diet as well as adequate exercise and exercise intensity in order to achieve optimal results.

No product on the market today, including ephedra sinica can or should be expected to do all the work by itself.


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