Ma Huang

Ephedra sinica


Names: Ephedra

Habitat: China

Collection: Gather the young branches in the autumn before the first frost, as the alkaloid content is then highest. They may be dried in the sun.

Part Used: Aerial stems.

Constituents: Alkaloids; l-ephedrine, with d-ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, norephedrine, N- methylephedrine, benzylmethylamine.

Actions: Vasodilator, hypertensive, circulatory stimulant, anti-allergic.

Indications: Ma Huang, has been used in China for at least 5000 years, treating a range of health problems, but especially those of the respiratory system. This ancient medicinal plant was also mentioned in the Hindu Vedas. With the discovery of the alkaloids in Ma Huang, time honored, traditional herbal wisdom has been verified, providing modern medicine with important healing tools. A range of therapeutically active alkaloids are found inEphedra, sometimes amounting up to 2.0% of the dried herb. The alkaloids were first isolated in 1887 and came into extensive use in the 1930’s. Various species of Asian Ephedra are used as a source of the widely use dalkaloids ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, mainly Ephedra sinica and E.equisetina from China and E. gerardiana from India.

The alkaloids present in Ephedra have apparently opposite effects on the body. The overall action however is one of balance and benefit. A brief review of the pharmacology of these alkaloids might be illuminating. Ephedrine was the first Ma Huang alkaloid to find wide use in western medicine, being hailed as a cure’ for asthma because of its ability to relax the airways in the lungs. Unfortunately, as is often the way with `miracle cures’, it soon became clear that this isolated constituent of Ephedra had unacceptable side-effects which dramatically limited its use. The problems related to the way in which ephedrine stimulates the autonomic nervous system causing, amongst other things, elevated blood pressure. When studies were done using the whole plant, only a slight blood pressure elevation was found. This led to the discovery that pseudoephedrine, another one of the alkaloids present, slightly reduces both heart rate and lowers blood pressure, thus avoiding the side-effects that often accompany the use of ephedrine. Pseudoephedrine is an effective bronchodilator, equivalent in strength to ephedrine, but having the advantage of causing less stimulation of the nervous system, and so less vaso-constriction, tachycardia (heart palpitations) and other cardiovascular symptoms. Clinical studies have found insignificant side effects with pseudoephedrine. The efficacy and safety of pseudoephedrine are recognized by the Food and Drug Administration, who approve its use in over the counter medications as a safe and effective nasal decongestant. The naturally occurring alkaloids have been synthesized in the laboratory, however even though they have the same molecular structure they have different physical properties, the natural form rotating polarized light to the left whilst the synthetic form is optically inactive. In practice the natural form has the advantage of being better tolerated with less impact upon the heart.

All of these findings lead to the confirmation of traditional uses forEphedra sinica as an effective and safe treatment for nasal congestion and sinus pressure whether due to the common cold, allergies or sinusitis. The herb is used with great success in the treatment of asthma and associated conditions due to its power to relieve spasms in the bronchial tubes. It is thus used in bronchial asthma, bronchitis and whooping cough. It also reduces allergic reactions, giving it a role in the treatment of hayfever and other allergies. It may be used in the treatment of low blood pressure and circulatory insufficiency.

Combinations: Ephedra sinica is best used in conjunction with herbs that support its effects or help the body deal with the underlying health problem. An example might be with Echinacea, Hydrastis andGlycorrhiza.

Preparations & Dosage: Decoction: put 1-2 teaspoonfuls of the dried herb in one cup of water, bring it to boil and simmer for 10-15 minutes. This should be drunk three times a day.

Tincture: take 1-4 ml of the tincture three times a day.

Caution: It is contra-indicated in certain health problems as it might aggravate (but not cause) the pre-existing condition. It should not be used by people with cardiovascular conditions, thyroid disease, diabetes or by men experiencing difficulty urinating due to prostate enlargement.

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Written by David L. Hoffmann BSc Hons MNIMH

Explore Wellness in 2021