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Ephedra: ma huang or ephedrine? – A lesson for herbal practitioners

Written by Simon Mills

What is ephedra?

Ephedra sinica

Ephedra or ma huang, is provided commercially as the dried young stems of three species of perennial herbs, Ephedra sinica Stapf., E. equisetina Bge., or E. intermedia Schrenk + C.A. Meyer.  Ephedra sinica is a native of northern China and Inner Mongolia. Each of the three species has slightly different appearances and characteristics. E. sinica is the less branched, with nodes more spaced out on the stem. All samples are dry and brittle, with little odour and a slightly bitter taste.

Note: the North American ephedra E. nevadensis (known as Mormon tea), contains little or no ephedrine or other alkaloids.

I am a Cambridge medical sciences graduate and have been a herbal practitioner in Exeter since 1977. In that time I have led the main professional and trade organizations for herbal medicine in the UK and served on Government and House of Lords committees. I have written standard textbooks used by herbal practitioners around the world, including with Professor Kerry Bone from Australia.

I was involved in academic work for many years, co-founding the University of Exeter pioneering Centre for Complementary Health Studies in 1987 (where we built a complementary research and postgraduate teaching programme from scratch), then at Peninsula the first integrated health course at a UK medical school, and the first Masters degree in herbal medicine in the USA, at the Maryland University of Integrative Health.

I am particularly fascinated by the insights we can distill from the millions of intelligent people who over many centuries needed plants to survive. Mostly I want to learn and share the old skills, to experience healing plants as characters, that can help us fend off ill health. My passion for offering people tools to look after themselves and their families has led me to work with the founders of the College of Medicine on pioneering national self care and social prescribing projects. I am now the College Self Care Lead and also Herbal Strategist at Pukka Herbs

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