Ephedra is an extract of the plant by the same name. Used extensively in Asia, especially China for about 4000 years as an herbal treatment in traditional medicine for common cold, hay fever, asthma, bronchitis, cough with breathing difficulty, joint symptoms, inability to perspire, swelling and pain in the bones. More recently used in countries like Germany, Japan and India, for common cold, hay fever and allergies, it is used in the United States as a dietary supplement and as a natural source for alkaloids ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. It is also used for weight loss and to enhance athletic performance, though it is not approved in the United States for this purpose. Ephedra is a stimulant which constricts blood vessels, increasing heart rate and blood pressure. It has been found to be used as a physical and mental stimulant, however, doubtful it may be in this role, as they are believed to cross the barrier protecting the brain from undesired elements in the blood and imitate the activity of the sympathetic nervous system as the “fight or flight” reaction by interacting with various neurotransmitter receptors and is also credited to increase the release of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine and stimulate alpha- and beta-adrenergic receptors.
Supported by clinical data, the World Health Organization has limited the use of Ephedra to treatment of nasal congestion due to hay fever, allergic rhinitis, common cold, sinusitis, and as a bronchodilator in the treatment of bronchial asthma.
The use of Ephedra along with caffeine is often credited with weight loss, however significant, it is effective for a short time period of less than or just about six months, as statistics have proven in the past. There is no evidence of its efficacy on long-term weight loss exceeding six months. As for enhancement in athletic performance, there are no authoritative studies proving it to be so, except in the cases of extremely physically fit individuals and that too in combination with botanical-contained caffeine, for a period not exceeding one to two hours after intake of a single dose.
With no standardization and quality control of dietary supplements in the United States, the dosage of effective ingredients in supplements varies broadly depending upon brands or batches. Prolonged research on Ephedra supplements has found significant discrepancies between the declared doses on labels and the actual amount of contents in the product, to the point of being tenfold in different batches from the same brand.