Astragalus is a leguminous plant commonly known as milk vetch. There are hundreds of different species of Astragalus around; some called locoweed in North America because they produce a kind of potentially fatal intoxication in grazing cattle known as locoism. But the medicinal herb is a Chinese native called Astragalus membranaceus, whose dried root and root extract are very popular in Chinese Medicine. Another species A. mongholicus is also used medicinally.
Several groups of active phytochemicals such as flavonoids, saponins, and polysaccharides are credited with the wide-ranging medicinal properties of this herb. Flavonoids have antioxidant properties that make them useful in reducing oxidative stress and reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer due to free radical damage. They are also involved in cell signaling.
Saponins are so named because of their soap-like foaming nature. They have a cholesterol lowering ability and are also known to improve the immune system. Many plants derived saponins are experimentally used in the treatment of cancer. Polysaccharides exhibit anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties.
Astragalus is now widely available and used as an adaptogenic herb for promoting general health and longevity and to treat specific disease conditions. The roots of Astragalus are harvested from plants that are 4-years old or older. It is available in the form of dried whole root, dried sliced root, root powder, capsules, and liquid extracts.
Some of the health benefits of Astragalus include:
1. Astragalus boosts the immune system
The immune system boosting property of Astragalus was what made it popular as an herb for general health in Chinese Medicine. Regular use of the herb protects against many diseases and seasonal infections.
Studies have revealed that Astragalus extract increases immune cell function, mainly by activating and regulating T-cells that are central to immune function. These cells are engaged in identifying foreign antigens and destroying abnormal cancer cells and virus-infected cells. Another property of T-cells is that they carry the memory of these antigens and offer continuing protection long after an infection is resolved.
Astragalus is used for treating hepatitis, where it displays an interferon-like action on hepatitis B infection. When used in the management of HIV infection, it delays the progress of the disease into AIDS. Marked increase in macrophages is observed following the administration of Astragalus, which explains, at least partly, the excellent immune boosting action of this herb.
2. Astragalus has excellent anti-inflammatory property
Inflammation is the body’s response to injuries and infections, and it may have some beneficial role in effecting recovery. However, this immune response often goes overboard, causing unnecessary pain and swelling, and sometimes precipitating irreversible damage. The anti-inflammatory action of Astragalus can promote faster healing of wounds and resolve infections quickly by limiting the inflammatory response.
Chronic Inflammation is the underlying cause of many debilitating disease conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis. The polysaccharides in Astragalus have been shown time and again to reduce markers of inflammation in in vitro and in vivo studies, but the exact anti-inflammatory mechanism is poorly understood. Nevertheless, taking Astragalus regularly as an herbal tea or using its extract can reduce the severity of inflammatory conditions like arthritis and eczema and protect you from the damages caused by chronic inflammation.
3. Astragalus protects against cold and flu and other respiratory diseases
This effect could be regarded as a natural fallout of the immune boosting property of Astragalus. The Chinese have used this herb for thousands of years to protect them from seasonal ailments like cold and flu.
Since the viruses causing cold and flu continually undergo mutation to form new and more virulent strains, long-term protection is nearly impossible, even with the latest vaccines at our disposal. However, the wide-ranging antiviral property of Astragalus seems to be capable of handling these challenges. In fact, it is considered even more effective than the popular Echinacea formulations in offering cold and flu protection. It might be worthwhile taking Astragalus tea or extract a few weeks prior to the onset of flu season as the Chinese do.
The antibacterial effect of Astragalus may help prevent secondary infections in the lungs and respiratory tract, such as bronchitis and pneumonia, that often follow seasonal viral infections.
4. Astragalus is heart-protective
The flavonoids in Astragalus have an excellent antioxidant action that helps reduce free radical damage to arterial walls and the heart tissue. Astragalus has been successfully used as an herbal remedy for high blood pressure as well as high cholesterol and triglyceride levels that increase the risk of atherosclerosis, heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Taking Astragalus extract regularly reduces plaque formation on the walls of the blood vessels and consequent narrowing of arteries.
Astragalus can prevent heart muscle damage from calcium overload during heart attacks. A study that appeared in the Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine in 2014 reported significantly better outcome in patients with viral myocarditis when an injection of Astragalus extract was given along with other conventional treatments. Although this kind of treatment may be considered too ambitious by western standards, it may serve as proof of the heart-protective effect of the herb.
5. Astragalus may help prevent diabetes and delay its progress
The Chinese have been using Astragalus as an antidiabetic medication. There are several studies that prove that this herb has the ability to counteract insulin resistance, which is the leading cause of diabetes mellitus in adults.
Insulin resistance develops when there is a high circulating level of insulin. It gradually reduces the sensitivity of insulin receptors. Astragalus polysaccharides are known to increase insulin sensitivity in laboratory animals; it may have a similar effect on us too. The phytochemicals in the herb have protective effects on the pancreas and are known to regulate the function of the beta cells that produce insulin.
Diabetes and chronic inflammation go hand in hand, chronic inflammation causing diabetes and diabetes aggravating inflammation. The anti-inflammatory effect of Astragalus may help break this vicious cycle, and arrest, or at least delay, the progress of the disease.
Astragalus is considered an effective treatment for kidney diseases associated with diabetes too. The antioxidant properties of the herb protects the renal network from free radical damage.
6. Astragalus has excellent anticancer properties
The anticancer properties of this herb have sparked interest in the medical and pharmaceutical spheres, and many in vitro and animal studies are showing promise.
Oxidative stress, and the resultant free-radical damage to tissues and DNA of cells, is one of the most common triggers of cancers. Chronic inflammation is another factor that promotes abnormal tissue growth. The excellent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of the phytochemicals in the herb may be the main reason for its anti-cancer effects. Also, a saponin in Astragalus named Astragaloside IV is known to inhibit the proliferation of colon and lung cancer.
Astragalus supports conventional cancer treatments too. When Astragalus extract is administered along with conventional chemotherapy, it has been found to improve the outcome by reducing the resistance of cancer cells to the chemotherapy drugs. Adjunctive therapy with this herb is particularly useful in the treatment of liver cancers that exhibit multidrug resistance. It also reduces side effects like nausea and vomiting.
7. Astragalus is an anti-aging agent
Astragalus is well-known for its anti-aging effect. In fact, the primary use of this herb in Chinese Medicine is geared to promoting longevity. It seems to have solid scientific basis too, since a component of Astragalus called cycloastragenol is found to increase telomerase, an enzyme that promotes telomere health. Telomeres are the end portions of DNA; they get shortened every time the cell undergoes division. Hence, telomere length is a more reliable indicator of biological age and longevity than the chronological age of a person.
8. Astragalus promotes wound healing and reduces scarring
This herb has been used externally and internally to treat wounds. Apart from the antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory actions of the herb, it has been shown to accelerate wound repair by promoting tissue regeneration. Topical application of Astragaloside IV derived from the herb significantly reduces healing times as well as scarring.
9. Astragalus offers asthma relief
Astragalus is proven to be effective in reducing asthma symptoms associated with respiratory tract infections and allergies. The anti-inflammatory effect of the herb has been shown to reduce upper respiratory hyper-responsiveness to the antigens in allergens. It also reduces the narrowing of the airways that causes labored breathing in asthmatic people. A study in asthmatic children in remission has shown that treatment with Astragalus may help prevent asthma recurrence.
Being an herbal preparation, no precise or standard doses exist for Astragalus formulations, but there are general guidelines. Most adults tolerate 600 mg to 2 gm of powdered Astragalus root in 3-4 divided doses. 2ml to 5 ml of fluid extract or tincture can be taken three times a day. Astragalus tea can be prepared with 6 gm to 12 gm of dried root in 12 ounces of water.
Chinese Medicine does not advise against giving Astragalus herbal formulation to children, except when they have a fever. The dosage for children is determined by their body weight, keeping 150 pounds as the benchmark weight for adult dosage. Half the adult dose can be given to a child weighing 75 pounds, and one-third adult dose to a 50-pound child. It is always safer to start with the lower dose and increase it gradually.
Astragalus is considered a relatively safer herb on account of its long history of use in Chinese Medicine spanning at least a few thousand years. But possible interaction with other medications, both herbal and mainstream drugs, cannot be ruled out. The excellent immune stimulating effect of the herb may counteract the effect of immunosuppressant drugs commonly prescribed for treating autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and others.
If you’re suffering from any autoimmune condition, Astragalus should be taken with caution, starting with very small doses. If such diseases are currently being managed by drugs, you should seek the advice of your physician before taking any Astragalus herbal preparations. Pregnant women and lactating mothers also should refrain from self-medicating with any herbal preparations including Astragalus.