Chinese: 麻黄

Pinyin: Má Huáng

Parts used: Dried herbaceous stems

TCM category: Warm/Acrid herbs that release the Exterior

TCM nature: Warm

TCM taste(s): BitterPungent

Meridian affinity: BladderLung

Scientific name: Ephedra sinica

Use of ephedra (Má Huáng) in TCM

Please note that you should never self-prescribe TCM ingredients. A TCM ingredient is almost never eaten on its own but as part of a formula containing several ingredients that act together. Please consult a professional TCM practitionner, they will be best able to guide you.

Preparation: Remove smaller stems, residual roots and impurities, cut into sections and dry.

Dosage: 3 - 9 grams

Main actions according to TCM*: Releases the surface through sweating. Promotes the circulation of Lung Qi and stop wheezing. Promotes urination.

Primary conditions or symptoms for which ephedra may be prescribed by TCM doctors*: Common cold Fever Headache Acute nephritis Asthma Edema

Contraindications*: Not for those with high blood pressure, risks of cardiovascular diseases or those with insomnia or spontaneous sweating. Use of this herb for extended periods of time or in large doses is not recommended.

Common TCM formulas in which ephedra are used*:

Key TCM concepts behind ephedra's properties

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), ephedra are plants that belong to the 'Warm/Acrid herbs that release the Exterior' category. Herbs that release the Exterior aim to to treat the early stages of diseases that affect the upper respiratory tract, the eyes, the ears, the nose, the throat or the skin. TCM believes that External diseases such as colds or allergies can only invade the body if the External environment overwhelms our Wei Qi (the TCM version of the immune system). In order to counteract this invasion Warm/Acrid herbs aim to induce sweating by increasing the flow of sweat to our capillary pores. The belief is that this will expel the disease from the body and stop it from invading further.

As suggested by its category ephedra are plants that are Warm in nature. This means that ephedra tend to help people who have too much "cold" in their body, although with less effect than a plant that would be Hot in nature. Balance between Yin and Yang is a key health concept in TCM. Those who have too much cold in their body are said to either have a Yin excess (because Yin is Cold in nature) or a Yang deficiency (Yang is Hot in Nature). Depending on your condition ephedra can help restore a harmonious balance between Yin and Yang.

Ephedra also taste Bitter and Pungent. The so-called "five elements" theory in Chinese Medicine states that the taste of TCM ingredients is a key determinant of their action in the body. Bitter ingredients like ephedra tend to have a cleansing action on the body by clearing heat, drying dampness and promoting elimination via urination or bowel movements. On the other hand Pungent ingredients tend to promote the circulations of Qi and body fluids. That's why for instance someone tends to sweat a lot when they eat spicy/pungent food.

The tastes of ingredients in TCM also determine what organs and meridians they target. As such ephedra are thought to target the Bladder and the Lung. In TCM the impure water collected by the Kidneys that cannot be used by the body is sent to the Bladder for storage and excretion as urine. In addition to performing respiration, the Lungs are thought to be a key part of the production chain for Qi and the body fluids that nourish the body.

Research on ephedra

A dietary supplement containing a low potency ephedra/caffeine mixture appeared safe and effective in causing loss of weight and body fat, and improving several metabolic parameters.1

Ingestion of ephedra dry extract acutely and chronically affects autonomic nervous activity by tilting the sympathovagal balance toward increased sympathetic activity.2


1. Hackman RM, Havel PJ, Schwartz HJ, Rutledge JC, Watnik MR, Noceti EM, Stohs SJ, Stern JS, Keen CL. (2006). Multinutrient supplement containing ephedra and caffeine causes weight loss and improves metabolic risk factors in obese women: a randomized controlled trial. Int J Obes (Lond). 30(10):1545-56.

2. Chen WL, Tsai TH, Yang CC, Kuo TB. (2010). Effects of ephedra on autonomic nervous modulation in healthy young adults. J Ethnopharmacol. , 130(3):563-8. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2010.05.056.