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Herbal Monograph

Herb:   Ma-Huang   (Ephedra sinica, Ephedra navadensis)

Other Names:    desert herb, ephedra. (2); Ephedra, Joint Fir, Desert Herb, Brigham Tea, Mormon Tea, Teamster’s Tea   (1)

Character/Energetics:  pungent, mild, bitter flavor; warm property    (21)

Meridians/Organs/Body Parts affected:   lung and bladder     (21)  

Part used:    Dried branchlets and rhizome  (2); Dried stem  (21)                                    

Ephedra is a low growing (2-3 feet high), nearly leafless herb.  Each stem  terminates in a point. It produces small flowers in the spring. (1)                                                      

Harvesting:    Habitat: Ephedra. species are found in all parts ofthe world. Species that have traditionally been used medicinally grow in China, Mongolia, Pakistan, India and the desert west of the United States. It grows best in highIy mineralized soils.    (1)

Gather young branches in autumn before first frost, as the alkaloid content is then highest.    (8)

Identification & Harvesting:    A 1′ high plant lightly branched with thin, lengthened, cylindrical branches.  Similar to Horsetail, and is sometimes twining and often has underground runners.  Leaves a reddish-brown.  Small flowers fused in pairs at the base.  Inflorescences consist of 2-24 blooms.  Fruit is a red, berry-like false fruit formed from the upper bract, just below the flower.  E. sinica grows mainly in Mongolia and neighboring China.  E. gerardiana is from India.  Widely cultivated.  Harvest as late as possible after the last rain, but before frost.  Air dry in the sun.    (2)

Slender aerial green stems jointed in cane-like branches of about 20 tufts about 6 inch high.  Leaves reduced to sheaths surrounding the stems, which terminate in a sharp recurved point with rough internodes.    (57)

Three species of primitive shrubs in the ephedra family found in desert regions around the world.  E. sinica is native to the steppes of north and northwestern China.  The North American species do not contain the same alkaloids the Asian species do.    (61)

Active Constituents:    Alkaloids of the 2-aminophenylpropane type:  mainly L-(-)-ephedrine (a.k.a. 1R,2S-(-)-ephedrine), D-pseudoephedrine (a.k.a. 1S,2S-(+)-ephedrine);  lesser alkaloids L-norephedrine, D-norpseudoephedrine.    (2) 1.25% alkaloids incl. ephedrine, norephedrine;  tannins;  saponins;  flavones;  essential oils.   (8) alkaloids incl. ephedrine, saponins, volatile oils. (15) (1)  alkalkoids 0.3~1.5%: (-) ephedrine (chief constituent), (+) -pseudoephedrine, 

(-)-norephedrine, (+)-norpseudoephedrine, (-)-N-methyl-ephedrine,   (+)-N-methyl-pseudoephedrine, ephedradines A, B & C;   (2) essential oils: 1-@-terpineol; (3) non-acosan-10-ol, tricosan-1-ol, nonacosane    (21)  Chief constituent, an alkaloid called ephedrine, which may be administered by the mouth or hypodermically.    (57)

Actions:    Ephedrine indirectly stimulates the sympathomimetic and central nervous system.  Bacteriostatic, positively inotropic and chronotropic, antitussive.    (2)

Astringent, blood purifier, bronchodilator, diuretic, hypertensive, mineralizer, pungent, stimulant, vasoconstricting, warming. It affects the circulatory system, the lungs, the nervous system and the bladder.  (1)   

vasodilator…circulatory stimulant (1A)

vasodilatant, hypertensive, circulatory stimulant, anti-allergenic.  The alkaloids have apparently opposite effects on the body, but the overall action is one of balance and benefit.    (8)

Anti-asthmatic, in general;  twigs are antispasmodic, bronchial relaxant, vasodilatant, febrifuge, diaphoretic, diuretic, antibacterial, antiviral.  Roots are used as an antihydrotic.    (15)

Ma-huang relieves spasms of the bronchi: Ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine relaxes the smooth muscles of the bronchi, the bronchodilating effect being slow but long-lasting. Ephedrine stimulates both the central and sympathetic nervous systems.

Sudorific and antipyretic effects: The aqueous extract when given orally to mice will induce sweating on the soles of the paws, the amount of sweating increasing with the oral dose.

Hypertensive activity: Ephedrine constricts blood vessels, thus increasing blood pressure. 

Diuretic effect: Pseudo-ephedrine exerts a marked diuretic effect by dilating renal blood vessels.

Antiviral effect: The essential oil inhibits influenza virus.

Dilates the pupils: Applying a 10% solution to the eyes has the effects of dilating the pupils for several hours.      (21)

The alkaloids ephedrine and pseudoephedrine stimulate the central nervous system and heart muscle, dilate the bronchial tubes and elevate blood pressure.  Pseudoephedrine is not as effective as ephedrine.  Also has diuretic and anti-inflammatory activity.    (61)      

Conditions & Uses:    Treats mild bronchospasms, asthma.    (2)

Used with great success in the treatment of asthma and associated conditions due to its power to relieve spasms in the bronchial tubes;  bronchial asthma, bronchitis and whooping cough.  Also reduces allergic reactions, making it useful for treating hayfever and other allergies.  Also treats low blood pressure and circulatory insufficiency.    (8)

Induces diaphoresis, resolves surface, ventilates the lungs to relieve asthma, regulates water metabolism.

Twigs are used to relieve bronchial spasms, and also seem to be effective against hay fever and nettle rash and other allergic conditions.  Roots are known as ma huang gen in China and are used for night sweats and general excessive sweating, which in traditional chinese medicine are attributed to a yin deficiency.  This contrasts markedly with the twigs which promote sweating.    (15)

febrile disease due to exterior excess, fever, chillphobia, anhidrosis, ostealgia, arthralgia (pain in the joints), cough with dyspnea, edema, edema due to wind   (21)             

Like guarana, coffee, tea and cola nuts, ephedra has been made into a stimulating hot beverage for centuries. This tea also helps to clear toxins from the blood. Drink ephedra tea for six weeks. Follow this with burdock tea for six weeks and toxic conditions of the blood will clear up.

Traditional Chinese uses of ephedra also include: asthma, chills, colds, congestion, coughs, edema,  fever,  flu, headache, joint and bone pain, lack of perspiration and wheezing. Other traditional uses include acne, arthritis, boils, bursitis, emphysema, fatigue, hay fever, internal bleeding, sinus  problems  and uterine problems.  North American Indians have used ephedra externally to heal sores.

Modern uses: Ephedra and ephedra based chemicals such as ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are the active constituents of several cold, hayfever and asthma medications. These medications rely on ephedra’s ability to open bronchial passages. 

In herbal asthma/hay fever preparations, ephedra is used in combination with adrenal herbs such as licorice to avoid adrenal exhaustion.

Ephedra’s stimulant effect is due to its ability to constrict blood vessels. This forces blood flow from the digestive tract to the limbs when taken on an empty stnmach. Ephedra can provide some assistance in weight control. There are many herbal combinations that include ephedra with caffeine and aspirin for thermogenic weight loss. The extreme stimulation caused by this combination may not be a wise choice for some people.

One recent study suggests that ephedra may help reduce cravings for cigarettes. (1)

Chinese Ma-Huang is a natural source of the powerful drug ephedrine, which can boost the heart rate, breathing and metabolism and opens air passages, thus acting as a decongestant. Herbalist David Hoffman tells us that “the alkaloids present in Ma-Huang have apparently opposite effects on the body, the overall action however is one of balance and benefit.” It is used with success in the treatment of asthma, bronchitis, whooping cough and associated conditions due to its ability to relieve spasms in the bronchial tubes. This herb has also been effective in the treatment of hayfever and other allergies.    (22)

Used in China since ancient times for asthma and hay fever.    (57)

Used in TCM to induce sweating, soothe breath, and promote urination.  Used for millennia to treat bronchial asthma, colds and flu, chills, headache, nasal congestion, aching joints and bones, coughing and wheezing, and edema.  Used for mild seasonal or chronic asthma.  The alkaloids also relieve sinusitis and nasal congestion.    (61)

Combinations:    Numerous reciprocal actions with other medications have been observed:  heart glycosides (cf. Hawthorn monograph), as present in foxglove preparations, cause arrhythmias with combined with ma huang;  guanethidine and MAO-inhibitors (some anti-depressants) potentiate ma huang’s sympathomimetic effect;  secale alkaloid derivatives or oxytocin exacerbate hypertensive effects of ma huang.    (2)

Combine with cowslip root and thyme for bronchial asthma, emphysema, whooping cough, and other severe chest conditions.  Combine with white horehound or hyssop for asthma.  Pill-bearing spurge and gumplant are often added as additional antispasmodics.  Chamomile, stinging nettle, or heartsease can be added to a decoction to reduce allergic response and inflammation.    (15)

Precautions:    Side effects include headache, irritability, restlessness, nausea, sleeplessness, tachycardias, urinary disorders, vomiting, hypertension and arrhythmias.  Dependence can occur with extended use.  Extremely high dosages can be life-threatening.  Symptoms of poisoning include heavy sweating, dilated pupils, spasms, elevated body temperature, heart failure and asphyxiation.   (2)

Large doses can lead to dizziness, headaches, insomnia, nervousness,                 palpitations, tingling and vomiting. This is especially true when taken with caffeine containing herbs  such as  guarana and kola nut. For this reason it is not  recommended for chronic use or for gaining a “high.” Stimulant effects make this herb unsafe for people

with high blood pressure. Please follow guidelines  for usage found on the labels of products containin ephedra.   (1)

Avoid in severe cases of glaucoma, hypertension, coronary thrombosis.    (15)

Do not combine ma-huang with anti-depressant herbs like St. John’s Wort–Davide Sayada 11/23/97 

Not recommended if nursing or pregnant.

Use in moderation. High dosages and repeated use of Ma-Huang may result in nervousness, restlessness and dangerously elevated blood pressure. Not recommended for use with caffeinated products. DO NOT OVERUSE.    (22)              

Overuse or overdose can cause insomnia, motor disturbances, high blood pressure, glaucoma, impaired cerebral circulation, urinary disturbances.  Avoid use in cases of hypertension, heart disease, thyroid disease or diabetes, or by anyone taking a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI).  Abuse of ephedra products combined with caffeine has lead to at least 22 deaths and over 800 reports of adverse reactions.  Do not exceed recommended dose except by physician’s direction.  It is best to seek physician advice before use.    (61)

Tincturing Process:

Applications:    Decoction:  1-2 tsp dried herb to 1 c. water;  bring to a boil and simmer 10-15 min.  3 x daily.  Tincture:  1-4 ml tincture 3 x daily.    (8)


Dosage:   Infusion: To make tea from ephedra add a teaspoon of the herb to a pint of

boiling water and let steep for 10 minutes. 

Tincture: take 3 ml.    Ephedra is found in AL‑C, Fen Chi, LH and SN‑X.   (1)

Commonly used 1.5 to 9 g., generally 5 to 6 g.; for the debilitated 2 to 5 g.; for asthma and increasing diaphoresis 9 to 12 g.   (21)

Tincture 15-30 drops in water up to 4 x daily.    (61)

General Notes:    “As a wise man I have taken soma, the sweet draught that gives strength, lending immortal power and freedom to the gods.”  The Rig Veda, c. 1000 BC.  The Indian variety, E. gerardiana, is thought to have been the prime ingredient of soma, a potent tonic and elixir of youth.    (15)

Ma-huang is listed in Shen nung pen tsao ching as a medium-grade drug. Because of its numbing effect on the tongue and yellow color, it was named ma-huang.    (21)  

Ma huang, the common Chinese name for ephedra means “astringent and yellow” in reference to the herb’s taste and color.   (1)



(1) Cayuga Botanicals Research Data/ “Ma Huang” file (Nature’s Field July/August 1997)

(2)  PDR for Herbal Medicines (Medical Economics Co., 1998), pgs. 826-27

(8)  The New Holistic Herbal by David Hoffman, p. 198

(15) The Complete Medicinal Herbal by Penelope Ody, pgs. 54, 138-39, 156-57

(21) Oriental Materia Medica  by Hong-yen Hsu, Ph.D. and associates, pgs. 52-53

(22) Herbs and Herbal Formulas (booklet) by Mark Hershiser, pg. 13

(57) Potter’s Cyclopaedia by R.C. Wren, F.L.S., p. 129

(61) 101 Medicinal Herbs by Steven Foster, pgs. 76-77


PHOTO TCM Wiki [excellent link for more info on Ma Huang and other TCM herbs]