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What is Ephedra?

Felicia Dye
Felicia Dye

Ephedra is the name of a shrub with numerous species native to Asia. Sometimes called ephedrine or ma huang, this plant is the source of a controversial supplement usually derived from the plant’s dried greenery. This supplement has been used around the world for different medicinal purposes, such as the treatment of colds and the stimulation of weight loss.

In the United States (US), ma huang, when marketed as a supplement or a medicinal ingredient, was commonly called ephedrine. In the US, the supplement was commonly marketed to stimulate weight loss, to boost energy, and to improve athletic performance. It was also found in over-the-counter asthma medicines. However, in April 2004, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made the decision to ban ephedrine, saying “the data showed little evidence of ephedra's effectiveness, except for short-term weight loss, while confirming that the substance raises blood pressure and stresses the heart.”

Ephedra is a shrub with numerous species native to Asia.
Ephedra is a shrub with numerous species native to Asia.

Ephedra's main active ingredients are stimulants, which act in the body much the same as amphetamines do. According to an explanation by the Rand Corporation, which analyzed the substance, this reveals why it was used in asthma medications. Rand says the stimulants have the ability to relax bronchial tissue, which can result in easing of shortness of breath.

Ephedra has been used to promote weight loss.
Ephedra has been used to promote weight loss.

According to Rand’s findings, the supplement did promote some short-term weight loss. When it is used for weight loss purposes, it is believed to be most effective when combined with caffeine. The same is believed to be true when the supplement is used for performance enhancement.

Adequate large and wide scale studies have not been conducted on ephedra or the effects that it causes. Many of the allegations against the substance are quite serious, however. These include claims that the supplement causes heart attacks, high blood pressure, and bleeding in the brain.

Side effects of ephedra may include high blood pressure.
Side effects of ephedra may include high blood pressure.

Rand concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to hold the substance accountable for the negative claims against it. The corporation did, however, find it noteworthy that many of the serious adverse effects which were blamed on the supplement occurred in healthy people younger than 30.

Ephedra has been used in places such as China and India for centuries, often as a treatment for colds. The controversy that surrounds the supplement leads to another noteworthy point. Generally, in the places where historical use of the supplement has been widely reported, ephedra is not used for the same purposes as it is in the places that report major problems.

Discussion Comments


@afterall- I knew people in school who took those as well. The worst part is that they often served as something of a gateway drug, and for kids as young as 13 or 14. Some of the people I knew even called the pills, which were nicknamed "yellow jackets" for their color, "speed". They clearly were not actual speed, but it shows you what the kids thought of them, how they felt because they took them, et cetera. It was a status thing among rebellious kids, and many of them got to be much more rebellious and self-destructive when we got a few years older.


I don't know if this is still common in schools, but when I was in middle school and high school, herbal ephedra supplements were available over the counter almost anywhere, including drugstores and gas stations. Kids took them as a sort of stimulant. While less harmful than other, more difficult-to-obtain drugs, it was still harmful. Kids caught with them at school were often punished in some way, though they claimed they were "vitamins", which in a way they sort of were.


@SurfNTurf - Is ephedra legal anymore? I thought that the FDA banned the drug. I agree with everyone on the aspects of moderation, but I can see the desperation in someone that is morbidly obese and wants to lose weight.

When you have that much weight to lose it can seem overwhelming and I can understand why people in this condition may try a diet drug. But I have to tell you that anyone can lose weight if they set their mind to do it.

I knew a lady that weighed 240 pounds and was about 5’5. She decided one day that she was tired of being overweight and wanted to make a change.

She started walking around her apartment which was all she could do at the time and later progressed to taking longer walks outside.

She eventually progressed to running marathons and lost about 85 pounds by exercise and substituting healthy foods for the unhealthy foods she would eat.

So you really don’t need a diet drug. You really need determination as well as a caring attitude about yourself. You can’t beat yourself up every day and expect to lose weight.

You really have to learn the positive aspects of yourself in order to gain the confidence to keep going because a lot of people that are overweight are so critical of themselves that they really have to let these feelings go in order to progress in their weight loss.


@Cupcake15 - I know what you are saying, I had a friend that suffered liver damage as a result of an ephedra product so I know that the ephedra side effects are very real.

I think that people approach weight loss as a quick fix rather than a complete lifestyle change. If you don’t commit to changing your lifestyle, even if you lose weight in the short term the weight will creep back up because you have not incorporated a healthy lifestyle in the process.

There is a well known weight loss group that tells all of its members that they should strive for progress not perfection because a little bit of progress everyday will make a huge difference over six months to a year.

Many people lose sight of this and get discouraged if they don’t see huge declines when they get on the scale. I know that a lot of these weight loss programs on television don’t help either.

What people don’t realize is that these people are morbidly obese and are on a supervised low calorie diet and exercise about three or more hours a day. This is why the weight loss is so dramatic at the end of the week, but this type of weight loss is really hard to maintain because it takes time to adjust to a healthy lifestyle and sometimes when you lose weight this quickly you really have had no time to adjust psychologically to the changes.


I think that using ephedra products or any other weight loss supplement is always going to be risky. I knew a lady that was on an ephedra diet years ago and now has irreversible heart damage. She lost about forty pounds with the drug, but also hurt her heart tremendously and probably shortened her life span as a result.

I think that there are no short cuts in life especially when it comes to losing weight. Losing weight involves a consistent approach to having a balanced diet along with daily exercise. That is it.

The problem is that many people don’t realize that it took years to gain the weight that they need to lose and everyone wants to lose all of that weight in a few months. I think that this is where people gamble with their health and take chances that they shouldn’t in order to lose weight quickly.

Most doctors recommend that healthy weight loss should not exceed one to two pounds a week. I think that this is too slow for a lot of people which is why products like metabolife with ephedra or xenadrine with ephedra will always be popular. I rather lose weight the old fashioned way by working out and watching what I eat than gambling with my health with some drug.

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    • Ephedra is a shrub with numerous species native to Asia.
      By: sasha10
      Ephedra is a shrub with numerous species native to Asia.
    • Ephedra has been used to promote weight loss.
      By: Lsantilli
      Ephedra has been used to promote weight loss.
    • Side effects of ephedra may include high blood pressure.
      By: Monkey Business
      Side effects of ephedra may include high blood pressure.
    • Ephedra is used in a controversial supplement to treat the common cold.
      By: Subbotina Anna
      Ephedra is used in a controversial supplement to treat the common cold.
    • The stimulants in ephedra can be used to treat shortness of breath associated with some bronchial conditions.
      By: DURIS Guillaume
      The stimulants in ephedra can be used to treat shortness of breath associated with some bronchial conditions.