Ephedra is a Chinese shrub which has been used in China for medicinal purposes for several thousand years. Ephedra has been used in a several different ways (e.g., respiratory infections, asthma, hay fever, chills, lack of perspiration, headache, and arthritis) in Traditional Chinese Medicine for more than 5000 years in the form of herbal extracts and teas. Ephedra plants were not used only in China, in fact, references to the plant date back to 1500B.C. in India. There is some documented evidence that also shows that the Romans used ephedra as well. Usage of ephedra in the United States is not new either (early American settlers used it for tea–known as Mormon tea).
One key alkaloid found in ephedra is ephedrine, which was first isolated and characterized by Nagai in 1885. It was then forgotten until it was rediscovered by Chen and Schmidt in the early 1920s. Its actions on the adrenoceptors could be classified into separate alpha and beta effects–a defining moment in the history of autonomic pharmacology. Ephedrine became a highly popular and effective treatment for asthma, particularly because, unlike adrenaline (until then the standard therapy), it can be given by mouth. Ephedrine as a treatment for asthma reached its zenith in the late 1950s, since when there has been a gradual and inevitable decline in its therapeutic use.
It’s something to note that Chinese and Eastern cultures never used isolated alkaloids for TCM and their medicines. The Chinese have had a long history of successfully using ephedra to treat many issues. . Like many other drugs used in Western medicine, the synthetic form was derived in a laboratory, which eliminates the dependency on a broker of the herbs. Even aspirin, now synthetically manufactured, was derived from the bark of willow and poplar trees. A laboratory setting makes it possible for companies to have ultimate control and benefit from financial savings.
Now due to a key alkaloid ephedrine found in ephedra, ephedra itself has found itself on the negative side of the press. With governments’ touting it as an ingredient in meth and in itself being inherently unsafe. It’s true that ephedrine is a key ingredient in the making of meth but many forget that it’s really the synthetic pure form that pharmaceutical giants produce that is used in the making of meth. The herbal form (ephedra plant) is not used in illicit production of meth and somehow has got caught in the web of negative press. The U.S. among many other countries have banned the use of ephedrine group alkaloids in dietary supplements due to safety. Surprising enough though, the same ephedrine they say is unsafe for use in supplements, is still being produced and used in OTC drugs for colds and asthma.