BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS. Ma huang is a popular herbal supplement used for weight loss, energy enhancement, body building or merely as a stimulant. It is estimated that 12 million people in the United States consumed ma huang-containing products in 1999. The main active component in ma huang is the alkaloid ephedrine, a powerful drug in its own right. Ephedrine causes constriction of blood vessels and is used in the treatment of asthma. Ma huang increases blood pressure and sympathetic activity in the autonomic nervous system.
Researchers at the New England Medical Center now report that ma huang can have serious, even fatal,
adverse effects. A survey of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) database revealed a total of 926
cases of possible ma huang toxicity reported between 1995 and 1997. Thirty-seven of these cases involved
serious cardiovascular events; 10 heart attacks, 16 strokes (3 fatal), and 11 sudden cardiac deaths. Only
one of the 37 cases had a history of cardiovascular problems and the majority of cases were between the
ages of 40 and 44 years. The researchers conclude that their investigation casts suspicion on ma huang,
but does not establish a definite relationship between ma huang use and cardiovascular events. They,
nevertheless, caution that people considering using ma huang should be informed of the possibility of
serious adverse cardiovascular effects.