Ephedra, also known as Ma huang and Mormon tea, has been used in China to treat colds, asthma, allergies and bronchial disorders since 3000BC. Ephedra is often referred to as the world's oldest medicine. Made from the dried stems of an Asian shrub, ephedra and synthetic variations of its active ingredients are used in many prescription and over-the-counter drugs. While its decongestant properties are well documented, ephedra's metabolism-boosting and appetite suppressing properties are the reason that the herb has been propelled to recent hype, abuse and controversy.

Ephedra contains ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, two chemicals that stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and relieve swelling of mucous membranes. It increases the heart rate, revs the metabolism and acts as a diuretic, which may make it an effective weight loss aid for some people. Its thermogenic properties help burn fat while sparing lean tissue.

In the late 1990s, several supplement products that combined ephedra with St. John's wort were marketed as an herbal alternative to Phen-fen, an anti-obesity prescription drug that has now been banned for potentially causing heart disease. Some people started taking ephedra supplements in high doses, which lead to heart attacks, strokes and even dozens of reported deaths. Ephedra was banned in April 2004, only to be reinstated to the marketplace in April 2005. The ban was eventually lifted again because drug agencies couldn't prove that low dosages of ephedra were detrimental. The latest guideline states that companies should only sell products containing 10mg of naturally occurring ephedrine alkaloids, but many supplement manufacturers are reluctant to jump back on the ephedra bandwagon.

Those in good health may use ephedra safely and effectively in recommended doses, but know that exceeding the dosage can cause serious problems. Taking ephedra is particularly dangerous for those with high blood pressure, heart disease or diabetes. Side effects include insomnia, anxiety, heart palpitations and hyper-alertness.

Please consult with your health practitioner before starting on an ephedra supplement program.

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