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.