Why Do Chinese Herbalists Call Ephedra the ‘Ask-For-Trouble’ Herb?

Ephedra plant growing along a mountain path.

In traditional Chinese medicine, the leaves and roots of the ephedra plant have opposite effects. (Image: Ivan Kmit via Dreamstime)

A long time ago, an elderly Chinese herbalist accepted a disciple to help with his business. He wanted someone to pass down his knowledge to, given that he had no son. But having studied for only a few months, the disciple began to show impatience. He wanted to open a clinic of his own. The herbalist was disappointed because he believed the disciple was not ready to take on his patients.

He warned his disciple:

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“One thing I have to remind you of is that a plant whose leaves and roots have opposite effects can make things very confusing. You must keep this in mind when treating your patients. While its leaves might induce perspiration, its roots might reduce it.”

But the disciple was caught up in his plans and barely heard what his master was saying.

The herbalist's disciple was so caught up in plans to start a clinic of his own that he barely heard what his master was saying.
The disciple was so caught up in plans to start his own clinic that he barely heard what his master was saying. (Image: Marilyn Barbone via Dreamstime)

A local judge brought his son to the disciple’s new clinic one day. The son was sweating profusely. The disciple used the leaves of the ephedra plant to treat the young patient. He wanted a quick result, so he used a considerable amount of the herb. However, after the treatment, the patient began sweating even more, and his arms and legs became as cold as ice.

The judge immediately sent his son to the elderly herbalist, who told the judge that his former disciple had used the wrong part of the herb. He should’ve used the roots instead of the leaves to treat this case.

Because of the herbalist’s mistake, ephedra became known as the ‘ask-for-trouble’ herb

The judge was furious. He summoned the young herbalist and said: “In treating patients without enough knowledge, you are asking for trouble.” After that, the herb became known as the “Ask-for-Trouble” herb.

Chinese Ephedra sinica is also known as Ma Huang, which means numb and yellow, because it produces extraordinary sensations and is yellow.

Ephedra has long been used for respiratory problems in China. Experiments have shown that people with asthma can take deeper breaths and do more rigorous exercise after taking it. As an asthma remedy, it’s often mixed with licorice, ginseng, and expectorants that also help clear the lungs.

Ephedra was also used as an ingredient in certain diet pills. However, it has been known to cause high blood pressure and heart problems. Consequently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned its use in the United States.

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