Ma Huang – Ephedra – 麻黄
Mahuang is one of the most famous herbs in the Chinese Materia Medica – and with good reason. In a world where medicine is mostly unable to deal with the most common illnesses that people encounter, colds and flus, an herb that can handily address these symptoms has a right to be respected. Unfortunately, some of the popularity of this herb exists for more nefarious reasons. Mahuang has been implicated in a number of exertion related deaths, particularly in young athletes and people seeking to lose weight.
Unfortunately, many people are unable or unwilling to learn the whole story. These deaths did not come from the controlled use of appropriate doses of the whole herb under the supervision of an appropriately trained Chinese medicine practitioner.
In many of these cases, the herb is broken down to isolate the desired alkaloids (for example, L-ephedrine) and often mixed with other stimulating compounds to increase the metabolism of the imbiber. It is not used using the principles of formula science – and thus is dangerous. When mahuang is used in its natural or minimally prepared form, prescribed by a physician within a carefully constructed formula appropriate to the patient’s condition and constitution – it is absolutely safe and quite beneficial.
However, access to mahuang, even for licensed practitioners, is under a shadow in the United States. While it is clear that the federal authorities aren’t targeting practitioners, the consensus seems to be that this is a matter of enforcement priorities only. Regardless of the situation for practitioners, finding it from safe sources is very difficult – for most it is impossible.
That doesn’t mean we should fail to study it, however. We must learn about this critically important herb, and do whatever we can to work for continued access to it for licensed, trained professionals. That’s an article for another day.
Ma Huang is part of the family Ephedraceae and the Genus Ephedra. There are several medicinal members of this genus, but the standard species used in Chinese medicine appears to be Ephedra sinica. It is considered to be an evergreen shrub and its natural range is throughout East Asia and northern China. It is a sun-loving herb and does not thrive in shady areas. It also thrives in sub-optimal soil, preferring disturbed areas and a sandy growing medium.
Let’s think about Ma Huang from the perspective of the doctrine of signatures. The growing plant is green in color, tough, with few extra parts. Since green is such a common color in plants, it doesn’t make much sense to refer to the Liver (associated with green color). But the shape reminds me of the tubular structures inside of lung tissue, which resonates with its effect of clearing breathing passages. Its ability to live in marginal environments, especially dry ones, as well as its preference for sandy soil seems to resonate it with the energy of Yang Ming and dryness – which makes sense given its ability to dry rather intensely.
In English, the genus name is typically used as the common name – ephedra or, sometimes, ephedrine. In some cases even in English it is commonly known as Mahuang, in similar fashion to Dang Gui which is sometimes simply referred to by its Chinese name by English speaking non-practitioners. The quick and dirty Chinese translation is “hemp yellow.” This translation, frankly, doesn’t do much for me so I’ll look a little more closely at the characters.
麻 – má
The primary meaning of this character is, simply, hemp. Hemp is a hardy plant used in the manufacture of a number of durable products including, but not limited to, rope and cloth. In general, textiles and ropes created from hemp are rougher than their cotton brethren – this may have something to do with another possible definition of má, which is pockmarked, rough or pitted. Ma Huang is, indeed, fairly rough to the touch.
黄 – huáng
Again, we’re not going to get a lot of common variation in this character – it means yellow in pretty much every significant context. But will that stop me from pulling it apart? Of course not! Interestingly, the character has undergone a lot of change during its history. The earliest versions show a person wearing a ceremonial belt or pendant – which some sources suggest may have been yellow.
The importance of the color yellow cannot be understated for the ancient Chinese. Think of the Yellow River, often called the “mother river” and of the Yellow Emperor, often thought of as China’s first head of state. Yellow is also the color associated with the Earth phase element, and this element is commonly thought to be the most central, linking together the others. There are many herbs with 黄 in their names, including the Yellow brothers (Huang Bai, Huang Lian and Huang Qin) and the eminent purgative and blood mover, Da Huang. Good Ma Huang does have a yellowish tint, so the use of Huang may simply refer to this fact. It may also hint at its importance.
The Shennong Ben Cao Jing refers to another name for Ma Huang – Dragon Sand, 龍沙. Sand could refer to the areas where it is commonly found, or able to grow. Dragon, the animal of the Stomach, is a potent symbol in ancient Chinese thought. Perhaps this name refers to the herb’s importance or its ability to devour pathogens. Reader input would be greatly appreciated here – I’m fascinated by this alternate name.
Differences between modern interpretation and the Shennong ben cao jing
As all good Chinese herb scholars, I do a fair amount of memorizing herb properties. Of course, in my case, I am especially interested in comparing the information found in the Shennong Ben Cao Jing (SBCJ) and the modern textbooks. In the SBCJ, Ma Huang is listed as being bitter. Modern textbooks list it as being both bitter and pungent.
The pungency makes sense from a functional perspective – pungent flavor is strongly moving, particularly pushing things to the surface and dispersing them. Given the strongly diaphoretic nature of Ma Huang, we should expect pungency to be part of its profile. So why did the SNBCJ not talk about this?
The bitter flavor informs us of one of the other important functions of Ma Huang, it’s impact on the Bladder and water metabolism. Mahuang is capable of reducing water accumulation through the promotion of urination. This, of course, is one of the reasons it is sometimes, unfortunately, used in weight loss schemes – part of what brought FDA scrutiny down on misuse of the herb. However, the SBCJ does first discuss the uses of Ma Huang that we think of most commonly and only later refers to its accumulation reducing effects. We may have to look beyond our traditional understanding of the nature of herb flavors to get more information – perhaps in another article…
I have already hinted at the basic use of this herb in Chinese herbal medicine. Mahuang is a primary herb in all of the strongest formulas for releasing pathogens from the body through the skin using the sweating mechanism. It releases the exterior, inducing sweating, disperses the Lung Qi to stop coughing, promotes urination to reduce water accumulation and can also warm to dispel cold. Traditionally, one should remove the joints at the internodes from ephedra to increase its diaphoretic action. Interestingly, it is in the internodes that the highest concentration of stimulant alkaloids is found.
A North American species in the genus is known as “Mormon tea” because the early Mormon people in the United States used it as a replacement for caffeinated beverages, which are forbidden by the religion. It is commonly asserted that Native American tribes also used a species of the genus in similar fashion, but I was unable to locate any hard evidence of this. Regardless, it is interesting to see another example of cross-cultural support for the use of an herb.
About Eric Grey
Hi - I'm the founder of Deepest Health. When I'm not writing here, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Community Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.