The legal use of ephedra
BY JULIE DAVIDOW; March 4,
Liz Walters used to spend every spring
struggling to catch her breath. Scarred by a childhood illness, her lungs worked
overtime when the season's fresh pollens filled the air.
inhalers and antihistamines never completely cleared the wheezing and pressure
from her chest. Then, seven years ago, at the suggestion of her acupuncture
instructor, she tried a Chinese herbal remedy for breathing problems.
Minor Blue-Green Dragon, a tiny pill containing eight ingredients, including the
herb ma huang, finally worked.
"It stops me from feeling like I have
someone sitting on my chest," said Walters, now a licensed acupuncturist who
prescribes ma. huang, also known by its Latin name, ephedra, in her practice on
Walters, 51, takes the pills twice a day between March
and May when her symptoms peak.
Even after the Food and Drug
Administration's ban on ephedra goes into effect next month, practitioners of
Chinese medicine will still be allowed to dispense and prescribe the herb as
they have for thousands of years.
The government's prohibition is
intended to clear store shelves and halt Internet sales of dietary supplements
that contain ephedra, especially in weight-loss products. The supplements have
been linked to increased blood pressure and heart rate, which can lead to
stroke, heart attack and sudden death.
However, the prohibition
exempts traditional Chinese remedies, which are not marketed as dietary
supplements and therefore are not covered by the rule.
"I think the
FDA saw that clearly the problem was coming from these big companies that were
selling it as a weight -loss supplement in the mass market, not from some
acupuncturist," said Eric Yarnell, a naturopath and adjunct professor at Bastyr.
"They don't really intend to go after people who are using it
When mixed with other botanicals in teas, ground into
powder, or cooked with honey, the twiggy herb helps patients sweat out fevers
and breathe easier during colds and asthma attacks, advocates say.
bronchial dilator with stimulant effects, ma huang is considered a powerful
herb. To minimize side effects, it's used in small doses in combination with
other ingredients, said Allen Sayigh, manager of the herbal dispensary at Bastyr
-University and the Seattle Institute of Oriental Medicine.
that helps break fevers, for example, includes ma huang, cinnamon twigs, apricot
kernels and licorice root.
"That prescription has been around for
close to 2,000 years," Sayigh said. "You might only have to take one or two
doses of tea, curt up, break a sweat and be on the road to recovery. It'd be
nothing like taking a dietary supplement for weeks or months on end."
Ma huang has not traditionally been used to boost energy or for weight loss -
nor should it be, many herbalists say. Like caffeine, ma. huang can ultimately
leave you drained. "(In traditional Chinese medicine) there are ways to deal
with weight loss but they involve harmonizing the whole metabolism," said
Many herbalists are happy to see weight- loss products that
distill the herb's most powerful alkaloid taken off the market, while preserving
ma huang's traditional uses.
"It seems they've done enough of an
investigation to realize it has value as an herb," said Alison Roth, a Seattle
Still, high insurance costs have led some distributors to
stop selling the herb altogether.
Tierney Salter, owner of an herbal
remedy shop and manufacturer in Seattle, said her source of American ephedra,
which does not contain the stimulating ephedrine alkaloid and is not covered by
the ban, can no longer afford the insurance rates associated with selling any
form of ephedra.
Salter mixes American ephedra, or Mormon tea (which
thrives in the high deserts of Utah), in a drink to ease conges-tion. She also
sells the whole herb alone.
"Because the public is being told ephedra
is bad for you, are you as a small herb shop going to want to take on the risk
of someone reporting an adverse reaction to it?" said Salter, standing in front
of an empty canister of American ephedra.
Several shop owners in
Seattle's Chinatown are also no longer selling ma huang, even as a whole
Adon Mar, owner of Pacific Herb and Grocery, ran out of ma.
huang during the height of the cold and flu season and hasn't been able to
restock. "The distributor doesn't have it. They said they have a hard time
getting it now," said Mar, who added he would carry the herb again if he can
"We've been using it for a long time and it's very
effective," Mar said.
Across the street, Feng Shan Zhu, an
acupuncturist and herbalist who practiced in China for nearly three decades
before moving to Seattle in 1996, said he's never carried ma huang in the United
States. "I know in America the law is very powerful so I'm careful," said Zhu,
who said he prescribed ma huang regularly in China to treat coughs and
A couple of American women, however, have come to his office
looking for the herb, he said. "They say, 'Doctor do you have any ma huang? I
want to use it to get my energy up.'"
Mayway Corp., an Oakland,
Calif., company that distributes herbs grown in China, will continue to sell ma.
huang, "unless insurance rates become too outrageous," said Laura Stropes, the
"Ma huang is a very important herb in Chinese
medicine," said Stropes. "There's not really any substitute for it."
Other stores that carry herbs and supplements say there's been a run on products
with ephedra since the FDA first announced it would seek a ban in
At Salter's store, one customer recently bought five 4-ounce
bottles of liquid ephedra extract - a large amount for someone in search of a
cough or cold remedy. Salter said she's never carried weight-loss products that
contain ephedra, but she can't be sure how her customers plan to use the ma
huang she sells.
At VitaminLife in Redmond, the last bottles of
ephedra capsules are rapidly disappearing. Since January, the store has sold 360
bottles of one ephedra product, which unlike traditional Chinese remedies,
contains only one herb.
"We've had a huge rush on sales," said Terri
Marello, the store's manager. "We've probably quadrupled in the last two
months." VitaminLife stopped selling weight-loss products with ephedra six
months ago, but continued to sell other dietary supplements because, "A lot of
people legitimately use that for respiratory purposes."
Julie Davidow can be reached at 206-448-8180 or