February 25, 2013
This week, we're shedding a little light on astragalus, one of the 50 foundational herbs used in Traditonal Chinese Medicine (TCM). The genus astragalus actually consists of some 2,000 species, but only a couple are used medicinally, so it's important to be...well, specific. The variety most used in herbal medicine is astragalus membranaceous, and it is an ingredient in four Herbalogic formulas:Back in Action,Easy Breather,Peak Power, andQuiet Mind.
The sliced, dried root of astragalus shown in the photo above looks a little like a tongue depressor, which is appropriate given how widely and frequently the herb is used in Chinese herbal medicine and even cooking (scroll down for a recipe link). Here's a quick look at some astragalus facts.
Scientific NameAstragalus membranaceus, var. Astragalus mongholicus Common Name (Western)Asian Milk VetchChinese Name (Pin Yin)Huang-Qi (translates as "yellow leader," referring to the color of the fresh root interior and the herb's status among Chinese herbal tonics)OriginFound in northern and eastern parts of China, also Mongolia and Korea. More than 350 species are known in the United States and Canada.
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Astragalus is a perennial in the pea family of plants with a height ranging from 16 to 36 inches. Stems are sprawling with 12 to 24 alternating leaflets and small, yellow flowers when in bloom. When the plants reach at least four years of age, the roots are harvested, dried, and sliced for storage and use in Chinese herbal medicine.
While the scientific name at first glance seems to be derived from the Latin root astralis, it's actually from the Greek astragalos, meaning "ankle joint: or "vertebra," a reference to the appearance of the plant's flower clusters.
The Chinese have a long history of using astragalus as a tonic to fortify the immune system, particularly against colds and flu. Considered an "adaptogen," the herb is thought to protect the body from a variety of stress factors, both physical and emotional. Other studies suggest some saponins and polysaccharides in astragalus may be protective against liver toxicity.
In China, astragalus has been studied for its anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties, as well as its ability to lower blood sugar. In the United States, laboratory tests in combination with a small clinical study of 19 cancer patients and 15 healthy people in Houston suggested water extracts of astragalus membranaceus had a strong immune stimulant effect, but more research is needed. (SeeSteven Foster's articlefor more details.)
Astragalus is generally considered safe at recommended doses, with no serious side effects. It does interact with some herbs and medications, however, so get advice from a licensed acupuncturist or medical professional before taking in combination with other therapies.
Avoid using astragalus in combination with drugs that suppress the immune system. If you have an autoimmune disease such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, or if you have had an organ transplant and are taking medication to reduce tissue rejection, do not take astragalus without consulting your physician or health professional.
Use caution if you take lithium. Astragalus may make the body retain lithium, which could build up to dangerous levels. Use with medical supervision if you are on a lithium regimen.
Ready to dive a little deeper into all things astragalus? Check out this tasty recipe for immune-boosting astragalus soupfrom the kitchen at Whole Foods Market). Then grab yourself a steaming bowl and read more on this core herbal ingredient by visiting these sources of additional information: •An informative article by herbalist Steven Foster•A series of articles on astragalus at Livestrong.com•The astragalus entry at The University of Maryland Medical Center's website
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