Ultimate Herbals Guide: Ephedra

Ultimate Herbals Guide: Ephedra

Your Herb Guide to Ephedra

What is Ephedra?

Ephedra is an evergreen shrub-like plant native to Central Asia and Mongolia. The principal active ingredient, ephedrine, is a compound that can powerfully stimulate the nervous system and heart.

This Herb Guide provides everything you need to know about the herb Ephedra – it’s common names, how and why it’s used, whether it works and what it works for best, research conducted, whether it’s safe to take as an herbal dietary supplement, and the potential side effects and cautions.

An herb, in general, is a plant or part of a plant which includes the flowers, leaves, bark, fruit, seeds, stems, and roots of the plant, used for its flavor, scent, or potential therapeutic properties.

Ephedra is an evergreen shrub-like plant native to Central Asia and Mongolia. The principal active ingredient, ephedrine, is a compound that can powerfully stimulate the nervous system and heart.

Common Names - Ephedra, Chinese Ephedra, Ma Huang

Latin Name - Ephedra Sinica

What medical conditions is Ephedra commonly thought to help?
  • Ephedra has been used for more than 5,000 years in China and India to treat conditions such as colds, fever, flu, headaches, asthma, wheezing, and nasal congestion.
  • It has also been an ingredient in many dietary supplements used for:
    • Weight loss,
    • Increased energy
    • Enhanced athletic performance.
How is Ephedra used as an herbal dietary supplement?

The dried stems and leaves of the plant are used to create capsules, tablets, extracts, tinctures, and teas.

What the Science Says

Is Ephedra safe and effective to take as an herbal dietary supplement? If so, prove it!
  • The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) conducted a study that analyzed phone calls to poison control centers found a higher rate of side effects from ephedra, compared with other herbal products.
  • Other studies and systematic reviews have found an increased risk of heart, psychiatric, and gastrointestinal problems, as well as high blood pressure and stroke, with ephedra use.
  • According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is little evidence of ephedra’s effectiveness, except for short-term weight loss. However, the increased risk of heart problems and stroke outweighs any benefits.

Side Effects and Cautions

What are the side effects of taking Ephedra as an herbal dietary supplement?
What should I be careful of if supplementing my diet with Ephedra?
  • In 2004, the FDA banned the U.S. sale of dietary supplements containing ephedra. The FDA found that these supplements had an unreasonable risk of injury or illness-particularly cardiovascular complications-and a risk of death. The ban does not apply to traditional Chinese herbal remedies or to products like herbal teas regulated as conventional foods.
  • Between 1995 and 1997, the FDA received more than 900 reports of possible ephedra toxicity. Serious adverse events such as stroke, heart attack, and sudden death were reported in 37 cases.
  • Using ephedra may worsen many health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, sleep disorders, and diabetes.
  • Taking ephedra can also result in nausea, anxiety, headache, psychosis, kidney stones, tremors, dry mouth, irregular heart rhythms, heart damage, high blood pressure, restlessness, sleep problems, irritation of the stomach, and increased urination.
  • Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and children should avoid taking ephedra.
  • Ephedra use may lead to serious health problems when used with other dietary supplements or medicines.
  • Combining ephedra with caffeine increases the risk of potentially serious side effects.
  • Tell your health care providers about any complementary and alternative practices you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.

Content Created/Medically Reviewed by our Expert Doctors