If you’re buying ephedra supplements for the very first time, you might have noticed that there are two distinct categories of products that are available: natural herbal ephedrine diet pills and synthetic ephedrine HCL pills. The difference is clear – natural or herbal supplements are ones that have actually been harvested directly from some species of the ephedra plant whereas synthetic products are made in a lab. Is one source of ephedrine better than the other? In this article, we will look at the main characteristics that differentiate Synthetic Ephedrine vs. Herbal Ephedrine as well as some concerns regarding each option.
What is Herbal Ephedrine?
For thousands of years, Oriental medical traditions have made use of the Ma Huang plant to counteract a wide range of symptoms. There are records of its use in treating colds, fevers, flu symptoms, and breathing disorders as old as 5,000 years back. This “miracle plant” is a short green shrub typically growing in dry climates and also goes by the name ephedra sinica. Ephedra sinica is only one of the species in the ephedra family of plants, but it is the most prized because of the unique herbal content of its stems, roots, seeds, and leaves.
Ephedra sinica is a source of the chemical alkaloid known as ephedrine. This alkaloid which gives the plant all of its health benefits was initially isolated from ma huang extract in the 1800s by a Japanese scientist, but it was until 1923 that the supplement was introduced to American markets. At this time, the most common dosage method of taking ephedra was by brewing Ma Huang Tea (sometimes also referred to as Mormon Tea, Brigham Tea, or Squaw Tea). Nowadays, drug manufacturers commonly include herbal ephedra extract in products sold as weight loss and diet aides.
But there is another alternative: You can either get ephedrine from an herbal source or you can get it from a synthetic source that has been manufactured in a lab. These synthetic supplements are they only way to take pure ephedrine alkaloids and usually come in hydrochloride or sulfate form. Essentially, synthetic tablets give you the isolated active ingredient of ephedrine whereas herbal supplements give you a concentrated extract directly from the ephedra plant. Since ephedra contains more than just ephedrine, you will be taking several other alkaloids and chemicals with your ephedrine.
It’s worth noting that the distinction between plant-derived and lab-made versions of ephedrine is not well understood even among individuals who use these supplements. Many people falsely believe that there is a difference between ephedrine alkaloids and ephedrine HCL (hydrochloride). This is not true: ephedrine HCL is just a salt version of the ephedrine alkaloid chemical (R*,S*)-2-(methylamino)-1-phenylpropan-1-ol. In other words, ephedrine HCL (or sulfate for that matter) is just a specific formulation of the alkaloid chemical.
Effectiveness of Natural Ephedra vs. Synthetic Ephedrine
So is it better to use an herbal extract or a synthetic version of this weight loss compound? In 2003, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) commissioned a meta-analysis of all academic studies and clinical trials having been conducted on the human use of ephedrine and ephedra. They reported on 4 studies that gave their participants herbal ephedra plus caffeine and 12 studies that utilized pure ephedrine and caffeine. The results were very similar: synthetic ephedrine stacked with caffeine caused an average of 2.2 pounds more weight loss than the placebo treatment while natural ephedra with caffeine caused 2.1 pounds of average additional weight loss.
This differential is small enough to be considered statistically insignificant, so we can conclude that there is very little difference in the effectiveness of these two formulations. This contradicts much of the reporting in the marketing of natural ephedra plant products which claim that herbal ephedrine is somehow better absorbed in the body. Research shows that there is no truth to that statement. However, there are other considerations as to whether you should use ephedrine HCL or herbal ephedra. The three most important are: side effects, standardized doses, and price.
Side Effects and Other Dangers
When you take herbal ephedra, you get a lot more chemical alkaloids than just the ephedrine alkaloid. While ephedrine makes up the highest proportion of the alkaloid content of the ephedra sinica plant, other phenylalanine-derived compounds are also present in meaningful quantities. These include peudoephedrine, norephedrine (phenylpropanolamine), and norpseudoephedrine (cathine) are also present in meaningful quantities.
The interaction of these different alkaloids is believed to be associated with a higher risk and of side effects when taking herbal ephedra. Side effects can range from nausea, headaches, restlessness, and irritability to more severe events such as heart and kidney problems. Taking pure ephedrine on its own has been shown to produce a smaller frequency of side effects when used as directed.
Another problem is that there is no standardized alkaloid content in different ephedra sinica plants. One shrub might contain 2.5% alkaloids by weight while another might contain 0.3% with a different proportion of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in each. This creates difficulties when trying to control your dosage size. Most dieters and bodybuilders will use between 8 mg and 25 mg of ephedrine HCL to achieve optimal results. But with herbal ephedra, one pill might contain 5 mg while another contains 40 mg, leading to possible overdoses. Additional concerns have been raised regarded the finding of impurities in herbal ephedra products leading to potentially dangerous consequences.
Weight Loss Product Prices
Last but not least, you will end up paying a lot more for natural ephedra products than for synthetic ones. It costs a lot more to grow and harvest the ma huang plant to then be properly prepared for consumption in tablet format. Manufacturing ephedrine in a controlled environment like a lab costs a lot less at scale. These savings can then be passed on to the consumer such that you can buy pure Ephedrine HCL for $10 a bottle while an equivalent package of ephedra might cost as much as $40 to $60. If you’re on a budget, synthetic supplements are a definite winner.
- Cheng JT, et al. Stimulatory effect of D-ephedrine on beta3-adrenoceptors in adipose tissue of rats. Auton Neurosci. (2001)
- Pasquali R, et al. Does ephedrine promote weight loss in low-energy-adapted obese women. Int J Obes. (1987)