Astragalus has a long history in Chinese medicine as a complementary approach to hepatitis, cancer, and other conditions. Today in the western world, it has been rediscovered as a “super herb”, but most of its uses still lack solid clinical evidence.
This plant is a native to the temperate regions in Northern China, Mongolia and Korea. Common names include milkvetch (most species), locoweed (some species in North America) and goat’s thorn. Astragalus is a large genus of around 2000 species belonging to the legume family Fabaceae. Only two of the 2000 species of astragalus, astragalus membranaceus and astragalus mongholicus, are used medicinally.
The dried root is the part used for medicinal purposes, in the form of tea or as an extract. When grown for cultivation, the plants are traditionally harvested after four or five years, with the roots collected in spring or autumn. The roots are dried in the sun and then sliced for distribution. The slices are yellow in colour and have a sweet, moistening taste with a firm, fibrous texture.
Astragalus continues to be widely used in traditional Chinese medicine, often combined with other herbs such as liquorice, ginseng, and angelica, to boost immune function, improve endurance, prevent upper respiratory infections and colds, lower blood pressure, control night sweats, and to treat heart disease and diabetes. Today’s herbalists call it an “adaptogen”, meaning it helps protect the body from physical, mental, or emotional stress.
Scientific evidence for using astragalus for any health condition is limited – few human studies have been conducted. However, some preliminary scientific evidence suggests that astragalus, either alone or in combination with other herbs, may benefit the immune system, heart, and liver, and be useful as treatment for cancer when added to conventional methods. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is sponsoring studies of the effects of astragalus on the body, particularly on the immune system.
Astragalus contains three components that allow the plant to have such a positive impact on human health: saponins, flavonoids and polysaccharides.
Saponins are known for their ability to lower cholesterol, improve the immune system and prevent cancer. Flavonoids provide health benefits through cell signalling. They show antioxidative qualities, control and scavenge of free radicals, and can help prevent heart disease, cancer and immunodeficiency viruses. Polysaccharides are known to have antimicrobial, antiviral and anti-inflammatory capabilities, among other health benefits. Other constituents include amino acids, folic acid, and minerals like selenium, zinc, and copper.
May Boost Your Immune System
Some evidence shows that astragalus may increase your body’s production of white blood cells, which are the cells of your immune system responsible for preventing illness. In one study, 8 grams of Astragalus given orally to 14 healthy volunteers for 2 months significantly stimulated white blood cells.
Preliminary clinical research, astragalus has shown immune-supporting effects by stimulating macrophage and natural killer cell activity and inhibiting T-helper cells.
In animal research, astragalus root has also been shown to help kill bacteria and viruses in mice with infections. Though research is limited, it may also help fight viral infections in humans, including the common cold and infection of the liver.
May Improve Heart Function
The flavonoids present in astragalus are antioxidants that help prevent plaque build-up in arteries and narrowing of vessel walls by protecting the inner wall of the vessel. In addition, astragalus is thought to widen your blood vessels and increase the amount of blood pumped from your heart.
Astragalus injections showed significant improvement in heart function in two studies of 134 patients with congestive heart failure. In another study it also showed reduced symptoms of chest distress and dyspnea (shortness of breath).
Research has been showing how astragalus has the ability to reduce blood pressure and improve lipid profiles. When astragalus mongholicus was given to rats with high lipids, it resulted in a significant decline in the levels of total cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL, and an increase in HDL cholesterol levels in the blood. High levels of triglycerides put individuals at risk for many forms of heart disease, such as stroke, heart attack and hardening of artery walls.
A clinical study was conducted on patients with heart failure. They were given 2.25 grams of astragalus twice daily for two weeks, along with conventional treatment. They experienced greater improvements in heart function compared to those receiving standard treatment alone.
In other studies patients with ischemic heart disease or angina were treated with Astragalus. They experienced significant relief, heart rate improvement and an increase in heart function.
Astragalus has the potential to improve heart function and help with different types of heart disease, but well-designed clinical trials should verify these effects.
Complementary Cancer Treatment
Astragalus may help alleviate the negative side effects of chemotherapy. For example, one clinical study in people undergoing chemotherapy found that astragalus given by IV reduced nausea by 36%, vomiting by 50% and diarrhoea by 59%. Similarly, other studies have demonstrated the same benefits in people having chemotherapy for colon cancer.
Giving 500mg of astragalus by IV three times weekly may also improve the extreme tiredness associated with chemotherapy during the first week of treatment. Astragalus has also shown to significantly improved quality of life and reduced the chemotherapy side effects in patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer.
Some preliminary studies have shown that the addition of Astragalus to chemotherapy could also inhibit the development of tumours. Astragalus saponins suppressed the growth of colon cancer in mice with equal efficiency and fewer side effects, compared with chemotherapy. Astragalus polysaccharide could promote the production and maturation of cancer-fighting immune cells in patients with chronic myelogenous leukaemia.
Well-designed clinical trials are needed to verify the potential of Astragalus to improve cancer treatment.
May Help Control Blood Sugar Levels
Studies show that astragalus has the ability to relieve insulin resistance and treat diabetes naturally. In fact, it is the most frequently prescribed herb to help with diabetes management in China.
The herb’s collection of saponins, flavonoids and polysaccharides all are effective in treating and regulating type 1 and 2 diabetes. They’re able to increase insulin sensitivity, protect pancreatic beta cells (the cells in the pancreas that produce and release insulin) and also act as anti-inflammatories in areas related to diabetes symptoms.
Studies have shown that taking 40–60 grams of astragalus per day has the potential to improve blood sugar levels after fasting and after meals in people with type 2 diabetes when taken daily for up to four months.
Animal and test-tube studies have shown that astragalus could improve sugar metabolism and may even lead to weight loss.
May Improve Kidney Function
Astragalus may support kidney health by improving blood flow and laboratory markers of kidney function, such as measures of protein in the urine. Proteinuria is a condition in which abnormal amounts of protein are found in urine, which is a sign that the kidneys may be damaged or not functioning normally. Astragalus has been shown to improve proteinuria in several studies involving people with kidney disease.
It may also help prevent infections in people with reduced kidney function. For example, 7.5–15 grams of astragalus taken daily for three to six months reduced the risk of infection by 38% in people with a kidney disorder called nephrotic syndrome.
High-dose Astragalus injection could improve kidney function, when taken alone or in conjunction with other medication, in people with lupus nephritis and diabetic nephropathy.
Scientists have also observed the potential of Astragalus to reduce kidney inflammation and protect them against toxic drugs in multiple animal studies.
More studies are needed to demonstrate the effects of kidney function when astragalus is taken orally, as well as when taken in injection form.
Anaemia and Other Blood Disorders
Astragalus root has shown great promise in helping certain types of anaemia and blood disorders when taken alone or with medication. Astragalus injections improved treatment effectiveness and stimulated the production of blood components in patients with chronic aplastic anaemia. It improved haemoglobin and red blood cells in children with beta-thalassemia while causing no major side effects. Researchers have even observed the potential of this herb to protect and stimulate bone marrow cells in anaemic mice.
Astragalus has shown potential in many other ailments such as asthma, would healing, dermatitis, to name a few; but clinical trials are needed to substantiate these benefits.
For most people, astragalus is well tolerated. However, minor side effects have been reported in studies, such as a rash, itching, runny nose, nausea and diarrhoea. When given by IV, astragalus may have more serious side effects, such as irregular heartbeat. It should only be administered by IV or injection under medical supervision.
Therefore, the following people should avoid it:
Pregnant and breastfeeding women: There’s currently not enough research to demonstrate that astragalus is safe while pregnant or breastfeeding.
Individuals with autoimmune diseases: Astragalus may increase the activity of your immune system. Consider avoiding astragalus if you have an autoimmune disease, such as multiple sclerosis, lupus or rheumatoid arthritis.
Individuals taking immunosuppressant drugs: Since astragalus may increase the activity of your immune system, it may decrease the effects of immunosuppressant drugs.
Astragalus is currently used as an addition to conventional treatments and should not be used as a replacement for medications unless suggested by a doctor. As it may have effects on blood sugar levels and blood pressure, use this herb with caution if you have diabetes or issues with your blood pressure.
Always consult your doctor before supplementing and let him know about all drugs and supplements you are using or considering.
Recipes for Health
Astragalus is available at most Chinese markets or health food stores in these forms:
· Tincture (liquid alcohol extract)
· Capsules and tablets
· Topically for the skin
· Dried root or powders used in tea
Though there’s no official consensus on the most effective form or dosage of astragalus, most recommend taking 9–15 grams per day of the crude herb per day in decoction form. A decoction is made by boiling the root in water for a few minutes and then brewing the tea. For most health conditions, astragalus was injected under strict medical supervision and taking it by mouth may not have the same effects. Speak with your doctor before supplementing.
General oral doses:
· Astragalus root: About 1-4 grams of freshly dried root.
· Powdered root capsules: 250-500 milligrams, two capsules 3x a day.
· Tincture: 3-6 ml (½ – 1 tsp), 3x a day.
According to preliminary research, Astragalus may yield even better results with the following plants:
· Goji berries
· Elderberry fruit
· Chinese ginseng
· Red sage
· Female ginseng (Angelica sinensis)
Well-designed clinical trials haven’t approved the safety and efficacy of these combinations.
· 8 cups (237 ml) water
· 1 tablespoon (15 ml) olive oil
· 1 onion, diced
· 1 bulb garlic (at least 10 cloves), minced
· One 1 1⁄2 inch (3 1⁄2 cm) piece of fresh gingerroot grated
· 1 1⁄2 cups salted vegetable soup stock
· 5 pieces sliced dried astragalus root
· 2 cups fresh, sliced shiitake mushrooms
· 1 large reishi mushroom
· Cayenne powder, if desired.
1. Bring water to boil in large pot.
2. Heat olive oil, sauté garlic, onions, and ginger until soft and aromatic.
3. Add contents of skillet to water.
4. Add broth, shiitake, astragalus, and reishi.
5. Simmer covered for two hours.
6. Remove from heat, allow to sit for two more hours.
7. Remove astragalus and reishi mushrooms.
9. Add salt and pepper to taste, and cayenne powder if desired.
To Sum Up…
Astragalus root is an adaptogen used in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a remedy for a large number of conditions. It’s a herb belonging to the pea family and native to China, Mongolia and North Korea. The root contains many active plant compounds, which are responsible for its amazing benefits.
Astragalus has shown to boost the immune system, improve heart and kidney function, control blood sugar levels, and help produce more blood cells. It even has a part to play in cancer treatment, either to reduce chemotherapy side effects, or slow down the growth of tumours. It has the potential for many more uses so we haven’t heard the last of this fantastic herb.
Nonetheless, more research is needed to determine the effectiveness of astragalus for preventing and treating these conditions. Much of the research out there is still very limited, but it has shown uses in treating the common cold, seasonal allergies, chronic fatigue and more.
Astragalus is generally safe, but it’s best to always consult with your physician and be aware of possible interactions and side effects when taken in conjunction with other medications.