Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Astragalus: A Supreme Protector

Astragalus Health Benefits
Radix Astragali

Other common names: milk vetch, huang qi 

Botanical name: Astragalus membranaceus

Family: Fabaceae (pea)

Parts used: root

Properties: sweet taste, warming and moist, immunomodulator, antioxidant, hepatoprotective, cardioprotective, adaptogen, diuretic

Used for: immune system dysfunction (from frequent colds and flu, to HIV, to cancer), angina, hypertension, hepatitis, fatigue, asthma, prolapsed organs, weak limbs, hepatitis, anemia

Plant preparations: decoctions, cooked with food, powdered, capsules, tincture

Astragalus root is an amazing root that helps to support immune system function, 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. 

Astragalus Medicinal Uses in Chinese Medicine
Since this herb comes to us from China let’s begin by exploring astragalus health benefits in the Traditional Chinese Medicine tradition. 

Astragalus root 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). 

It 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 understanding. 

When organ systems are mentioned in TCM it doesn’t exactly correlate to our own 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. 

The 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? 

After 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. 

Astragalus 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. Lungs house what is called the Wei Qi (pronounced “way”), 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 is 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

Fresh astragalus harvested from my garden

Using Astragalus in TCM
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 at time). 

Astragalus 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 Tang. 

Astragalus 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. 

I 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

Astragalus Health Benefits in Western Herbalism
As I mentioned before, astragalus root has firmly made its way into western herbalism. The 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

Astragalus Health Benefits for Immune System and Cancer
Astragalus root 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. 

The 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 system1

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 Research1a

Benefits of Astragalus as an Adaptogen
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,2 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. 

I also frequently use this root for people with seasonal allergies. As an immunomodulator it helps to straighten up the immune system, lessening the frequency and severity of allergies. 

Astragalus Health Benefits for Longevity
Astragalus 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 benefits for the Heart...
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 function3,4.  

Astragalus benefits for the Liver
Astragalus root has been scientifically shown to decrease the replication of the hepatitis B virus5. It has also been shown to prevent damage to the kidneys and liver that has been caused by either medications or virus infections. 

Astragalus benefits for the Blood and Kidneys... 
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. 
It has been used to treat nephritis caused by complications from Lupus, especially when used in conjunction with pharmaceutical drugs6.

It is also used to build blood and can be considered for those with anemia, especially anemia related to poor digestion. 

Astragalus Benefits for Healing Topical Infections
Astragalus herb can be taken internally and applied as a poultice to address infections from wounds.  

Botanically Speaking
Astragalus is a perennial member of the pea family. 

It 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 above photo 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 continue buying it from Mountain Rose Herbs. 

Using Astragalus
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. 

While 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. 

In 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, 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 root has specific and powerful applications for cancer and immune system support, however because it also contains so many protective properties (heart, liver, kidneys) it is a wonderful herb to consider for preventive care. Cook it into your food, enjoy chai tea made with astragalus, 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! 

Astragalus Side Effects
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. 

  1. Astragalus injection supplemented with chemotherapy could inhibit the development of tumor, decrease the toxic-adverse effect of chemotherapy, elevate the immune function of organism and improve the quality of life in patients. http://www.greenmedinfo.com/article/astragalus-may-provide-ideal-complementary-treatment-chemotherapy

    1a. PDF from Thorne Research
  2. Astragalus contains compounds which slow cell aging through reduced telomere shortening rate, oxidative stress and increasing DNA repair ability.
  3. http://www.greenmedinfo.com/article/astragalus-has-significant-effect-improving-heart-function-patients-congestive-heart-failure
  4. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0FDN/is_1_8/ai_98540126/pg_3/?tag=content;col1
  5. Astragalus may promote recovery from viral hepatitis and inhibit hepatitis B virus replication. 
  6. Astragalus amplifies the therapeutic effects of cyclophosphamide in the treatmeant of Lupus Nephritis.

This article was originally written for HerbMentor.com. If you like the article, you'll love the community and education at HerbMentor.com


Michael Blackmore said...

I definitely appreciate astragulus but I think the immune support aspects (like with all herbs) can be taken the wrong way. I had a consultation with someone who just wanted astragulus because they got sick a lot. But their real underlying issue was poor nutrition but they wanted the quick fix rather than the lifestyle change they really needed. Not that it isn't useful, but sometimes herbalists can get really excited in ways that can play into herbs as fix up pills instead of part of the real healing necessary.

But I babble...

Alaska Native said...

Excellent and thorough post, complete with caveats and citations. I learned more about astragalus today, especially from a TCM perspective. Didn't realize that a tincture form may not provide an effective dose, at least without consuming a bit more alcohol than desired, perhaps. I will try using the powdered form in morning porridge and bread recipes now. Thank you!

We will succeed said...

Good afternoon. Is there a way to use Astragalus powder other than adding it to soups (Which I have begun doing)? I bought it from MRH before really knowing I'd prefer the root so that I can make tisanes and tinctures... I'd like to use what I have before buying more (in root form).

Rosalee de la Forêt said...

You can add the powder to all sorts of things, smoothies, yogurt, applesauce, etc. You can even mix it with nut butters like this recipe: http://www.herbmentor.com/20091204_2/

We will succeed said...

Thank you.

*Goddess* said...

Rosalee, how many milligrams (capsule)should a person take when starting astragalus?

Rosalee de la Forêt said...

I generally recommend this in large dosages, starting around 10 grams.

*Goddess* said...

Thanks, Rosalee!

Shaena Mallett said...

This is so informative and helpful. Thank you!!


Fafa Potgieter said...

Making the tea with the root, how much root to how much water should I being using and how much of the tea do I drink per day? Thank you !

raya said...

I recently purchased astralagus powder in bulk from a reputable herb source and it is very green unlike the photos shown on your site. I do not know which part of the plant was used to prepare this powder. Can you comment on this please? Thanks.

Rosalee de la Forêt said...

Hi Fafa,
The dose for Astragalus is anywhere between 10-100 grams. I tend to use more around 20-30 grams. The amount of water you use doesn't matter. The dose is in the herb. You basically want enough water that you have something to simmer in for awhile but not so much water that you are having to drink a gallon a day.

Rosalee de la Forêt said...

Hi Raya,

Astragalus root should definitely not be green. I would contact the supplier to find out what is going on.

Nurturing Life said...

I used the Astragalus Root in the following recipe for making an Elderberry Syrup:
3 oz dried elderberries
1/4 oz astragalus root
1/8 oz ginger root
1/8 oz cinnamon chips
4 cups water
Bring to a boil.
Reduce heat, Cover pot and simmer for 2-4 hours. (I did 4 hours)
If it reduces to less than 2 cups, add more water.
After Simmering- Keep lid on, allow to cool for 30 minutes or so.
Strain and squeeze through a cheesecloth thoroughly.
Add 1 cup of honey to the syrup (I used buckwheat honey)
Bottle and Refrigerate

This is a recipe given to me by another herbalist. My purpose for using it is for an immune booster throughout the cold and flu season, on and off for a few days at a time. Or also at the first sign of a cold, begin using it a few times per day, 1-2 tablespoons until the cold or flu is gone.

What is your opinion of this recipe and our purpose for using it?

Our family is generally healthy, eats well, gets regular exercise, and my husband and I recently quit smoking for the last time! Our daughter is 6 and also is a wonderful eater. Our daughter is struggling with Candida, although we have made huge progress recently though diet, probiotics, and natural bath and beauty practices. Other than that, there are no other on going health issues in the family.

Thank you for your opinion!

Rosalee de la Forêt said...

Looks like a nice recipe to me. As far as the astragalus goes that is a very small amount. I generally use more than 1/4 ounce for a single dose during the day.

Unknown said...

Do you have any ideas for making a healing salve with astragalus? In Chinese medicine school, we learned that huang qi is an excellent topical for flesh regeneration (i.e. scrapes, burned or chapped skin), but that unfortunately the active properties are not soluble in oil. That means that poultices or soaks can be used, but there isn't an easy way to incorporate it effectively into an easier to apply salve or balm. Anyone happen to have any ideas? Could a tincture somehow be added to a salve preparation?

Rosalee de la Forêt said...

Tinctures can be added to salves. They can also be added as the water portion of creams. I've never done that using astragalus, but it can certainly be done. If you try it let me know how it goes.

Nicole Larson said...

Rosalee, I so appreciate the time you take to write these blogs and share your knowledge. I often look to your articles and research when I am wanting to learn more about certain herbs and body functions. I love how you incorporate the best of all medicines and clearly express it in a way that is easy to understand and utilize in every day life. This is one of the best monographs on Astragulus that I have seen, thank you.

Rosalee de la Forêt said...

You made my day Nicole, thank you!

Rosalee de la Forêt said...

I've been thinking about Astragalus being used for wounds and from a chemical constituent perspective that makes a lot of sense. Astragalus is high in polysaccharides which have been shown to increase cell proliferation.

Polysaccharides are best extracted with water and not alcohol or oil. That's not to say an oil or alcohol extract of astragalus wouldn't work (herbs don't read books as Henriette Kress says), but that would be the strictly constituent perspective on it from a polysaccharide point of view.

mika said...


Thanks for that further info! You are wonderful!

Regarding your thoughts, that goes in line with what my teacher explained as well. So...how can we get the polysaccharides into something that is easy to apply? Perhaps only a spray would work?

Rosalee de la Forêt said...

I'm not sure. Medicinal extracts are not really my specialty. It is hard to make water based preparations convenient.

Comfrey is another powerful vulnerary herb high in polysaccharides. My favorite way to use that is as a poultice.

Newbie said...

I am very new to the herbal world. I was wondering is there a book of comprehensive information on herbs and they're uses? Conventional medicine has really failed my family in the past year, but after trying some of the natural remedies we have seen awesome improvements. I loved your post and figured I would ask. Thanks.

Rosalee de la Forêt said...

There are so many different herb books on so many different topics that it's hard to choose even a handful for you. I do have a listing of all of my favorite herbal books along with short descriptions here: http://www.methowvalleyherbs.com/p/books-for-herbalists.html

hope that helps!

Newbie said...

Thank you.