Ma Huang (Ephedra equisetina)

The FDA banned the herb ephedra on April 12, 2004, based on reports of deaths in individuals taking it is excessive amounts. To date, there have been a total of only 155 deaths from ephedra abuse, compared to the annual figures of 440,000 deaths from cigarettes, or 110,000 from alcohol. You can still purchase products designed for thermogenesis which may contain ephedra in small quantities.

Now, consumers are turning to bitter orange as a natural replacement for ephedra to keep their weight under control. Bitter

orange contains synephrine as its active ingredient, which is in the same family as ephedrine and other stimulants. Currently, it is still on the FDA list of herbs considered generally safe but such was once the case with ephedra.

There’s no doubt that bitter orange should be used under the supervision of a physician, because it does have the potential for side effects, and also because it is the type of herb that some people will over-do in their quest to lose weight.

Products containing ephedrine, the synthetic form of ephedra, remain on the shelves and in pharmacies in many forms of over-the-counter remedies for allergies, asthma, and other forms of nasal congestion in addition to weight loss supplements. This is because ephedrine does not meet the definition of a “dietary” ingredient.

Chinese ephedra (Ephedra equisetina), also known as desert herb or Ma Huang, is a plant with a PR problem. Ephedra is a powerful herb which grows mainly in Mongolia and the bordering regions of China. It has been used in Chinese medicine for at least 5,000 years. It 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.

The Chinese employed ephedra for many uses, 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.

The active ingredients in ephedra are naturally occurring ephedra alkaloids, the most important one being ephedrine. Because it has a stimulating effect, many believe that it contains caffeine. The truth is, the herb ephedra by itself contains no caffeine.

Many herbalists and health practitioners believe ephedra, when taken according to a specific protocol, can safely and effectively help you lose weight – despite its reputation as a troublesome herb. When taken irresponsibly, though, ephedra may cause health problems. Therefore, 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 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’s specialized for converting calories into 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. 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.

The ban on ephedra in the US does not pertain to traditional Chinese herbal remedies nor to products like herbal teas that are regulated as conventional foods. Acupuncturists, herbalists and other practitioners of Oriental medicine will still be allowed to dispense teas, pills and powders containing ephedra for the purpose of treating colds, asthma, persistent cough, headache, water retention and other maladies. Dispensing ephedra for the purpose of weight loss, muscle building and athletic performance will be prohibited.


Ma Huang (Ephedra equisetina) can help with the following

Emergency Care  

Upcoming Surgical Procedure

Ephedra may cause heartbeat irregularities and problems with blood pressure and/or heart rate.


Problem Caused By Being Overweight

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 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.


Bronchitis, Acute

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.


Likely to help
Highly recommended
May have adverse consequences



The (American) Food and Drug Administration. It is the official government agency that is responsible for ensuring that what we put into our bodies - particularly food and drugs - is safe and effective.


Herbs may be used as dried extracts (capsules, powders, teas), glycerites (glycerine extracts), or tinctures (alcohol extracts). Unless otherwise indicated, teas should be made with one teaspoon herb per cup of hot water. Steep covered 5 to 10 minutes for leaf or flowers, and 10 to 20 minutes for roots. Tinctures may be used singly or in combination as noted. The high doses of single herbs suggested may be best taken as dried extracts (in capsules), although tinctures (60 drops four times per day) and teas (4 to 6 cups per day) may also be used.


The production of heat by metabolic processes.


A drug or medication that can legally be bought without a doctor's prescription being required.


Hypersensitivity caused by exposure to a particular antigen (allergen), resulting in an increased reactivity to that antigen on subsequent exposure, sometimes with harmful immunologic consequences.


A lung disorder marked by attacks of breathing difficulty, wheezing, coughing, and thick mucus coming from the lungs. The episodes may be triggered by breathing foreign substances (allergens) or pollutants, infection, vigorous exercise, or emotional stress.


Drugs, used to treat allergy symptoms, which block the action of histamine on body tissues.


The chemical processes of living cells in which energy is produced in order to replace and repair tissues and maintain a healthy body. Responsible for the production of energy, biosynthesis of important substances, and degradation of various compounds.


Compounds composed of hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen present in the body and in foods that form complex combinations of amino acids. Protein is essential for life and is used for growth and repair. Foods that supply the body with protein include animal products, grains, legumes, and vegetables. Proteins from animal sources contain the essential amino acids. Proteins are changed to amino acids in the body.

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