Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) is a perennial plant, native to Asia, that belongs to an elite class of herbs known as adaptogens, which are capable of shielding the body against the damaging hormonal responses to stress by supporting adrenal function, among other things.
The root of the astragalus plant has been utilized in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years. Astragalus contains antioxidants and exhibits anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. These attributes contribute to the herb’s effectiveness when used to protect the liver, prevent colds, battle respiratory infections, and bolster the immune system. It’s also been used to treat numerous other conditions including allergies, fibromyalgia, anemia, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), kidney disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Modern scientific investigation has probed this herb and tested its efficacy for treating various diseases and health conditions. The key active compound in astragalus is astragaloside IV. Despite the fact that it’s only present in the root in small amounts and that it has low bioavailabilty, indicating that it is not absorbed well by the body, low concentrations of astragaloside IV have still been shown to have clinical significance in numerous studies.
Reset contacted Paul Rimmer, an herbalist based in the United Kingdom, to find out more about this impressive herb and its uses. Rimmer is currently training with the International Academy for Traditional Tibetan Medicine and is the founder of Nyishar, a company which sells artisan health tonics.
“Astragalus root has been incredibly popular throughout Asia for thousands of years, but only in more recent times has its reputation penetrated Western culture, thanks in no small part to the wealth of scientific data that has been collected over the last few decades. Generally it is considered to strengthen muscle tissue, tendons, and ligaments and have an overall energizing effect on the body.
“Astragalus contains a number of unique constituents — saponins called ‘astragalosides’ which possess an adaptogenic property that supports our health by guiding the various systems of the body towards equilibrium rather than merely stimulating or suppressing biological functions. This is also what makes astragalus one of the best tonics for the immune system and a great ally when treating conditions like asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and various allergies. Studies have also clearly indicated that this herb possesses anti-cancer properties, supports detoxification, and is a great tonic for the liver, as well as increasing male sperm count.
“From an Eastern medicine standpoint, astragalus has an organ affiliation with both the lungs and the spleen, and has been categorized by TCM [Traditional Chinese Medicine] as a ‘qi tonic,’ meaning that it supports the vitality and circulation of the subtle prana that surrounds and permeates the body via complex meridian systems. Qi is fundamental to our respiratory health and digestion. Qi is also one of the three treasures of Chinese Medicine (Jing, Qi, and Shen), which means that astragalus has a lot to do with movement and activity — it helps to animate and express our vitality. Astragalus is also said to strengthen our ‘wei qi,’ a type of energetic forcefield that flows through the skin and surrounds the body completely. This type of protective prana acts as a ‘biological firewall’ that acts as a first line of defense against invading pathogens and other substances that we may come across that could pose some risk to our well-being.”
Supplementation of astragalus may be a biologically wise maneuver for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases since scientific research has confirmed that the herb provides the following outcomes in human trials:
1. Stimulates The Immune System
A double-blind pilot study conducted at the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland tested three herbs traditionally noted for their immune boosting properties — astragalus, echinacea, and glycyrrhiza glabra — to see how effective they really were. The researchers found that all three herbs supported T-cell immune response in various ways, and that a combination of all three enhanced this effect. In conclusion the researchers wrote: “This double-blind, placebo-controlled pilot study demonstrates that Echinacea, Astragalus and Glycyrrhiza herbal tinctures ingested by human subjects stimulate activation and proliferation of various immune cells. A tincture that combines these three herbs demonstrates an additive effect on activation, but no additional increase of proliferation.”
2. Reduces Nasal Congestion
Allergic rhinitis can be either a seasonal or perennial condition, known to many as hay fever, that can give rise to symptoms such as sneezing and itching. It occurs when an allergen triggers an allergic reaction within the body due to the release of histamine in an attempt to defend against the intruder. Allergens may include grass, dust, mold, and pollen.
A paper titled “Efficacy and safety of Astragalus membranaceus in the treatment of patients with seasonal allergic rhinitis” published in the journal Phytotherapy Research documents a six-week, double-blind, placebo controlled clinical trial that tested HMC (herbal and mineral complex) — of which astragalus is an active component — in the treatment of seasonal allergic rhinitis (SAR). Supplementation resulted in a significant reduction of symptoms. The authors state, “The study revealed a significant number of positive signals indicating the therapeutic effectiveness of the HMC in patients with SAR which should be further tested in larger, multicentre trials with more patients.”
3. Serves As A Diuretic
Diuretics are substances that assist the body in shedding excess salt and water through urination, this can be especially helpful in cases of high blood pressure were the excretion of excess fluid helps to lower blood pressure. Naturally occurring diuretics are found in coffee and dandelion, among other things.
A double-blind, randomized, crossover study was performed at Shanghai Tenth People’s Hospital in China to evaluate the effectiveness of Astragali Radix (AR) (the dried root of astragalus) as a diuretic. Subjects were administered a single oral dose of AR extract (of 0.3g/kg body weight). Diuresis increased dramatically in over half of the subjects within 4 hours. Specifically, in comparison to placebo, the researchers noted markedly increased urinary sodium excretion, fractional sodium excretion, and urinary excretion of chloride within the first 4 hours.
4. May Assist With Stroke Recovery
Strokes manifest when blood flow is cut off, or dramatically decreased, to parts of the brain. When this happens, the oxygen supply to the brain is restricted, which causes brains cells to die off, resulting in death or lasting and debilitating damage. An article published by Healthline explains that strokes can either be caused by weakened blood vessels or by blood clots:
“According to the American Stroke Association, 13 percent of strokes are hemorrhagic. These are strokes that are caused by a rupture in a weakened blood vessel in the brain. The majority of strokes are ischemic, or the result of a blood clot.
“A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a blood vessel ruptures, and blood accumulates in the tissue around the rupture. This produces pressure on the brain and a loss of blood to certain areas.”
Treatment to promote the recovery of function after a stroke usually involves physical, occupational, and/or speech therapy, depending on the part of the brain affected and the kind of damage caused. However astragalus may very well have its own spot reserved in a stroke sufferer’s medicine cabinet.
A paper published within the journal Evidence-Based Complementary Alternative Medicine tested the effect of astragalus on patients who were recruited within 24 hours of the onset of an acute hemorrhagic stroke. Participants received a 3g dose of Astragali Radix orally or through a feeding tube three times per day after their stroke occurrence for a period of 14 days. The researches rated the patients’ recovery using several clinical scales and noted greater improvements in “functional independence” in the group that had taken astragalus, specifically in the areas of grooming, bathing/showering, dressing lower body, and toileting. The outcome of the study suggests that Astragalus membranaceus (AM) “provides an advantage for acute hemorrhagic stroke patients, if treatment with AM is started within 24 hours of stroke onset.”
How To Take Astragalus
Tea is an extremely accessible and easy way to grace the body with astragalus’ adaptogenic presence. Three to six grams of dried root can be boiled in 12 ounces of water, to produce an immune-boosting tonic that can be consumed up to three times a day.
“Astragalus is an excellent tonic medicine for everyone — male, female, young or old,” says Rimmer. “In terms of safety it can be looked upon as a ‘food’ and can be consumed daily/regularly for optimal benefit. Dosage depends on the product in question: the whole, dried root can be used as a tea or in cooking (soups/broths), but be sure to remove the root material before eating.”
If you’re traveling or lacking the time to prepare immune boosting soups, stews or tea, a powder or tincture may be a more practical method of administering the herb. Rimmer says, “If using a powder, then it is best to use a concentrated extract which will usually have a concentration ratio, 10:1 for example. This simply means that 10kg of astragalus has been condensed down into 1kg of extract powder. An extract of this strength can be consumed daily, two teaspoons per person on average (one teaspoon for children).”
Astragalus can also be used as a tincture (liquid extract). “Again, the dosage will depend on the strength of the tincture,” Rimmer advises. “Here the ratio number works a little differently — for example if the tincture has a 10:1 ratio, it means ten parts liquid have been mixed with one part herb. However, if we see a 2:1 ratio it is stronger because there is only two parts liquid to one part herb. In the case of liquid extracts, the larger number indicates the tincture is more dilute and therefore weaker. Most people can consume two to three droppers of liquid extract per day, although this is of course a general recommendation and it depends on whether someone is using astragalus as a maintenance tonic or as part of a strategy to heal disease.”
The recommendations above are only general guidelines, Rimmer cautions, since each individual case will vary. However Rimmer says, “astragalus is generally considered to be very safe for all people.”
Though astragalus is generally tolerated well, there are a few mild contraindications that are worth noting. “People that are sensitive to legumes and experience indigestion when consuming them may experience similar issues when consuming astragalus,” Rimmer cautions. “If this is the case, then lowering the dose is advised, and consuming it with a small amount of ginger, fennel, cardamom or kombu if cooking with the whole root will render it more digestible and reduce unwanted side effects.”
Rimmer also notes that side effects from liquid extract can be mitigated in those with very sensitive digestion “if the liquid is held in the mouth for a minute or more and allowed to absorb directly into the bloodstream via the capillaries underneath the tongue.” He also advises that in cases of flu, “Astragalus is not ideal to consume during the peak of the illness but is better indicated during the recovery phase as an immune trophorestorative.”
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