Astragalus is an amazing root that helps to support immune system function and protect the liver and heart. This article will explore astragalus health benefits in both the Chinese and Western Herbalism perspectives.
Astragalus root originally comes to us from China but it has quickly integrated itself into western herbalism. In a recent poll of practicing herbalists it placed as 16th in the top 50 herbs commonly used by western herbalists.
It’s important to note that the plant we use for medicine is a specific genus and species. There are over 2,000 different species in the Astragalus genus. Some of these plants are toxic and none are known to have the same qualities as Astragalus membranaceus, although a few are used medicinally.
this herb comes to us from China let’s begin by exploring astragalus
health benefits in the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) tradition.
is considered to be a sweet tonic herb that is slightly warming. It has
an ascending energy (which is important; we’ll get to that later).
is specifically a Spleen Qi Tonic and a Lung Qi Tonic. Therefore, it is
used when there is Spleen Qi Deficiency and Lung Qi Deficiency. I
realize that if you are a western herbalist you might be scratching your
head at this point! Let’s try to break this down for better
organ systems are mentioned in TCM they don’t exactly correlate to our
western organ systems. So the Liver in TCM isn’t exactly the liver of our
western anatomical or physiological understanding. Generally, the organs
are capitalized when referring to the TCM organ. The Spleen in TCM is
more closely related to our understanding of the pancreas in that it is
strongly tied to digestive function.
Spleen is responsible for transforming food and drink into Qi (energy)
and Blood. If someone is lacking Qi or energy, we look for dysfunction
of the Spleen first and foremost. This way of thinking is directly
related to western herbalism in that we almost always address digestion
first. If a person isn’t assimilating food correctly, how can they
achieve good health?
the Spleen transforms food and drink into Qi, the Qi ascends to the
Lungs where it is combined with the Lung Qi and transformed into the
Zhen Qi, or energy that supports our entire body.
When the Spleen is lacking Qi the person may experience fatigue and sluggishness, loose stools or diarrhea, poor appetite, phlegm and dampness, weak arms and legs and prolapsed organs (such as hemorrhoids).
Astragalus root is a Spleen Qi tonic. It brings energy, increases appetite and improves digestion and can lift prolapsed organs.
is also a Lung Qi tonic. The Lungs in TCM are more closely related to
our western understanding of the lungs, although there are some
differences. The Lungs take in air and create Qi. The Lungs house what is
called the Wei Qi (pronounced “way-chi”), sometimes referred to as the
defensive Qi. The Wei Qi is like a force field for our body, protecting
us from invading pathogens (bacteria, virus, etc). When the Lungs or the
Wei Qi are weak we are more prone to illness, may have dull skin, and
difficulty with breathing.
As a Lung Qi tonic, astragalus root is useful for those who are frequently coming down with colds and the flu, have difficulty breathing (such as asthma) or those who sweat too much or not enough.
In Chinese medical terms, astragalus builds up the protective chi. Imagine that there is a protective shield around your body, just below the surface of the skin, that keep out cold and other external influences. It vitalizes the non-specific immune defenses and wards off infections. This is the protective chi, and astragalus is the premier herb in Chinese herbalism to strengthen it. -Paul Bergner
Typically, astragalus root
is used as a decoction of the root or it is cooked into food like stew
or rice (the root will need to be removed before eating). Most of my TCM
texts recommend simmering it for a minimum of a half hour to a full
hour. This is a mild, food-like herb that can be taken in larger
quantities with recommendations anywhere from 10 - 30 grams (1/3 of an
ounce to 1 ounce).
Herbs are almost always formulated in TCM and rarely used as simples (simples = using just one herb at a time).
root is a part of many formulas and is often paired with Ligusticum and
Ginseng. One classic formula that includes astragalus is Bu Zhong Yi Qi
has similar Qi-strengthening properties to ginseng but is less heating
and stimulating. It is often said that those younger in years will
benefit most from astragalus while those more seasoned with years may
find ginseng more beneficial.
Astragalus for colds?
You’ll often hear that it is best to take astragalus to prevent colds and the flu but it should be avoided during acute illness. While I would say that is generally true, it is much more complicated. If someone is sick and with a lot of deficiency symptoms, astragalus might be used to strengthen the person’s reserves to boost them towards wellness.
frequently combine astragalus with reishi mushroom to improve immunity
and instruct patients who easily get sick to drink a daily dose of the
two throughout fall and winter. Similarly, it may be included in soups
or cooked with grains and eaten on a weekly basis to help the whole
family get through the winter without a single cold (people are always
impressed with how well they feel and avoid colds and flu.)
-Lesley Tierra, Healing with the Herbs of Life
As I mentioned before, astragalus has firmly made its way into western herbalism. Astragalus root can be bought
as an import from China, can be grown in your garden or can be purchased
from herb farmers growing it in North America.
Astragalus root, as well as specific constituents of astragalus, have been studied extensively here in the west and in China for applications against cancer, heart disease, blood sugar imbalances and even longevity.
has been studied extensively for its effect on the immune system. It
has been shown to reduce the occurrence of common respiratory illnesses,
inhibit tumor growth and bolster immune system activity in general.
studies of its use in cancer patients is astounding. It is frequently
being used alongside chemotherapy to alleviate the side effects of the
chemotherapy treatments. It has also been shown to inhibit the growth of
tumors and bolster the immune system.
Research shows Astragalus root stimulates the immune system in many ways. It increases the number of stem cells in bone marrow and lymph tissue and encourages their development into active immune cells. It appears to help trigger immune cells from a “resting” state into heightened activity. One study showed Astragalus root helps promote and maintain respiratory health. It also enhances the body’s production of immunoglobulin and stimulates macrophages. Astragalus can help activate T-cells and natural killer (NK) cells. -Thorne Research
Astragalus root is considered an adaptogen. It helps to build and restore general health to the body. It is used for those with adrenal fatigue, which may manifest as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.
I often use it for people who are completely run down. If they are getting frequent colds and flus, that is a sure sign this herb will be of benefit! I often combine it with ashwaganda root.
seems to prolong the life of cancer patients by supporting the immune
system and inhibiting cancer growth. Scientific studies have also shown
that specific constituents within astragalus are highly anti-oxidant,
which slows the rate of aging.
A telomere is a structure found at the end of a chromosome and is a region of repetitive DNA. Its job is to prevent deterioration of the chromosome. Shortened telomeres are associated with poor health and aging. Astragalus has also shown that it can slow telomere shortening, giving us further clues as to how to promotes longevity.
Astragalus herb has been studied extensively for its effects on improving heart function, even in patients with extreme cases such as congestive heart failure. It can also inhibit the formation of lipid peroxides and decrease blood coagulation. Another study shows that it can strengthen left ventricular function.
Astragalus root has been scientifically shown to decrease the replication of the hepatitis B virus. It has also been shown to prevent damage to the kidneys and liver that has been caused by either medications or viral infections.
Astragalus is also a blood tonic. It helps to regulate fluid metabolism, and those who consume it regularly are said to rarely suffer from fluid retention and bloating. -Ron Teeguarden, Chinese Tonic Herbs
Astragalus regulates fluid metabolism. We see this not only in its diuretic properties but also in its ability to stop profuse sweating. It is also used for night sweats and for edema.
has been used to treat nephritis caused by complications from Lupus,
especially when used in conjunction with pharmaceutical drugs.
It is also used to build blood and can be considered for those with anemia, especially anemia related to poor digestion.
Astragalus herb can be taken internally and applied as a poultice to address infections from wounds.
Astragalus grows from 3 to 5 feet in height with sprawling stems. It likes to grow in sandy soils that drain well. The flowers appear in racemes of yellowish whitish pea flowers.
The roots can be dug in the spring or fall after four years of growth. The taproots grow 3 - 4 feet into the ground. One healthy plants yields about 3/4 of a pound of root.
I've been growing astragalus in my garden for the past couple of years. The photo below is from my first harvest. The fresh root was barely fibrous and quite sweet! After chopping and drying the root it was barely enough for one decoction! So, I either need to grow an entire row of astragalus every year (we go through about five pounds a year), or buy astragalus from Mountain Rose Herbs.
Think of astragalus
as an herb that slowly builds the system. Don’t expect immediate
results. Because it is a food-like herb it is recommended to take it
daily, in large amounts for an extended period of time.
astragalus is traditionally used as a decoction or cooked with foods,
western herbalists have started tincturing the root as well. Herbalist
David Winston recommends 40-80 drops of a 1:5 astragalus extract three times per day.
the past, high quality astragalus was believed to be the large flat
tongue depressor looking roots, the more yellow in color the better.
I’ve since learned from Roy Upton that these roots are often manipulated
with yellow dyes.
I like to buy the sliced roots for my soups (since they are easy to remove) or the cut and sifted roots for use in tea blends.
When I recommend astragalus herb to people I use the standard dosages as put forth by TCM (10-30 grams, sometimes even up to 100 grams). It is difficult to get this dose using a tincture or capsules.
Remember, when using the root in food (soups, rice, quinoa, etc) you will always have to remove the root since it is too fibrous to eat.
During the winter months, my husband and I often drink chai blends and I add 60 grams of astragalus root to each batch (30 for each of us.) Here's one of my favorite chai recipes.
Astragalus herb interacts with recombinant interleukin 2 and recombinant alpha interferon 1 and 2. It is speculated that astragalus would interfere with those on immunosuppressive drugs.
As per TCM astragalus is avoided when there are heat signs or yin deficiency signs.
Astragalus root has specific and powerful applications for cancer and immune system support. However, because it also contains so many protective properties (for heart, liver, kidneys) it is a wonderful herb to consider for preventive care. Cook it into your food, enjoy chai tea made with it, eat the powder with honey and ghee... so many ways to enjoy this root. I'd love to hear your favorite astragalus recipes in the comments!
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