Ephedra aka. Ma-huang (Ephedra sinica)

Ephedra aka. Ma-huang (Ephedra sinica)

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Ephedra sinica has been used in China for at least 5,000 years to treat an array of health conditions, and there is mention of its use in the Hindu Vedas as well. This plant stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and acts as a bronchodilator. According to lore, the mythological ruler Shennong discovered this shrub’s medicinal effects when leaves from the plant being burned in his fire rose up into his pot of boiling water. Since the first or second century, Ma-huang has been referenced in Chinese medical texts throughout history. Another title for this plant is ‘Long Sha,’ or, ‘Dragon Sand.’

Alongside being staple herb in traditional Chinese medicine, Ephedra has also had use in contemporary Western medicine practices as a treatment for asthma, allergies, and other respiratory conditions. This herb is the source of the alkaloids ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, the former being more of a stimulant to the nervous system and slightly elevating blood pressure and heart rate, with the latter having the opposite effect. These combined and somewhat opposing properties are said to provide an overall balancing of the body.

One should note that the chemically isolated ephedra constituent marketed as ephedrine, like any medicine that distills a plant down to one small part of its holistic nature, can have harmful effects. Ephedrine was first isolated in 1885 by Nagai, but didn’t gain popularity until rediscovery in the 1920s. Its use as an asthma ‘miracle cure’ persisted until the 1950s, after which the alkaloid saw a decline in use. This was a result of overstimulating the nervous system, elevating blood pressure and heart rate to a potentially dangerous extent; studies have shown that this adverse reaction is not observed with use of the whole plant. One should take care in any medicinal preparations involving Ephedra, but know that medicine made from the whole plant is far safer than to buy a pharmaceutical that downgrades this plant’s power by isolating it into one stand-alone component.