Ephedra (Ephedra sinica), also known as Ma-Huang, is an herbal stimulant drug composed of two active compounds (pseudoephedrine and ephedrine) that are ingredients in many over-the-counter products. The FDA regulates ephedrine, the synthesized form of ephedra. Ephedrine can be produced by chemical synthesis and in its pure form (ephedrine sulfate) is a bitter tasting, white, crystalline powder. Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine stimulate the opening of air passages in the lungs and are used as decongestants for the short-term treatment of asthma, bronchitis, and certain allergic reactions. Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are also used in dietary supplements that claim to promote weight loss and enhance athletic performance1. The active compounds are structurally related to amphetamines; they play similar, although less potent, roles in stimulating the central nervous system. Ephedrine is often the primary ingredient found in illegally synthesized drugs, including methamphetamines2.
Traditionally, the Chinese have used ephedra to treat asthma and other respiratory problems3. Although ephedra is presumed “safe” under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, the International Olympic Committee, the National Football League, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and the U.S. Armed Forces have banned products containing ephedra. The controversy over whether ephedra-containing products effectively and safely promote weight loss and improve athletic performance is ongoing4. Recently, ephedra was associated with the death of Baltimore Orioles pitcher, Steve Bechler, who died of a heatstroke in February 2003. His death readdressed national attention to the dangers of ephedra5.
Ephedra grass is grown and cultivated in many parts of China and India on government-owned farms. China is the world’s largest exporter of bulk ephedrine6. Due to its dangerous effects, the FDA has placed many restrictions on the production of ephedra. Warnings are required on supplement pill labels, cautioning that the product should not be used consistently for more than seven days.
Methods of Use
Ephedra is usually taken orally. A common adult dosage ranges from 30 to 60 mg in a capsule or tablet, 3 to 4 times a day. In low doses, ephedrine is used in the form of nose drops as a nasal decongestant7. Ephedra has been found to be used in one protein drink on the market, commonly referred to as Ripped Fuel8.
With regular use, an individual can develop tolerance to ephedrine, requiring users to take larger doses to achieve the same effect. Temporary abstinence from ephedrine can restore an individual’s sensitivity to the drug11.
1 NIDA Methamphetamine Infofax. http://www.drugabuse.gov/Infofax/methamphetamine.html. July 17, 2002.
2 Brands, B., Sproule, B., Marshman, J. (1998). Drugs & Drug Abuse (3rd edition). Addiction Research Foundation: Toronto, Ontario: Canada; National Institutes of Health: Ephedra and Ephedrine Alkaloids for Weight Loss and Athletic Performance (2003, April). Retrieved on April 7, 2004, from http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/ephedra.html; DEA: Drug Intelligence Brief: China Country Brief (2002, March). Retrieved on April 7, 2004, from http://www.usdoj.gov/dea/pubs/intel/02009/02009p.html; Torpy, J.M. Ephedra and Ephedrine (2003 March). JAMA, 289(12); FDA: Evidence on the Safety and Effectiveness of Ephedra: Implications for Regulation (2003, November): Retrieved on April 7, 2004, from http://www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/NEWS/ephedra/whitepaper.html.
3 Brands, B., Sproule, B., Marshman, J. (1998); DEA (2002); Theoharides, T.C. (1997). Sudden Death of a Healthy College Student Related to Ephedrine Toxicity from a Ma Huang-Containing Drink. Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, 17(5), 437-8.
4 Torpy, J.M. (2003).
5 Brands, B., Sproule, B., Marshman, J. (1998); Torpy, J.M. (2003); Shekelle, P.G., Hardy, M.L, Morton, S.C., Maglione, M., Mojica, W.A., Suttor, M.J., Rhodes, S.L., Jingling, L., and Gagne, J. (2003, March). Efficacy and Safety of Ephedra and Ephedrine for Weight Loss and Athletic Performance: A Meta-analysis. JAMA, 289 (12): 1537-1545.
6 FDA (2003).
7 DEA (2002).
8 Brands, B., Sproule, B., Marshman, J. (1998).
9 Theoharides, T.C. (1997).
10 Brands B., Sproule, B., Marshman, J. (1998); Torpy, J.M. (2003). Brands B., Sproule, B., Marshman, J. (1998); Torpy, J.M. (2003); National Institutes of Health (2003); Theoharides, T.C. (1997).
11 Brands B., Sproule, B., Marshman, J. (1998).
12 FDA: FDA News: FDA Acts Against Potentially Risky Products Illegally Marketed as Street Drug Alternatives. (2003, March): http://www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/NEWS/2003/NEW00889.html; Theoharides, T.C. (1997).