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What is Ephedra Vulgaris?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Ephedra vulgaris or distachya, also called ma huang, is a plant grown in the Himalayas that was indicated for centuries in many herbal remedies. It was particularly known as an asthma treatment, but traditional medicine has used it many other ways. These early uses of the plant are still employed, but as many know, ma huang also became a popular weight loss and performance-enhancing drug in much of the western world, leading to concerns and legal steps to curtail its use.

There are actually many plants in the ephedra genus. Most of them are flowering shrubs, and different parts of each plant might be used depending upon how much of the chemical ephedrine they contain. It is this chemical that is of most use in herbal cures. Ephedra vulgaris is one of the preferred sources for ephedrine because just about every part of the plant has some ephedrine in it, though this must derived by processing the plant.

One reason that ephedrine is desired is because it has multiple actions and is called a sympathomimetic drug. Use of ma huang mirrors or works very much like adrenaline. It stimulates the body like adrenaline, which explains its use for centuries in treating asthma. Ephedra vulgaris has also been a treatment for nasal congestion, and in this sense it can work very well too. The drug pseudoephedrine, which is sold as over the counter decongestant bears chemical similarities to ma huang.

Some of the other traditional uses include treating low blood pressure, bringing down fevers and addressing hay fever. Although unproven, herbal practitioners also claim it aids in digestion, and is a good antiseptic. Some side effects are clearly evident and these include lack of appetite, difficulty sleeping, arrhythmias, and risk for cardiac events or stroke.

While there is reason to celebrate the healing properties of ephedra vulgaris, sources of it are difficult to find in many places of the world. As soon as the herb was billed as a weight loss supplement, people began to take far more than the recommended doses that would have been used in China, Tibet or India, to treat asthma or colds. This led to unfortunate cardiac deaths. Given the stimulant properties of the herb, it’s not hard to understand the adverse and fatal reactions of some people to this medicine.

Regulating agencies like the US Food and Drug Administration determined that ephedra vulgaris, and any other form of the shrub were not acceptable and banned sales of the herb. It may still be possible to order the herb online, but there are inherent dangers in taking this drug to enhance performance or to try to lose weight. Many world-sporting organizations also do not permit its use. It needs to be further mentioned that like most types of speed or stimulants ephedra has addictive qualities that make it undesirable for long-term use.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
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Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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