The answer is, Ma Huang is a powerful stimulant being marketed to body builders and other athletes as an effective fat burner.
Ma Huang has its interesting name because it is an ancient Chinese herb with an interesting history. Also known as ephedra, Ma Huang is an odd-looking, botanically primitive, almost leafless shrub that resembles horsetail. It has tough, jointed, barkless stems and branches, with small scale-like leaves and tiny yellow-green flowers that appear in summer.
The use of Ma Huang has loosely been traced to around 3000 BC, when Chinese physicians began prescribing ephedra tea for colds, asthma and hay fever. When the Mormons arrived in Utah in 1847, the native Indians introduced them to the American variety of ephedra, a piney-tasting tonic beverage. The Mormons used it as a substitute for coffee and tea, and therefore the name arose: Mormon Tea.
From the late 1920s through the 1940s, ephedrine was used in various products as a decongestant and bronchodilator. It was generally effective and safe, but it was also known to produce potentially damaging side effects, including increased blood pressure and heart palpitations. It was replaced with a chemical substitute, pseudo-ephedrine, which scientists considered equally effective but with reduced side effects. This is the active ingredient in many over-the-counter products like Sudafed.
Herbalists recommend Ma Huang (ephedra) today to treat asthma, hay fever and the nasal and chest congestion of colds and flu. Ma Huang's active ingredients are ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and norspeudoephedrine, all three of which are strong central nervous system stimulants. They are stronger than caffeine, but less potent than amphetamine.
Ephedrine opens the bronchial passages, stimulates the heart and increases blood pressure, metabolic rate, perspiration and urine production. It reduces the secretion of both saliva and stomach acids.
Unfortunately, the powerful stimulants in Ma Huang can lead to stroke and even death in otherwise healthy people.
Why is Ma Huang used?
While the scientific community generally regards Ma Huang/ephedra as a fairly dangerous nutritional supplement on the health food store shelf, there are supporters for its use as a fat-loss agent. According to them, the combination of ephedrine and caffeine allows people to increase fat loss while maintaining muscle mass. They also claim that Ma Huang is actually relatively safe, and that reports of health problems and death related to taking it are simply sensationalized news stories.
There is a body of research that suggests that ephedrine plus caffeine increases thermogenesis, the burning of calories in the body. Weight loss and fat loss appear to be greater in research subjects taking ephedrine and caffeine compared to those simply dieting alone. Ephedrine plus caffeine is thought to act centrally by suppressing appetite and peripherally by stimulating the usage of fat by the muscles. Most studies find that combining a low-calorie diet with ephedrine and caffeine induces significant weight and fat loss.
There is suggestion that weight loss with the ephedrine and caffeine combination is also superior because muscle mass is preserved, while fat is lost. This purported benefit has resulted in a great deal of marketing toward athletes, playing on the desire of many athletes to increase muscle mass while reducing body fat.
Side effects and safety issues
Unfortunately, Ma Huang is not without risks. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has compiled more than 800 adverse events for Ma Huang, including heart attack, stroke, tremors, insomnia and death. At least 17 deaths have been linked to supplements containing Ma Huang.
In 1996, the FDA warned the public to avoid Ma Huang/ephedrine-containing dietary supplements. In 1997, the FDA proposed new labeling requirements that would require strict warning labels, limits on the amount of alkaloid in each serving, and a ban on combining Ma Huang with other herbal stimulants. However, this requirement has not yet been passed. In fact, many metabolism-boosting formulas contain Ma Huang with other stimulants such as guarana and kola nut extracts.
As a stimulant, Ma Huang can cause insomnia, nervousness, stomach upset, dry mouth, agitation and hand tremors. Supporters of its use recommend that users start with a small amount and increase the dosage slowly to allow the body to get used to the drug, thus minimizing adverse effects. They also recommend that users drink more water to minimize dry mouth.
However, many groups of people are cautioned to never use Ma Huang. Competitive athletes are included in this list, because many athletic organizations, including the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the United States Olympic Committee, list Ma Huang as a banned substance.
Ma Huang should never be used by pregnant women, as it can stimulate spontaneous abortions. It is not recommended for people with cardiovascular disease, angina, hypertension, thyroid disease or prostate enlargement. Individuals on medications such as MAO inhibitors or alpha-2 blockers should avoid any Ma Huang, as the combined effects may cause dangerously high blood pressure.
We can conclude ...
Ma Huang is a natural product with drug-like actions. However, "natural" does not equate with "safe."
Ma Huang, like other nutritional supplements, is not strictly regulated like drugs, so the ephedrine content in commercial products is highly variable. This makes Ma Huang-containing products potentially dangerous, as evidenced by the number of adverse events documented. Even supplement manufacturers have responded to this negative publicity by promoting "Ma Huang-free" products.
Read labels on supplement products and, to be safe, look for products without Ma Huang or ephedra.
Get great running nutrition info in Nancy Ling's 34-page Sports Nutrition for Endurance, a guide for serious runners who want straight nutrition talk. Send $15 (check or money order) along with your return address to Nancy Ling, PO Box 1110, Beverly Hills, 90213.