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Ma huang (Ephedra sinica) is a squat, shrub-like plant originally native to desert regions of China, but is now found elsewhere around the world, including the Mediterranean and South American regions. Sometimes called "Ephedra" itself, it is actually one variety of the Ephedra family. Translated, ma huang (I think it's written as "麻黄") means "bitter yellow", so-named due to its taste and colour, respectively. Used in China throughout the past 5000 years as a supplement to remedy various maladies such as headaches, the common cold or asthma, it is best known in the modern era for its active stimulant alkaloids, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. Ma huang usage usually starts with the interleaf nodes of the plant, where ephedrine concentrations are the highest, although the roots of the plant can also be used.

While ma huang has been used most often in China as an additive to teas, and sometimes in association with acupuncture, the alkaloids existing in ma huang and other Ephedra plants have, in recent years, been extracted and used in a large variety of dietary supplements, as a means to aid a variety of health issues, such as weight loss and smoking cessation. It is useful in relieving colds due to vasoconstricting effect of the alkaloids. The product has also, however, been known to be used by athletes looking for a competitive edge, as gives a noticeable (at least to the user) energy boost. This, supplemented by the fact that there have been has led to the ban of ephedra-based products by most major sports leagues and athletic organisations.

Indeed, the overuse of these dietary supplements has been a cause of alarm by many in medical and athletic circles, hundreds of documented overdose-related deaths (perhaps most notably, that of Major League Baseball pticher, Steve Bechler). While ephedra alkaloids are said to be more potent than caffeine, the supplements often combine the two, creating a quite potent compound indeed. Unfortunately, despite warning labels which make very clear the dangers of overuse, and which contain many contraindications and dosage recommendations, it has been found that such notices are, sadly, often not heeded.

It is for the aforementioned reasons that, in December 30, 2003, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced an impending ban on the sale of all products marketed as dietary supplements, which contain naturally-produced, Ephedra-based alkaloids. Strangely enough, the synthetic forms of the alkaloids, which can be found in cold remedy products such as Sudafed, are not affected by this ban. At this time, it is unknown whether the ban will take effect, and whether or not ma huang itself, along with all products produced from Ephedra variants, will eventually succumb to this fate.

Works Referenced:
  • "Ma Huang, an Ancient Chinese Stimulant": http://www.botgard.ucla.edu/html/botanytextbooks/economicbotany/Ephedra/
  • "Ephedra (Ma Huang)": http://sportsmedicine.about.com/cs/nutrition/a/aa020502a.htm
  • "Herbal Remedies: Ephedra (Ma Huang)": http://www.organicfood.co.uk/herbs/ephedra.html

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