Botanical Name:  Ephedra sinensis/ Ephedra sinica
Common Names:  Ma huang
Plant Description
Parts Used
Medicinal Uses and Indications
Available Forms
How to Take It
Possible Interactions
Supporting Research


Note: Ephedra containing supplements sold over the counter have been banned by the FDA, effective May 2004. See below for additional information.

Ephedra (Ephedra sinica), also called ma huang, has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for more than 5,000 years. Used in TCM primarily to treat asthma or bronchitis, ephedra is also prescribed for symptoms of cold and flu including nasal congestion, cough, fever, and chills.

While ephedra is a naturally occurring herb, its main active ingredient ephedrine can also be synthesized as a medication. Synthetic ephedrine compounds, such as pseudoephedrine, are widely used in over-the-counter cold remedies and are regulated as a drug. This is unlike the regulation of ephedrine alkaloids derived from the herb itself. These are regulated as a dietary supplements.

Until May 2004, ephedra had been sold commercially as an energy-booster, weight-loss supplement, and athletic performance enhancer. Although some scientific evidence suggests that this herbal supplement may improve weight, the information overall regarding its effectiveness for weight loss, energy, or athletic performance has been inconclusive and controversial. In addition, ephedra-containing products sold for these purposes have been linked to many cases of stroke, heart arrhythmia (irregular heart rhythm), and even death. A number of these products also contain caffeine; the combination of ephedra with caffeine dramatically increases the chances of adverse side effects.

It is important to note that ephedrine containing products are banned from amateur sporting events and evidence of ephedra on drug testing will likely disqualify athletes from competition.

In addition, due to a large body of evidence to support the conclusion, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned the sale of ephedra-containing dietary supplements, effective May 2004. This ban includes any dietary supplements that contain ephedra, ephedrine, norephedrine, ma huang, Sida cordifolia, or pinellia. This does not pertain to teas (which are regulated as a conventional food) or to traditional Chinese herbal remedies prescribed by traditional Chinese physician.

Plant Description

Ephedra grows on the tundra and on the rocky and sandy slopes of Europe, Asia, and America. The ephedra plant is a perennial evergreen that stands, on average, one foot high but may grow up to four feet. Nearly leafless, the plant has slender, cylindrical, yellow-green branches and underground runners. In August, the flowers bear poisonous, fleshy red cones resembling berries.

Parts Used

The young stems and branchlets are the parts used for medicinal preparations.

Medicinal Uses and Indications

Ephedra is primarily used to treat:

  • Asthma
  • Cough
  • Bronchitis
  • Allergic rhinitis
  • Sinusitis
  • Nasal congestion

Available Forms

Ephedra can be prescribed in dried or liquid form. The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists conducted a study evaluating 20 different ephedra-containing products. The results showed wide variation in the amount of ephedra alkaloids present in the supplements and the actual amount in the products often differed markedly from the amount stated on the label. Follow the advice of a knowledgeable healthcare professional with experience in botanical medicine.

How to Take It

Ephedra should only be used on a short-term basis because prolonged use may lead to addiction. The amount of time considered safe, however, is not clear; sources report anywhere from no longer than seven days to up to twelve consecutive weeks. Use of ephedra should take place ONLY under the guidance and supervision of an appropriately trained specialist. Ephedra should be taken between meals, without food.


The American Botanical Council warns that ephedra SHOULD NOT be used in anyone under the age of 18 without strict medical supervision.


The German Commission E concluded in 1991 that single adult doses of ephedra should correspond to 15 to 30 mg of total ephedrine alkaloid. Current clinical practices are often more conservative. The doses below specify the standard Commission E recommendations and indicate the more conservative amounts often recommended by specialists when applicable.

  • Infusion or decoction: 1.2 to 2.3 g of cut, dried ephedra herb containing 1.3% (13 mg/g) total alkaloids steeped in 1 cup freshly boiled water three times per day as needed for upper respiratory symptoms
  • Fluid extract 1:1 (g/mL): 1.2 to 2.3 mL (24 to 46 drops) three times per day as needed for upper respiratory symptoms -- this alcohol free liquid form is generally not available in the United States
  • Tincture 1:5 (g/mL): 5.75 to 11.5 mL (115 to 230 drops) three times per day as needed for upper respiratory symptoms; more commonly recommended dose, 1:1.5 g/mL: 0.75 mL to 1.5 mL (15 to 30 drops) three times per day as needed for upper respiratory symptoms
  • Capsules: 12 to 25 mg of total ephedrine alkaloid three times per day as needed for upper respiratory symptoms - used clinically by herbal specialists


Herbs contain active substances that can trigger side effects and that can interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, herbs should be taken with care, under the supervision of a practitioner knowledgeable in the field of botanical medicine.

Ephedra can produce side effects such as irritability, restlessness, anxiety, insomnia, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and urinary problems. More serious side effects include high blood pressure, rapid and/or irregular heart beat, stroke, seizures, addiction, and even death. Use of ephedra should be discontinued and your healthcare professional contacted immediately if you experience any of these adverse effects.

Individuals with certain health conditions including anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, glaucoma, heart disease, prostate enlargement, difficulty urinating, seizure disorder, impaired circulation to the brain, psychiatric disorders, thyroid disorders, or diabetes should not take ephedra. Those taking medications for high blood pressure or depression, and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, should avoid ephedra and ephedra alkaloids such as ephedrine. To determine whether ephedra is safe and appropriate for you, consult a knowledgeable healthcare provider.

Possible Interactions

While no specific interactions (positive or negative) between the herb ephedra and conventional medications have been reported in the literature, the active ingredients of ephedra, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine (available in a number of over-the-counter and prescription products for weight loss or nasal congestion), have been associated with several serious drug interactions. We may assume, for safety's sake, that those drugs that interact with ephedra's active ingredients may also interact with the herb ephedra. Medications for which there are well-documented interactions with ephedra's active ingredients include:

  • Amphetamine and Amphetamine derivatives (such as dextroamphetamine sometimes used for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy)
  • Antidepressants; namely, those in the class of tricyclics (such as clomipramine, desipramine, doxepin, imipramine, and nortriptyline) and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs, including phenelzine and trancylcypromine)
  • Aspiriná
  • Blood Pressure Medications, particularly clonidine
  • Caffeine and Guarana (a caffeine-containing herb)
  • Narcotics, such as morphine and codeine, prescribed for pain; codeine may also be prescribed for cough
  • Phenylpropanolamine (also known as norephedrine, found in certain supplements); formerly in many over the counter and prescription remedies for cough and cold; was removed from the market by the FDA because of risk of bleeding stroke. Norephedrine found in certain dietary supplements for weight loss can cause liver damage.
  • Theophylline (used for asthma)

Supporting Research

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Bahner DR, Frenia ML, Augenstein WL. Theophylline toxicity from an over-the-counter preparation. J Emerg Med. 1993;11:427-430.

Blanck HM, Khan LK, Serdula MK. Use of nonprescription weight loss products: results from a multistate survey. JAMA. 2001;286:930-935.

Blumenthal M, ed. The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. Boston: Integrative Medicine Communications; 1998:125-126.

Blumenthal M, Goldberg A, Brinckmann J. Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs. Boston: Integrative Medicine Communications; 2000:111-117.

Boada S, Solsona B, Papaceit J, Saludes J, Rull M. Hypotension refractory to ephedrine after sympathetic blockade in a patient on long-term therapy with tricyclic antidepressants [in Spanish]. Rev Esp Anestesiol Reanim. 1999;46(8):364-366.

Boozer CN, Nasser JA, Hemsfield SB, Wang V, Chen G, Solomon JL. An herbal supplement containing Ma Huang-Guarana for weight loss: a randomized, double-blind trial. Int J Obes. 2001;25(3):316-324.

Bucci LR. Selected herbals and human exercise performance. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000;72(2):624S-636S.

Clarkson PM, Thompson HS. Drugs and sport. Research findings and limitations. Sports Med. 1997;24(6):366-384.

Council for Responsible Nutrition. Cantox Health Sciences International Safety Assessment and Determination of a Tolerable Upper Limit for Ephedra. Accessed at http://www.crnusa.org/CRNCantoxreportindex.html on October 25, 2001.

Dambisya YM, Wong CL, Chan K. Ephedrine and phenylpropanolamine potentiate the lethal toxicity of morphine and codeine in na´ve mice. Asia Pacific J Pharmacol. 1991;6(3):255-258.

Dawson JK, Earnshaw SM, Graham CS. Dangerous monoamine oxidase inhibitor interactions are still occurring in the 1990s. J Accid Emerg Med. 1995;12(1):49-51.

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Food and Drug Administration. Consumer Alert: FDA plans regulation prohibiting sale of ephedra-containing dietary supplements and advises consumers to stop using these products. December 30, 2003. Accessed at www.fda.gov/oc/initiatives/ephedra/december 2003/advisory.html on May 5, 2004.

Food and Drug Administration. Dietary supplements containing ephedrine alkaloids final rule summary. February 2004. Accessed at http://www.fda.gov/oc/initiatives/ephedra/february 2004/finalsummary.html on May 5, 2004.

Food and Drug Administration. FDA announces rule prohibiting sale of dietary supplements containing ephedrine alkaloids effective April 12. April 12, 2004. Accessed at http://www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/news/2004/NEW01050.html on May 5, 2004.

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Review Date: April 2004
Reviewed By: Participants in the review process include: Jacqueline A. Hart, MD, Department of Internal Medicine, Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Harvard University and Senior Medical Editor Integrative Medicine, Boston, MA; R. Lynn Shumake, PD, Director, Alternative Medicine Apothecary, Blue Mountain Apothecary & Healing Arts, University of Maryland Medical Center, Glenwood, MD.

Copyright © 2004 A.D.A.M., Inc

The publisher does not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of the information or the consequences arising from the application, use, or misuse of any of the information contained herein, including any injury and/or damage to any person or property as a matter of product liability, negligence, or otherwise. No warranty, expressed or implied, is made in regard to the contents of this material. No claims or endorsements are made for any drugs or compounds currently marketed or in investigative use. This material is not intended as a guide to self-medication. The reader is advised to discuss the information provided here with a doctor, pharmacist, nurse, or other authorized healthcare practitioner and to check product information (including package inserts) regarding dosage, precautions, warnings, interactions, and contraindications before administering any drug, herb, or supplement discussed herein.

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