Q: Dear Dr. Mao,
Is ma huang really not safe to use? I have heard it can help asthma.
A: The Chinese herb ma huang, also called ephedra, is effective for mild asthma, because it contains the drug ephedrine. However, it cannot be recommended for use because of safety concerns.
Japanese chemists isolated ephedrine from ma huang at the turn of the twentieth century, and it soon became a primary treatment for asthma in the United States and abroad.
Although ephedrine can still be found in a few over-the-counter asthma drugs, physicians seldom prescribe it today. The problem is that ephedrine mimics the effects of adrenaline and causes symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure, agitation, insomnia, nausea, and loss of appetite. The newer asthma drugs are much safer and easier to tolerate. This is a situation in which synthetic drugs are less dangerous than a natural one. Therefore, using ma huang for asthma cannot be recommended.