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I’m having a little love affair with astragalus of late. If you’ve followed this blog at all, you’ve probably caught on to the fact that I prefer to be able to eat or drink my medicine, and astragalus is delightful in tea and in food, slightly sweet with an umami sort of buttery creaminess. I started craving it while recovering from surgery a couple weeks ago, and having done a little research now, I’m not at all surprised. Goes to show that our bodies often know what they need, even if our brain hasn’t sorted it out yet.
Astragalus, milk-vetch root, huang qi
Fabaceae – Pea Family
Astragalus is one of the most well known tonic herbs in Chinese medicine and has been studied extensively by Asian scientists. Its long-held notoriety in Chinese medicine has engendered a fairly strong following in Western medicine as well. As well as being generally tonic to the entire body, astragalus is also considered a great adaptogen, stimulant to the immune system, energizing, diuretic, antibacterial and antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and hypotensive. It also normalizes blood sugar levels, improves stamina, strengthens metabolism, and stimulates appetite. Overall, it acts to treat or prevent disease and infection by supporting and tonifying the entire body and the immune system. In China, astragalus, “is often called the ‘young people’s ginseng,’ as it is specifically indicated as an energizer for younger people,” (Gladstar, 39). In illustration of its adaptogenic action, it has been shown to stop, “debilitating sweating but… producing a therapeutic sweat if it is appropriate,” (Mabey, 77).
In regard to astragalus’s action as an immunostimulant, Gladstar comments, “It stimulates the rebuilding of the marrow reserve that supports and regenerates the body’s ‘protective shield,’ or immune system,” (Gladstar, 311). And not only does it increase, “the body’s production of interferon,” (Duke II, 32) which acts to promote the production of white blood cells to combat infection, it also enhances, “the particle ingestion capacity of white blood cells,” (Foster II, 7).
Astragalus is used to strengthen and restore the body supportively to treat general fatigue and weakness, shortness of breath, lack of appetite, poor circulation, impotence and infertility, and autoimmune disorders such as AIDS. It is commonly employed in the treatment and prevention of a variety chronic ailments and recurring infections, such as cold, flu, candida infections, yeast infections, diarrhea, ulcers, and herpes. It has also been used in treatment of cancer, the Epstein-Barr virus, hepatitis, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Its qi-promoting and diuretic actions aid in treatment of kidney complaints and edema.
Along with glycosides, choline, betaine, rumatakenin, beta-sitosterol, and vitamin A; astragalus also contains triterpenoid saponins, which behave in the same manner as animal steroid hormones; as well as polysaccharides,which imptove the function of NK and T-cells and also increase production of interferon, as noted in the Actions section above (Marti, 97).
This perennial herb normally grows one or two feet tall, with compound leaves of a dozen or so paired leaflets emanating from a hairy central stem. Its long clusters of yellow flowers bloom in early summer. It is cultivated in America and is easily grown from seed (the roots do not like to be disturbed through transplanting), but it needs well-drained, sandy soil and full sunlight. It is, “drought tolerant, but requires adequate moisture to grow well,” (Foster III, 29). A native to Mongolia and northeast China, the root is there called huang qi, which means “yellow leader,” as it is one of the most important herbs in Chinese medicine for invigorating wei qi, or vital energy (Foster II, 6).
Dried astragalus root normally comes as long strips of rhizome, resembling tongue depressors, as shown in the above picture. They should be long and straight with creamy white color and a slightly yellow core. “The roots are not harvested until the autumn of a plant’s third to fifth year,” and are then partly dried, sliced, and dried further (Foster III, 29). Once the root has been fully dried, it can be used in this form or powdered. WARNING: “don’t pick your own out in the wild; some species are toxic,” (Duke II, 33).
Astragalus is often an ingredient in infusions, is also tinctured, and the root is commonly used in soups or chewed like a licorice stick. The powdered herb can also be mixed into a paste or added to cereal or yogurt.
“Astragalus is first mentioned in the 2,000-year-old classic, Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing,” and its use since then has been prevalent and well-studied. Among many of the findings regarding the herb’s effectiveness as an herbal medicine, “Since 1975, astragalus has been used in China in cancer patients undergoing radiation treatment and chemotherapy,” by strengthening the immune system after the treatments had depleted it. “In the early 1980s, researchers in Houston, Texas, studied the effects of astragalus on ninteen cancer patients and fifteen healthy individuals. A chemical fraction extract of astragalus was found to restore T-cell function in 90 percent of the cancer patients to levels observe in the healthy subjects,” (Foster II, 6).
No adverse effects have been observed. See the Collection section above for a warning about harvesting from the wild.
We are going to be planting red clover along with buckwheat in our baby orchard this year to help improve the soil. I was prompted to research this herb due to its beneficial role as a cover crop, its nutritional strength, its pleasant taste, and the fact that it can be found growing just about anywhere in America. All of which makes me want to get better acquainted with this plant ally. And I’m so glad I did!
Red clover, honeysuckle trefoil, king’s crown, sleeping maggie, bee-bread
Aerial parts—most commonly the flowering tops are used, but the leaves are sometimes used as well.
Trifolium pratense is a tonic herb, especially for the skin, and especially for children. Its other actions are nervine, diuretic, antitumor/chemopreventive, blood purifying and blood building, expectorant, antispasmodic, and anti-inflammatory. Rosemary Gladstar says red clover is, “One of the best detoxification herbs and respiratory tonics,” (Gladstar, 358).
Red clover has been used historically and today as a treatment for a bevy chronic chest complaints, including colds, coughs, congestion, and bronchitis. As mentioned above, it has also been used for treatment of skin problems, especially for children but also for adults, such as eczema, psoriasis, and dermatitis. Additionally, red clover has been long used for tumors/cancer, as well as cysts and fibroids in the body. In fact, it was one of the ingredients in the controversial Hoxsey formula, and anticancer formula developed by herbalist Harry Hoxsey. Other indications include prostate enlargement, AIDS, and osteoporosis. Herbalist and midwife Aviva Romm also suggests its use as part of formulas for liver strengthening and nourishment and recovery after miscarriage (Romm).
Trifolium pratense is also a noteworthy herb for women’s hormone issues, such as menopause or PMS, and is recommended for protection against some of the detrimental side effects of the use of hormone replacement therapy (see the Constituents section below for more information). Naturopath Tori Hudson adds, “red clover isoflavones may reduce the risk of coronary vascular disease by increasing arterial elasticity, although… not improve cholesterol levels. Red clover isoflavones may also slow bone loss of the spine,” (Hudson, 196).
Red clover is a nutritional and herbal medicine powerhouse, “rich in minerals, most notably calcium, nitrogen, and iron,” (Gladstar, 359), phenolic glycosides, coumarins, cyanogenic glycosides, and salicylates. Among its isoflavones are genistein, diadzen, biochanin A, and formononetin, which may act nutritionally to prevent cancer (Foster II, 76). These isoflavones are natural estrogens, similar to human female hormones. “Phytoestrogens perform functions in the body similar to those of natural and synthetic estrogens, relieving menopause- and menstruation-related problems and perhaps protecting against osteoporosis and cancer of the breast, colon, and prostate… If you’re taking prescription female hormones, which have been linked to breast cancer, the milder phytoestrogens again step in and prevent the synthetics from interacting with tissue cells,” (Duke II, 183).
Nutritionally, red clover is a good source of protein, similar to the protein found in whole grains, and also provides, “beta carotene, vitamins C, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B9, B12… It’s a good source of the minerals magnesium, manganese, zinc, copper, and selenium,” (Brill, 25).
Red clover is a perennial and grows up to three feet tall, with clusters of three round leaflets, each often marked with a whitish V-shape, and a tender, hairy stem. The flowering tops of Trifolium pratense can be pink, purple, red. It tends to grow well in temperate climates, commonly found in meadows, along edges of forests, in bordering areas such as along roads or fences, and in areas where the ground has been disturbed. Naturalized to America, it is a native to Europe, the Mediterranean, and Asia.
Red clover flowers should be gathered just when fully opened; the flowers should not be at all dried out or moldering. It can be harvested between late spring and early fall (Hoffman, 154). Per usual, although the herb grows plentifully along roadsides, one should not collect in areas where there is any significant amount of traffic due to potential pollutant contamination.
Preparations include infusion of fresh or dried flowers (which also makes a wonderful, soothing bath), tincture, or flowers eaten fresh on salads, etc. If using dried blossoms, make sure it still has its color and is not pale or brown, which indicates it was dried at too high a heat or for too long. Refer to the picture above as to what is good color retention in dried red clover.
Trifolium pratense has long been used as food for livestock as well as a cover crop—in fact it was originally brought to America from Europe as a hay crop (Brill, 24). Past folk medicine use has been primarily for chest complaints, tumors, skin problems, not to mention warding off evil spirits (Duke II, 183). This more spiritual protection makes more sense when you consider its symbolic nature: “For the ancient priesthood of Druids, clovers were symbols of Earth, sea, and heaven, and for Christians, a symbol of the trinity,” (Foster III, 304).
Generally, red clover is very safe, with no significant side effects—however, it is perhaps best not to take very large amounts while nursing or pregnant. “Pregnant animals have had miscarriages after grazing heavily on the clover,” (Duke II, 184). Also, “Hemophiliacs or people with ‘thin’ blood should not use red clover regularly, as the herb can exacerbate the condition,” (Gladstar, 359).
I love oats (gluten free oats, of course). It is probably my number one comfort food. Even if I’m sick with low appetite, I can eat oats, but they’re also my breakfast of choice—they just soothe the soul, you know? I love them cooked, especially on weekends when time isn’t as much of an issue, but I also love to eat them uncooked, just mixed with some yogurt or water, a pinch of sea salt, some fresh fruit or agave syrup, a dash or two of cinnamon, let it sit overnight or for an hour and enjoy at room temperature. Oats are unique in that they can be eaten raw, with no special preparation necessary for our bodies to be able to digest them. You get the picture: I am awfully fond of oats.
Meanwhile, there’s this lovely set of herbs called adaptogens of which I’m a big fan. Adaptogens are wonderful because they are tonic to the adrenals (which is to say that they help our bodies to cope with stress), they can be taken daily and indefinitely, and they have no undesired, harmful effects. They are simply, deeply nourishing, and I don’t know about you, but my adrenals are very grateful for the help some days.
Usually in the past I’ve eaten my adaptogens in paste form, which is lovely, but recently I made a fabulous discovery. Astragalus, probably my favorite herb in this group, is not only “not bad” or “tolerable,” it’s downright delicious! I ran out of paste last week and didn’t have time to whip up another bowl before heading off to work, so I mixed half a tablespoon of powdered astragalus into my bowl of oats (soaked overnight) along with the cinnamon and agave nectar. I figured I could stomach the result in the interest of getting my herbal goodness in. I didn’t expect to never want to eat oats any other way! Astragalus gives a nutty, almost buttery or creamy flavor… you just have to try it.
I’ve also heard a few people say that they like to put larger chunks of dried astragalus in soup for herbal benefit and additional flavor. I haven’t tried this yet, but oh, I will be trying it very soon…