Ma Huang

Ma Huang,Ephedra_sinica
By alexlomas on Flickr (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Ephedra sinica-Ma Huang

Family: Ephedraceae

Other names: Ephedra, Ephedra flava, Ephedra ma-huang

Habitat: E. Asia – N. China. Deserty areas. Waste and sandy places, plains and mountain slopes at elevations of 700 – 1600 metres.

Not recommended with high blood-pressure, heart disease, diabetes, thyroid disease or inflammation of the prostrate gland. Avoid in glaucoma patients. Avoid if thyrotoxicosis – over-active thyroid gland. Avoid if restless or have anxiety states. hazardsmallAdverse effects include: headache, irritability, restlessness, nausea, sleeplessness, rapid heart beat, hyperthermia, loss of appetite, insomnia, restlessness and increased blood pressure. May lead to heart attacks, strokes and even death. Controlled drug in the UK.

Ma Huang is a strongly stimulant acrid-tasting herb that is commonly used in Chinese herbalism, where it is considered to be one of the 50 fundamental herbs. Most members of this genus contain various medicinally active alkaloids (but notably ephedrine) and they are widely used in preparations for the treatment of asthma and catarrh. Ephedrine has a similar effect to adrenaline in the body. It acts promptly to reduce swellings of the mucous membranes and has antispasmodic properties, thus making it valuable in the treatment of asthma. The whole plant can be used at much lower concentrations than the isolated constituents – unlike using the isolated ephedrine, using the whole plant rarely gives rise to side-effects. This effect has lead to it being restricted as it was used in slimming pills as a natural speed. The stems are a pungent, bitter, warm herb that dilates the bronchial vessels whilst stimulating the heart and central nervous system. The stems are also antidote, diaphoretic, diuretic, pectoral, vasoconstrictor and vasodilator. They are used internally in the treatment of asthma, hay fever and allergic complaints. The plant also has antiviral effects, particularly against influenza. Ma Huang is often combined with a number of other herbs and used in treating a wide range of complaints. This herb should be used with great caution, preferably under the supervision of a qualified practitioner, you may not be able to purchase this herb in the UK without doing this, so if you want it grow it! It should not be prescribed to patients who are taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors, or suffering from high blood pressure, hyperthyroidism or glaucoma. Ephedrine is seen as a performance-boosting herb and, as such, is a forbidden substance in many sporting events such as athletics.The root is antihydrotic, it lowers blood pressure and dilates the peripheral blood vessels. It is used in the treatment of night sweating and spontaneous sweating. The root is believed to have the opposite action to the stem, but is only prescribed in cases of profuse sweating. The German Commission E Monographs, a therapeutic guide to herbal medicine, approve Ephedra sinica,Ma Huang for cough and bronchitis.

Ma Huang,Ephedra_sinica
By alexlomas on Flickr (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Description of Ma Huang:

Ephedra sinica is an evergreen Shrub growing to 0.4 m (1ft 4in). It is in leaf 12-Jan It is in flower from May to June, and the seeds ripen from Aug to September. The flowers are dioecious (individual flowers are either male or female, but only one sex is to be found on any one plant so both male and female plants must be grown if seed is required)The plant is not self-fertile. 

Suitable for: light (sandy) and medium (loamy) soils and prefers well-drained soil. Suitable pH: acid, neutral and basic (alkaline) soils. Needs full sun. It prefers dry or moist soil and can tolerate drought.

Cultivation of Ma Huang:

We have very little information on this species and do not know if it will be hardy in Britain, though judging by its native range it should succeed outdoors in many parts of this country. A small plant of this species is being grown in the Centenary Border at Hilliers Arboretum in Hampshire. It has survived at least one winter of temperatures down to below -10°c, but was not looking very vigorous when seen in September 1997. The following notes are based on the general needs of the genus. Requires a well-drained loamy soil and a sunny position. Established plants are drought resistant and are also lime tolerant. Dioecious, male and female plants must be grown in fruit and seed are required.

Propagation of Ma Huang:

Seed – best sown as soon as it is ripe in the autumn in a greenhouse. It can also be sown in spring in a greenhouse in a sandy compost. Prick out the seedlings into individual pots as soon as they are large enough to handle and grow them on for at least their first winter in a greenhouse. Plant out in the spring or early summer after the last expected frosts and give some protection in their first winter. Division in spring or autumn. Layering.

Collection: Gather the young branches in the autumn before the first frost, as the alkaloid content is then highest. They may be dried in the sun.  Although the stems can be harvested at any time of the year and are dried for later use.

Culinary uses of Ma Huang:

Edible Parts: Fruit.
Edible Uses: 

Fruit – raw or cooked.

Ma Huang,Ephedra_altissimaMedicinal uses of Ma Huang:

Actions: Vasodilator, hypertensive, circulatory stimulant, anti-allergic.

Part Used: Aerial stems.

Indications: Ma Huang, has been used in China for at least 5000 years, treating a range of health problems, but especially those of the respiratory system. This ancient medicinal plant was also mentioned in the Hindu Vedas. With the discovery of the alkaloids in Ma Huang, time honored, traditional herbal wisdom has been verified, providing modern medicine with important healing tools. A range of therapeutically active alkaloids are found in Ephedra, sometimes amounting up to 2.0% of the dried herb. The alkaloids were first isolated in 1887 and came into extensive use in the 1930’s. Various species of Asian Ephedra are used as a source of the widely used alkaloids ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, mainly Ephedra sinica and E.equisetinafrom China and E. gerardiana from India.

Ma Huang,Ephedra_sinica
By Hanabishi (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The alkaloids present in Ma Huang have apparently opposite effects on the body. The overall action however is one of balance and benefit. A brief review of the pharmacology of these alkaloids might be illuminating. Ephedrine was the first Ephedra alkaloid to find wide use in western medicine, being hailed as a cure’ for asthma because of its ability to relax the airways in the lungs. Unfortunately, as is often the way with `miracle cures’, it soon became clear that this isolated constituent of Ephedra had unacceptable side-effects which dramatically limited its use. The problems related to the way in which ephedrine stimulates the autonomic nervous system causing, amongst other things, elevated blood pressure. When studies were done using the whole plant, only a slight blood pressure elevation was found. This led to the discovery that pseudoephedrine, another one of the alkaloids present, slightly reduces both heart rate and lowers blood pressure, thus avoiding the side-effects that often accompany the use of ephedrine. Pseudoephedrine is an effective bronchodilator, equivalent in strength to ephedrine, but having the advantage of causing less stimulation of the nervous system, and so less vaso-constriction, tachycardia (heart palpitations) and other cardiovascular symptoms. Clinical studies have found insignificant side effects with pseudoephedrine. The efficacy and safety of pseudoephedrine are recognized by the Food and Drug Administration, who approve its use in over the counter medications as a safe and effective nasal decongestant. The naturally occurring alkaloids have been synthesized in the laboratory, however even though they have the same molecular structure they have different physical properties, the natural form rotating polarized light to the left whilst the synthetic form is optically inactive. In practice the natural form has the advantage of being better tolerated with less impact upon the heart.

All of these findings lead to the confirmation of traditional uses for Ephedra sinica as an effective and safe treatment for nasal congestion and sinus pressure whether due to the common cold, allergies or sinusitis. The herb is used with great success in the treatment of asthma and associated conditions due to its power to relieve spasms in the bronchial tubes. It is thus used in bronchial asthma, bronchitis and whooping cough. It also reduces allergic reactions, giving it a role in the treatment of hayfever and other allergies. It may be used in the treatment of low blood pressure and circulatory insufficiency.

Preparations & Dosage:

Decoction: put 1-2 teaspoonfuls of the dried herb in one cup of water, bring it to boil and simmer for 10-15 minutes. This should be drunk three times a day.

Tincture: take 1-4 ml of the tincture three times a day.

Caution: It is contra-indicated in certain health problems as it might aggravate (but not cause) the pre-existing condition. It should not be used by people with cardiovascular conditions, thyroid disease, diabetes or by men experiencing difficulty urinating due to prostate enlargement.

CombinationsEphedra sinica is best used in conjunction with herbs that support its effects or help the body deal with the underlying health problem. An example might be with EchinaceaHydrastis and Glycorrhiza.

Other uses of Ma Huang:

None known

Esoteric uses of Ma Huang:

None known but if you use this plant for any purpose please let us know!

The Chemistry:

Constituents: Alkaloids; l-ephedrine, with d-ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, norephedrine, N- methylephedrine, benzylmethylamine.

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