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The history of ephedra: A powerful lung medicine from China

Written by Jason Irving

Ephedra is a powerful plant used to support lung health. Molecules from it have been the basis for pharmaceuticals, and the plant is now only legally allowed to be prescribed by herbalists. This article explains the fascinating history behind the plant and its medicinal use.  

Ephedra Ma Huang plant berries

Ma Huang is a plant used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for a wide range of conditions and is most famous today as a treatment for asthma. The plant drug consists of the aerial parts – leaves, stems, flowers – of several species of Ephedra, particularly Ephedra sinica.

The isolated chemical ephedrine is popular as a drug to enhance athletic performance, promote weight loss, and relieve colds and flu. When it was first discovered its main use in pharmacy was as a bronchodilator to open up the airways of asthma sufferers.

The use of Ma Huang to suppress cough can be traced back to the oldest written record of Chinese medicinal plants. This article explores the history of the use of ephedrine and Ma Huang as a bronchodilator, and how the effects can be understood through both the lenses of chemistry and physiology, and traditional Chinese philosophies of healing.

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