MR Lee
Journal Issue: 
Volume 41: Issue 1: 2011


Ephedra is a Chinese shrub which has been used in China for medicinal purposes for several thousand years. The pure alkaloid ephedrine was first isolated and characterised by Nagai in 1885. It was then forgotten until it was rediscovered by Chen and Schmidt in the early 1920s. Its actions on the adrenoceptors could be classified into separate alpha and beta effects – a defining moment in the history of autonomic pharmacology. Ephedrine became a highly popular and effective treatment for asthma, particularly because, unlike adrenaline (until then the standard therapy), it can be given by mouth. Ephedrine as a treatment for asthma reached its zenith in the late 1950s, since when there has been a gradual and inevitable decline in its therapeutic use. From mainstream medicine, ephedrine moved into the twilight zone of street drugs and nutritional supplements. Ephedra and ephedrine products are now banned in many countries, as they are a major source for the production of the addictive compound methamphetamine (crystal meth).