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Ephedra

Ephedra
© Steven Foster

Common Names: ephedra, Chinese ephedra, ma huang

Latin Names: Ephedra sinica

Background

  • Ephedra is an evergreen shrub-like plant native to central Asia, and Mongolia; it also grows in the southwestern United States.
  • People have used ephedra for centuries in China for colds, fever, flu, headaches, asthma, nasal congestion, and wheezing.
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the sale of dietary supplements containing ephedrine alkaloids (compounds found in some ephedra species) in the United States in 2004. It was an ingredient in some dietary supplements marketed for weight loss, increased energy, and enhanced athletic performance.
  • The dried stems and leaves of the ephedra plant have been used to create capsules, tablets, extracts, and teas.

How Much Do We Know?

  • A large amount of research led to ephedrine alkaloids becoming main oral asthma medications in the 1940s and 1950s. Ephedra also has been used as a weight-loss agent and energy enhancer for athletic performance. However, the increasing number of reported adverse events caused the FDA to ban dietary supplements that contain ephedrine alkaloids.

What Have We Learned?

  • According to the FDA, there is little evidence of ephedra’s effectiveness, except for short-term weight loss. However, the increased risk of heart problems and stroke outweighs any benefits.

What Do We Know About Safety?

  • The FDA banned the U.S. sale of dietary supplements containing ephedrine alkaloids. It found that these supplements had an unreasonable risk of injury or illness—particularly cardiovascular complications—and a risk of death. The ban does not apply to traditional Chinese herbal remedies.
  • Using ephedra may worsen many health conditions such as heart disease and kidney disease. Ephedra has been associated with stroke. It also may contribute to increased blood sugar levels.
  • Ephedra may intensify or cause seizures in people with seizure disorders.
  • Taking ephedra may also cause anxiety, dizziness, difficulty urinating, dry mouth, headache, irritation of the stomach, nausea, psychosis, restlessness, sleep problems, and tremors. Some of these side effects may be associated with long-term use of ephedra.
  • Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and children should avoid taking ephedra.
  • Ephedra use may lead to serious health problems when used with other dietary supplements or medicines.
  • Combining ephedra with caffeine increases the risk of potentially serious side effects.

Keep in Mind

  • Tell all your health care providers about any complementary or integrative health approaches you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.

For More Information

NCCIH Clearinghouse

The NCCIH Clearinghouse provides information on NCCIH and complementary and integrative health approaches, including publications and searches of Federal databases of scientific and medical literature. The Clearinghouse does not provide medical advice, treatment recommendations, or referrals to practitioners.

Toll-free in the U.S.: 1-888-644-6226

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1-866-464-3615

Website: https://nccih.nih.gov/

Email: info@nccih.nih.gov (link sends e-mail)

PubMed®

A service of the National Library of Medicine, PubMed® contains publication information and (in most cases) brief summaries of articles from scientific and medical journals. For guidance from NCCIH on using PubMed, see How To Find Information About Complementary Health Approaches on PubMed.

Website: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/

Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS), National Institutes of Health (NIH)

ODS seeks to strengthen knowledge and understanding of dietary supplements by evaluating scientific information, supporting research, sharing research results, and educating the public. Its resources include publications (such as Dietary Supplements: What You Need to Know), fact sheets on a variety of specific supplement ingredients and products (such as vitamin D and multivitamin/mineral supplements), and the PubMed Dietary Supplement Subset.

Website: https://ods.od.nih.gov/

Email: ods@nih.gov (link sends e-mail)

Key References

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NCCIH has provided this material for your information. It is not intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your health care provider(s). We encourage you to discuss any decisions about treatment or care with your health care provider. The mention of any product, service, or therapy is not an endorsement by NCCIH.

Last Updated: September 2016