Herbs are a part of the plant world that have been harvested by many cultures for thousands of years. Herbal products, usually the leaves, roots, and fruit that possessed specific reviving and recuperative qualities, were processed into useful medicines and dietary supplements. The plant known as Mormon tea is one of the best known of the herbal medicines to be created by the North American native cultures and the later arriving settlers and frontiers people of the American West.
Mormon tea is a part of the family of plants known by their botanical name, ephedra. A green bush that grows in thin, spiky branches, ephedra grows in a number of variants across Europe, central Asia, and in pockets of both North and South America. Mormon tea is closely related in its structure and its chemical composition to ephedra, also known as ma huang, one of the important herbs used in the traditional Chinese medicines in use for many centuries. In every place in the world where an ephedra species has grown, an indigenous culture discovered its medicinal properties and employed them in a variety of ways.
Mormon tea exists in a number of species and it grows in reasonable abundance in the semiarid plains of the part of the North American continent that includes the states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. It acquired the name Mormon tea because the beverage that was made from the steeping of the dried stems of the ephedra plant in boiling water was deemed not to violate the rules of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormon), whose people began to settle in what is now Utah in the mid-nineteenth century; Mormon people were forbidden from consuming caffeine. In other parts of the American West, the beverages brewed from the ephedra plant were known by equally colorful names: desert tea, squaw tea, and whorehouse tea.
The irony of the name Mormon tea is found in the chemistry of the plant and the corresponding attributes of the tea made from its leaves, which possesses stimulant properties that exceed those of caffeine. The active ingredient that made Mormon tea prized by the native cultures that came before the Mormon settlers is ephedrine and its close chemical cousin, pseudo-ephedrine. These chemicals are present in varying amounts in Mormon tea, depending on the variety of the plant. Both ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine are stimulants that have pronounced effects on the central nervous system.
Ephedrine is proven to influence aspects of human function such as: increasing heart rate and blood pressure; functioning as a bronchodilator, a substance that tends to provide relief from breathing problems such as asthma through action on the bronchial passages; heightening and stimulating powers of concentration; assisting in combating fatigue.
Ephedrine and the herbal products that contain it were not well known outside of the holistic medicine community until the 1970s. Two developments cast greater public interest on the uses of ephedra products. Athletes began to consume supplements that contained ephedra in greater numbers to take advantage of the stimulant qualities of ephedrine. It was determined that significant competitive advantage was derived from ephedra consumption, and any ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine products were banned in both Olympic as well as most international athletic events. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) bans both substances if they are present in amounts greater than 10 mcg per milliliter in the urine or the blood of an athlete when tested.
In sports leagues that have not yet placed themselves under the authority of all aspects of the WADA Anti-Doping Code, synthetic forms of ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine, often in the form of a decongest-ant, are often consumed immediately prior to competition by athletes seeking its stimulant qualities. National Hockey League (NHL) players have attracted widespread attention to this practice in the years following 2000.
The second aspect to the rise in the notoriety of all ephedra products was the composition of dietary supplements, especially those promoted by the weight loss industry. As with all stimulants, the increase in heart rate and blood pressure tends to act as an appetite suppressant. After significant controversy, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of all ephedra ingredients in U.S.-manufactured supplements in 2004. The FDA concluded that ephedrine had a significant role in increasing the risk of heart attack in the users of ephedra products.
For athletes who use supplements with natural ingredients, the risk of inadvertently ingesting ephedrine or pseudo-ephedrine remains significant. Ephedra plant products continue to be mixed into supplements that are manufactured outside of the United States. The testing and third-party scientific analysis of natural diet and nutritional supplements are not usually as rigorous as that conducted in the pharmaceutical industry.