Two Controversial Herbs: Ephedra & Kava

…And the Truth About Them Both.

1. Ephedra

Chinese Ephedra, Ephedra sinica (Ma Huang) has been used in China since at least around 1,000 BC. That is when it was first mentioned in the foundational text The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica (Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing). It is considered essentially non-toxic in the recommended dosages. The root portion and the aerial (twigs and stems) portion have separate uses with well established clear-cut indications for proper application to health issues.

Indications for use of the aerial portion of Ephedra:


1. To promote diaphoresis (perspiration to relieve cold/flu);
2. To pacify asthma (opens up breathing passages);
3. To benefit urination (in cases of edema).
– Ephedra aerial acts mostly through the lung channels.

NOTE: The root portion of Ephedra sinica is strongly astringent and is always contra-indicated in asthma or similar conditions. Never use without assistance from a trained herbalist or TCM professional.

Chinese Ephedra was never used as a stimulant for boosting energy or for inducing weight loss — until Americans got a hold of it.

The problems occured when this herb (Chinese form, Ephedra sinica) was inappropriately used as a stimulant for quick and easy weight loss in those not suffering from the above conditions; in supplements of poor formulation in which the Chinese Ephedra/Ma Huang was improperly combined with other stimulants like straight caffeine, and/or caffeine containing herbs like guarana or kola nut. Abused as a stimulant it can induce episodes of high blood pressure or worse. It is inappropriate to use it as an athletic stimulant because it can induce excessive sweating, bringing on dehydration and loss of elecrolytes.

Legal Status of Ephedra in the U.S.

Its amazing the poor understanding that exists out there on this herb, especially in retail establishments. Don’t rely on employees at these outlets to give you accurate information even about the legal status of herbs and supplements.

A few months back I called up a local New Seasons grocery and talked to someone in their supplements department about special ordering some Brigham Tea (Ephedra nevadensis). After some hemming and hawing, she took my name and said she’d look into it and get back to me. Later she left a message on my answering machine saying they could not get it because all Ephedra products had been taken off the market and were no longer legal to obtain in the US. Not so.

The FDA has never removed American ephedra from the market as it does not contain ephedra/ephedrine alkaloids. The FDA prohibition has only applied to herbs and/or supplements containing ephedrine alkaloids. American species in the ephedra family DO NOT contain ephedrine alkaloids. Therefore the product ‘Brigham Tea’ marketed by Nature’s Way (and others) is 100% legal.

However, because of the controversy and poor communication of its legal status even by the FDA, sales of Brigham Tea (American ephedra) products have slowed to the point that many companies no longer bother to encapsulate or otherwise produce and market this useful herb. Brigham Tea is used in the same fashion as the Chinese ephedra is traditionally indicated, but is only about half the strength and again – contains no ephedrine alkaloids. As you can see here in this screen shot Nature’s Way still includes Brigham Tea in its ‘non-stimulating’ HAS formula to clear sinus congestion.
NW HAS formula

The supplements containing ephedrine alkaloids targeted by the FDA were those claiming weight loss effects and often contained other stimulants targeting those desiring quick and easy weight loss. One such stimulant supplement was VITERA-XT of which over 2 million capsules were seized in Texas in November 2004.

Unscrupulous Supplement Manufacturers

The other ingredient I can find listed for VITERA-XT is something called Aimisu, a “grass” not listed in any TCM materia medica I can find. The Asia MedLab (manufacturer of VITERA-XT) website is now non-functional and nowhere do they take responsibility for their previous product. Not everything marketed as Asian or Chinese medicine products is legitimate. Buy your supplements from a reputable professional who has their practice at stake if something goes wrong.

Article ‘Ma Huang Herb Misused and Abused’: http://www.pacificcollege.edu/acupuncture-massage-news/articles/586-ma-huang-herb-misused-and-abused.html

2. Kava

Traditional Fijian yaqona bundle of Kava roots

Traditional Fijian yaqona bundle of Kava roots

Piper methysticum – This member of the pepper genus (Piper) is another traditional herb used for around 3,000 years in the South Pacific with source fields ranging from Northern Australia to Hawaii. The root is the portion used and it has significant sedative properties, even acting as an anesthetic if taken strong enough. Holding a small amount of Kava root on the tongue will produce a slight numbing effect within seconds. In normal doses it is relaxing, stabilizing and pain relieving without compromising normal brain function.

I have used Kava with very satisfactory results. In 1996 I was experiencing great nervous stress during a time in which I had a strong love interest in someone and was unsure about her ultimate response to me. I knew nothing about Kava and had a dream one night advising me to use it. When I awoke and looked it up in an herb book the benefits fit what I needed at that time. At first I took a bit too much (two capsules at a time instead of just one) and felt some uncomfortable tingling about my limbs. I dropped back to one capsule 2-3 times a day with no further problems only benefits. It helped me calm down and think clearly again.

Indications for Use of Kava Root:

The portion used is the root only. A study at the University of Hawaii found liver-toxins in the leaves and stems of the kava plant that weren’t in the roots. The traditional use of Kava has involved only the root.

Kava is a warming sedative placed in the Antirheumatic category by Michael Tierra, ND in his book Planetary Herbology. It has analgesic, antispasmodic, sedative, tonic, diuretic and antiseptic properties.

1. Relieves pain of rheumatic complaints (and back pain);
2. Alleviates insomnia and nervousness.
– Kava root works primarily through the liver and kidney channels. Analgesic anti-rheumatics generally have both circulatory and sedative/nervine properties.

CONTRAINDICATIONS FOR KAVA USE: Do not take Kava if you have mitral valve prolapse (MVP). If you do have this condition and you want to use Kava, take it with either Ginkgo Biloba & Hawthorn berry OR Cocao/chocolate.

NOTE: DO NOT consume alcoholic beverages while taking Kava. If you use alcoholic beverages regularly, do not begin using Kava. They are incompatible. All sedative nervines that are warming in nature (such as Valerian) are incompatible with alcohol which is warming/heating/dehydrating in nature. Alcohol greatly potentiates the effects of warming sedatives. If you desire an herbal nervine/sedative while still consuming alcohol, consider the cooling nervines: Hops, Wood Betony, Passion Flower, Scullcap, California Poppy.

Legal Status of Kava

Legal status of Kava varies around the world due to varying reactions to a number of different reports about studies some of which upon retrospection were found to be very flawed, causing reversals in some public policies regarding Kava.
· http://www.konakavafarm.com/blog/kava-news/kava-worldwide-legal-status/

Kava is still legal in the U.S. as of July 2014.

Safety of Kava and Adverse Reports

“Kava has a long history of safe use in the Pacific Islands and cases of hepatotoxicity have not been noted… Clearly this is more an issue of politics than public health… There are many drugs, even over-the-counter drugs, which are hepatotoxic and yet they are still readily available… I have been prescribing kava for over 10 years and never witnessed one case of hepatotoxicity.”
— Kerry Bone
· page 3: http://www.mediherb.com.au/kava.pdf

At least 13 clinical studies including over 600 participants have shown kava’s health benefits for a range of conditions (including anxiety, mental function, reaction time, sleep quality, and peri-menopausal symptoms). At least two meta-analyses of three of the trials show that kava is safe and more effective than placebo in treating symptoms of anxiety.
· http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/issue55/article2147.html?ts=1404602943&signature=dcad01d05837591eff62277c1fce03d7

In Switzerland a trademarked very concentrated Kava product called Laitan® that was extracted using the solvent acetone (a toxic CNS depressant) was banned after it was found to be used by all four Swiss persons who experienced hepatotoxicity illness after Kava use. This product was manufactured by a leading German phytomedicine company, W. Schwabe.
· page 2: http://www.mediherb.com.au/kava.pdf

A review of the reports of hepatotoxic illness by American toxicologist/pharmacologist Prof. Donald Waller (University of Illinois at Chicago) found “no clear evidence that the liver damage reported in the U.S. and Europe was caused by the consumption of kava…”

Of 34 cases of adverse reports (including duplicate reports), 18 appear to be associated with the concomitant use of prescription medications, some of which are known or suspected to be hepatotoxic. Some Kava users took more than the recommended dosage. One person exceeded the recommended dosage by 400%.

One adverse report was from an 81-year-old woman with a history of alcoholism who also had been taking Kava for the last nine months of her life. A biopsy found cirrhotic scars that started years before. Most if not all the cases involved relatively high doses of Kava taken for months on end.

This is not a healthy way to use any plant medicine. Relying on a single herb like this for so long is getting into dependency. Change it up now and then. There are other plant medicines that can have equal or greater benefits. Talk to an actual herbalist or ND and take time to get thoughtful input into your herbal choices.

Kava Links:
· http://www.pharmacologyweekly.com/articles/kava-piper-methysticum-safe-effective-anxiety-GAD
· http://www.itmonline.org/arts/kavasafe.htm
· http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/issue55/article2147.html?ts=1404602943&signature=dcad01d05837591eff62277c1fce03d7
· http://www.kava.com/?p=560

So What Have We Learned?

1. When traditional wisdom is ignored (what are appropriate reasons to use the plant, what part of the plant is to be used and how much) we can expect problems.

2. It is important to know the contraindications to use of any herb, just as with a drug, and to not take any substance which would potentiate the effects undesirably.

3. Even regulatory authorities can jump to conclusions and further muddy the waters of the reality of an herb or plant medicine by reacting to the severity of those reporting adverse reactions rather than sifting out any real culprits systematically and rationally.

4. The press and retailers cannot be relied upon to even know the basic facts relating to a plant medicine or associated products, its legal status, its history, where it came from, what part should be used, how it should be harvested, stored, etc.

5. When a plant or herb is abused or naively misused it is humans who are at fault, not the plant. Ban the plant and the humans learn nothing and move on to abusing or misusing other plants.

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