Astragalus roots have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for millennia to balance a myriad of symptoms and complaints, particularly stress and immune dysfunction. The plant they come from, Astragalus membranaceus, is native to Northern China, as well as to Mongolia and Korea. Its roots are a distinctive pale yellow, and according to TCM, their medicinal properties are most potent when harvested from four-year-old plants.
As TCM has become more widely accepted and practiced in the West, scientists have begun to study how astragalus works in the body, and the plant has found its way into the practices of Western herbalists, acupuncturists, and naturopathic doctors. This article will explore some of the benefits of astragalus, the forms in which you can take it, and who should be most careful of its effects.
Astragalus As An Adaptogen
In TCM, astragalus root is considered an adaptogen. Adaptogens are herbs thought to assist the body in coping with stress from various sources: physical, emotional, or mental. In TCM, astragalus root may be administered for a wide range of ailments. TCM practitioners believe that astragalus root supports the body in coping with whatever stress is causing an imbalance and to appropriately self-heal.
Astragalus As An Antioxidant
Astragalus is full of antioxidants – phytochemicals that help to prevent oxidative stress in the body. Oxidative stress occurs naturally during immune response and other natural cellular processes. It involves the creation of free radicals; unstable molecules that, when left unchecked, can damage cell tissue. The body has its own way of cleaning up free radicals, but under stress, we can always use a little extra boost. The antioxidants in astragalus may reduce the number of free radicals circulating in the body, which, in turn, can help lower chronic inflammation. Perhaps this contributes to astragalus’s power as an adaptogen as well.
What Do Scientific Studies Say about Astragalus?
Research on astragalus is promising as to its ability to improve immunity, lower inflammation, and maintain a healthy heart. Here, we’ll take a look at some of the emerging areas of interest for this ancient herb.
1. Activates Immune Response
A 2012 study looked at astragalus extract’s effect on macrophages – white blood cells in our immune system that destroy pathogens such as viruses, bacteria, fungi, or parasites. The study determined that astragalus extract both increased cell migration in macrophages, and increased their immune response, which may play a role in bolstering our defenses against infections.
2. Lowers Inflammation
A 2009 study on inflammatory colitis in rats demonstrated that both oral and intracolonic application of astragalus had significant protective effects through modulation of inflammatory cytokine response in the colon. The study showed that the herb balanced the expression of certain anti-inflammatory chemicals in the body, allowing for a reduction in colitis symptoms. However, more research is needed to determine if astragalus would be an effective therapeutic intervention in humans.
3. Promotes a Healthy Heart
Astragulus’ antioxidant status may be an essential component that allows this herb to promote heart health. Antioxidants hold promise when it comes to reducing the risk of plaque buildup in the arteries and protecting the blood vessels against cardiovascular conditions. For example, astragalus injections, along with conventional treatment options, helped to combat viral myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) more effectively than conventional treatments alone, reports a 2014 study in the Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine. Additionally, astragalus may also hold promise for lowering blood pressure and reducing elevating fat triglyceride levels.
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A word of caution: As with most traditional herbal remedies, more studies are needed to better understand why and how astragalus works and to determine dosage.
How Do You Take Astragalus?
Astragalus is an edible root, so you can chop it up and add it to soup, or mix a little of the powder into a smoothie. It does have a slightly bitter and earthy taste, which will not be to everyone’s liking. If eating it isn’t your thing, you can supplement with astragalus in tincture form, in tablets, as a powder, or boiled as a tea.
Side Effects and Contraindications
Astragalus may increase immune response. As a result, people with the following conditions should avoid it:
- Those with autoimmune disorders
- Those who have had organ transplants
- People taking corticosteroid medications
Also, no studies have been done on the safety of astragalus for pregnant or nursing women, so it may be best in those cases to avoid it as well. Again, your healthcare provider can give you the best counsel about whether astragalus is right for you.
In general, astragalus could be a safe and natural way to help your body handle stress, boost immunity, lower inflammation, and stay heart healthy. It’s relatively inexpensive in its whole or powder forms and is easy to boil into tea or include in soups or smoothies. Talk with your doctor, and decide how best to safely include it in your health and wellness routine.
Shona Curley lives and works in San Francisco. She is co-owner of the studio Hasti Pilates, and creator of the website www.redkitemeditations.com. Shona teaches meditation, bodywork and movement practices for healing Lyme disease, chronic illness and pain.
Ko JK, Chik CW. The protective action of radix Astragalus membranaceus against hapten-induced colitis through modulation of cytokines. Cytokine. 2009;47(2):85-90. doi:10.1016/j.cyto.2009.05.014
Piao YL, Liang XC. Astragalus membranaceus injection combined with conventional treatment for viral myocarditis: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Chin J Integr Med. 2014;20(10):787-791. doi:10.1007/s11655-014-1825-3
Qin Q, Niu J, Wang Z, Xu W, Qiao Z, Gu Y. Astragalus embranaceus extract activates immune response in macrophages via heparanase. Molecules. 2012;17(6):7232-7240. Published 2012 Jun 13. doi:10.3390/molecules17067232