Ma Huang, one of the most common ephedrine-based medicinal extracts, has been used in China for over 5,000 years to treat fever, nasal congestion, and asthma. Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are also known to be effective respiratory sedatives and cough remedies. Pseudoephedrine is the primary active component of the popular decongestant Sudafed (Caveney et al., 2001).
North and South American species of Ephedra have traditionally been used as an asthma treatment or as a general stimulant. 'Mormon tea,' a beverage made from North American Ephedra, has been ingested for therapeutic and stimulant purposes for over two hundred years. Seemingly in contrast to this, studies show that North and American Ephedra do not contain ephedrine alkaloids. The presence of other active components has been suggested to account for this, since the pharmacological basis remains unknown (Caveney et al., 2001).
Another time-honored ephedrine application occurs in Yemen culture. Individuals who chew the khat plant experience the same stimulatory effects as those who ingest ephedrine-based products (Caveney et al., 2001).
Widespread use of ephedrine has evolved only recently in the United States, coming into vogue at the same time as other traditional herbal supplements like ginseng, astragalus, and dong quai. The most common contemporary application of ephedrine is in dietary supplements where it is combined with caffeine in products that claim the ability to reduce weight and provide greater energy for exercise (Turk, 1997). Two billion doses of ephedrine-containing dietary supplements are consumed each year by Americans (GAO, 1999). Ephedrine's stimulant effects have also been abused as a means of achieving a high with a legal product. Indeed, OTC products such as Herbal Ecstasy originated as an herbal alternative to the controlled substance 'ecstasy.' In 1997, after receiving over 800 reports of adverse effects associated with the use of products containing ephedrine alkaloids, the FDA placed regulations on these products (Turk, 1997).
Within the last year, ephedrine has once again caused a controversy, due to its use as a key ingredient in the production of methamphetamine, commonly called 'speed.' Methamphetamine production requires very little scientific knowledge and is highly pollutive. The synthesis of one pound of the narcotic leads to six pounds of highly toxic by-product (Snell, 2001).
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