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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 multiple Herbalogic formulas (see below for more details).
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 found 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. The highest quality of astragalus, the type that elicits the most clinical effect, grows wild in brutal harsh conditions such as those found in Mongolia. It's almost as if only the strongest plants survive and then pass that strength on in their medicinal use.
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 improve digestion and 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, increasing immune function when needed, and reducing it when there is over-activity such as in allergic reactions and autoimmune disorders.
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. (See Steven Foster's article for 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.
Fundamental to good health, physical and mental, is robust digestion and a strong immune system. Astragalus root promotes both good digestion and a healthy immune system, making it a power house in the Chinese herb world. Hence its inclusion in so many Herbalogic formulas. While it serves both function in all these formulas, the different formulas use astragalus in subtly different ways. It is used in Back in Action to optimize digestion to provide the building blocks needed to repair tissue damage. Since the goal of Easy Breather is used to promote a healthy immune response to allergens, astragalus is included to help the lungs and respiratory system perform their best. Better energy optimal physical performance depends on good digestion and terrific lung function, hence astragalus root is a key ingredient in the Peak Power family of formulas. Finally, because mental health is so dependent on a properly functioning digestive system, astragalus root is included in the Quiet Mind family of formulas.
Ready to dive a little deeper into all things astragalus? Check out this tasty recipe for immune-boosting astragalus soup from the kitchen at Whole Foods Market).
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