The Chinese have given us a number of weight loss herbs and other natural remedies for common medical ailments, but perhaps none more polemic than Ma Huang. The Chinese Ma Huang plant is a tracheophyte evergreen shrub found growing in the region around the Gobi desert of central China. Its scientific name is ephedra sinica and it has been called the world’s oldest medicine. Evidence of Chinese ephedra use dates back 60,000 years to a burial site in ancient Mesopotamia – now known as the Republic of Iraq. But it first shows up in recorded medical history about 5,000 years ago in traditional Oriental treatments.
Chinese ephedra tea was used by herbalists to treat cold symptoms, asthma, and allergies as early as 3,000 BCE. It is believed that the ancient Greeks also were familiar with this medicative plant, calling it “ephedron” and recognizing it as a cough and colic remedy. Some have also surmised that Indians used this herb in the Ayurvedic healing tradition, possibly with the name “soma” in the Rigveda Sanskrit hymns.
Ephedra is recognizable as a primarily leafless shrub with long brown narrow stems as offshoots. It will typically grow to just under two feet tall and it requires dry, hot temperature to thrive. The Chinese would prepare the herb either by grinding up the stems to make a powdered ephedra extract or by steeping the leaves and stems in boiling water to make a tea. Chinese herbal ephedra was used to improve vitality in the lungs, promote concentration among Zen monks and keep guards of Ghengis Khan from falling asleep on their watch.
Ephedra sinica is actually one of over three dozen species of ephedraceae that are known to exist around the world. Each of the different varieties of the plant feature distinct chemical properties and not all provide the same level of active ingredient. Chinese ephedra is quite special because it contains the highest quantity of the key chemical alkaloids (between 1% to 3%) out of any of the other known species. There are several different protoalkaloids that make up this amount, but 90% is composed of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.
It was not until 1924 that we really began to understand ephedrine and its mechanism of action to improve health in the human body. While this compound was first discovered in 1887 by N. M. Nagai – a Japanese scientist – it was a pair of Chinese researchers who introduced the substance t to the Western World. Chen and Schmidt of the Peking Union Medical College published the first journal articles characterizing ephedrine for the North American audience and shortly thereafter the Eli Lily Corporation began marketing ephedrine as a powerful stimulant. It was discovered that this compound was so effective as a bronchodilator and energy enhancer because it simulates the effects of adrenalin in the body. Only more recently was the scientific link between ephedrine and increased metabolism discovered.
Depending on where you live, you may come across other types of ephedra instead of the real Chinese ma huang herb. While these other plants may have their own medical benefits, with lower amounts of ephedrine, many are not as effective for weight loss. Some species such as ephedra viridis and Mormon Tea ephedra contain no ephedrine at all but are still sold as diet pills. You should avoid these supplements as they have not been proven to work as well as ephedra sinica.
The best way to determine whether you are purchasing real Chinese ephedra is to look at the ephedrine content of whatever supplement you are buying. If the packaging refers to “ephedra alkaloids” but does not mention ephedrine, then you are likely looking at an extract product that has actually had this key alkaloid removed. This is a recent feature of the market following the 2004 FDA Ban on certain dietary supplements.
While ephedra sinica is still legal in tea form, it is much easier now to buy pure ephedrine HCL in the USA than any herbal form of ma huang. Some studies have suggested it is also abundantly safe due to dosage control limitations with the use of natural herbs rather than synthesized pills. Ephedrine hydrochloride will give you the main ingredient from real Chinese ephedra in an isolated salt form that can then be combined with caffeine and aspirin to make an ECA Stack. A ratio of 1 : 8 : 10 is recognized as the best composition to achieve fat burning results.
- Van Eenoo P, et al. Results of stability studies with doping agents in urine. J Anal Toxicol. (2007)
- Boozer CN, et al. An herbal supplement containing Ma Huang-Guarana for weight loss: a randomized, double-blind trial. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. (2001)