Ephedra

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Ephedra

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NOTE: The use of ephedra is restricted in Canada. In the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned the sale of ephedra because of concerns about its safety. The product has been linked to heart attacks, strokes, and some deaths.

What is ephedra?

Ephedra—also known as ma huang and by its scientific name, Ephedra sinica—is an herbal product that comes from an evergreen plant. The Chinese used these plants 5,000 years ago, possibly for the treatment of asthma and hay fever. But they used plant preparations unlike the modern ephedra supplements that are now banned.

Ephedra stimulates the brain, causing nervousness and making the heart beat faster. It temporarily expands the tubes that carry air to the lungs (bronchial tubes), which makes breathing easier in people who have asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Serious problems are associated with ephedra. There have been some reports of heart attacks and deaths after its use. Do not take ephedra or anything that contains ephedra.

What is ephedra used for?

Ephedra was used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat asthma.

More recently, people used ephedra as an energy booster and to help with weight loss.

Is ephedra safe?

Health Canada currently approves certain oral products containing low doses of ephedra for short-term use as nasal decongestants. But products that contain a combination of ephedra and a stimulant, such as caffeine, or other ingredients that might increase the effects of ephedra are not approved for use in Canada. Ephedra products that are marketed for weight loss, bodybuilding, or increased energy are also not allowed to be marketed in Canada.1

The U.S. FDA has banned the sale of ephedra.

Side effects of ephedra include:

  • Nervousness.
  • Dizziness.
  • Tremor.
  • Headache.
  • Insomnia.
  • Irritability.
  • Vomiting.
  • Potential dependence.

At high doses, ephedra has been reported to cause:

Always tell your doctor if you are using a dietary supplement or if you are thinking about combining a dietary supplement with your conventional medical treatment. It may not be safe to forgo your conventional medical treatment and rely only on a dietary supplement.

References

Citations

  1. Health Canada (2002). Advisory: Health Canada requests recall of certain products containing ephedra/ephedrine. Available online: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ahc-asc/media/advisories-avis/2002/2002_01_e.html.

Other Works Consulted

  • Murray MT, Pizzorno JE Jr (2006). Ephedra species. In JE Pizzorno Jr, MT Murray, eds., Textbook of Natural Medicine, 3rd ed., pp. 925–929. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Victoria Foulger, RN, BPhil, CH - Cardiac Nursing
Primary Medical Reviewer Marc S. Micozzi, MD, PhD - Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Donald Sproule, MD, CM, CCFP, FCFP - Family Medicine
Last Revised October 9, 2009

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