Pulse of Oriental Medicine: Alternative Medicine That Works for Regular Folks
Alternative Medicine That Works for Regular Folks

Updated December 1, 2003





Opinion: Ephedra
By Gabriel Sher, LAc

Gabriel A. Sher, LAc received his Masters degree in Acupuncture and Herbology ACTCM, completed an apprenticeship in gynecology, dermatology, and gastroenterology at the TCM University in Chengdu, China, and is a member of the Acupuncture Society of New York and the Hands on Health Holistic Health Center. He practices in New York City.
As a licensed and practicing Acupuncturist/Herbalist, I take great pride in my commitment to the discipline of Chinese Herbal Medicine. I am frustrated by what I perceive to be the media's incorrect and corrosive depiction of the side effects of the herb Ma huang (ephedra root).

It is this negative portrayal that has brought Ma huang a great deal more attention than modern Western Medicine (which can have innumerable negative side effects, even with correct dosage and usage).

If they picked up the Physician Desk Reference, which doctors often consult when prescribing medication, I predict an astounding mass of patients would become instantly reluctant to take standardized Western pharmaceuticals. Ma huang is being used inappropriately via high dosages and incorrect conditions which is contributing to the tainted reputation of a truly valuable herb; one which Chinese herbalists have safely used for over 5,000 years, and one that is introduced early on during Chinese medical school.

With a slightly bitter, acrid taste, Ma huang disperses, moves, drains, dries, and produces sweat which helps to relieve the common cold. It is used to treat problems relating to the lung and bladder channels. Specifically, it helps to facilitate the movement of lung energy and prevents wheezing in cases of asthma or colds. Ma huang contains two alkaloids, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which are used in an abundance of over the counter medications.

Ephedrine, a bronchodilator and stimulant of the sympathetic nervous system, has useful antispasmodic properties, acting on the air passages by relieving swelling of the mucous membranes. It is also used to promote urination in cases of severe edema or fluid body saturation. Pseudoephedrine is used as a nasal decongestant. Ma huang should be consumed in small dosages and in short duration, and, if used correctly, can produce beneficial results. If used incorrectly, it can induce severe sweating, body weakness, increase in blood pressure, restlessness and tremors.

I feel that Ma huang is a very important herb that needs to be carefully and clearly understood by those who prescribe it. If prescribed by a licensed herbalist, it is a safe and effective method of treating asthma patients and people suffering from acute common colds. However, with the recent increase of interest in Chinese herbs, Western pharmaceutical companies have jumped on the bandwagon and are attempting to gain top-shelf status in the herbal market.

This is disheartening because medicinal herbs are now being incorrectly prescribed by these companies-therefore causing serious side effects. For instance, Ma huang, when sold at vitamin stores and health food markets by unlicensed, uninformed providers, is marketed as an energy stimulant (known for increasing alertness or perception). In reality, its properties and functions were not intended for this use at all. In fact, Ma Huang, if used incorrectly, can slowly deteriorate the energy sources of the body and cause insomnia, restlessness, and high blood pressure. This herb was not intended to be used for weight loss or weight lifting, and this misuse from lack of proper information is causing a multitude of harmful side effects.

As consumers, we need to treat herbs like we would any Western medication, with factual clarity and a healthful purpose before taking them. They must be obtained by a licensed practitioner. It frustrates herbalists like myself because herbal medicine is an intrinsically valuable source of health and body maintenance, and the unfortunate misinformation about certain herbs skews the facts on how useful herbs can be. For the public to only hear the negative reactions to herbs such as ephedra is simply another backwards step in our struggle to heal.

And what about the negative effects/side effects of Western medicine? Did you know that:

  • At least 247,000 people are hospitalized every year due to prescription drug reactions
  • More than 130,000 people suffer memory loss from drug reactions
  • In America alone, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (aspirin) cause 200,000 hospitalizations and 20,000 deaths annually
  • More than 100,000 people died from taking drugs that their doctors prescribed to them (Journal of the American Medical Association,1993)
  • Every year prescription drugs cause 1 million injuries so severe they require hospitalization.
  • Another 2 million drug related injuries occur during hospitalization
  • Over a lifetime of drug taking, the average American has a 26% chance of being hospitalized from a drug injury
  • Long-term use of anti-inflammatory agents such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naprosyn cause an estimated 70,000 hospitalizations a year
  • Prescription medicines is the 4th leading cause of death in the U.S.

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