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Astragalus: Benefits, Uses and Side Effects

28 February 2023

Sometimes we investigate health trends and find out that the buzzy supplement, herb or food everyone’s talking about is all hat and no cattle, as we say here in Oklahoma, meaning there’s no real or proven benefit to using them.

Other times, like today, we do a deep data dive into a trend and find out that there might be something to all the hubbub. This is one of those times. As you’ll see below, while there are many possible benefits associated with taking astragalus supplements, lots more research is needed to conclusively prove them. It appears that there aren’t many huge health risks associated with astragalus, but there are some, especially if you take immunosuppressant drugs or lithium, which we’ve also outlined below. Astralagus should not be given to children.

Astragalus is a perennial, leguminous plant whose roots have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for thousands of years. Its stems are hairy, covered with 12 to 18 pairs of leaflets. Flowers are purple, pink or white and appear in clusters about an inch wide and two inches long. The roots of mature (four-year-old) astragalus plants are used medicinally.    

The astragalus genus of plants has approximately 3,000 species distributed around the world, in North and South America, Asia, Africa and Europe. Two species are primarily used in supplements – Astragalus membranaceus and Astragalus mongholicus. The plant is also commonly known as milkvetch. Although there are two species used most commonly, many others are and have historically been used as remedies for a wide variety of health issues and injuries.

Astragalus plants are associated with lots of health benefits thanks their unique chemical composition.

Adaptogens. Astragalus is considered an adaptogen. Adaptogens are plants or mushrooms that can impact how your body responds to fatigue, anxiety and stress. They contribute to your overall wellbeing and can be added to food, mixed into beverages or taken as tinctures (liquid concentrates) or supplements. When consumed, adaptogens target stressors in the body. To qualify as an adaptogen, plants or mushrooms must be nontoxic when taken in normal doses, must help your body cope with stress and help your body return to homeostasis (balance). They decrease or increase chemical reactions. 

Polysaccharides are good sources of energy and cell-wall polysaccharides are what lots of dietary fiber is made of. The reason they’re a good energy source is that they contain ‘storage carbohydrates,’ mostly starch and also oligosaccharides (AKA a carbohydrate composed of a small number of simple sugars) and sugars.

Flavonoids used to be called ‘vitamin P.’ They are natural substances found in fruits and vegetables, tea, wine, olive oil, bark, grains, flowers and wine. Flavonoids work by preventing free radical damage. They can also block cancer-causing chemicals from forming, and are able to stop the production and release of the chemicals that cause inflammation They act like antioxidants, but with greater potency. They can even help with collagen production. 

Triterpenoid saponins, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), are ‘glycosides of triterpenes, steroids and sometimes alkaloids which occur primarily, but not exclusively, in plants.’ Saponins have long been a part of TCM, and are the chemical precursors to widely used therapeutic drugs like contraceptive estrogens and cortisone. Saponins are known to be anti-viral, anti-tumor, anti-inflammatory and anti-mutagenic. They are also associated with cytotoxicity (the ability of affect the action and/or growth of cells like those that cause joint pain, swelling and even some cancers), anthelmintic activity (able to expel or destroy parasitic worms and other internal parasites).    

Some medicinal uses of astragalus in TCM and other protocols include the following.

Colds and flu. This is a little bit of a mixed bag – in TCM, astragalus is both used to treat colds and flu, and also could make colds worse in certain cases. There have been some lab tests done which indicate/suggest that the anti-viral properties of the saponins in astragalus could help ease a cold. 

Chemotherapy side effects. There are some studies out there that seem to suggest that astragalus can help ease fatigue and lack of appetite caused by chemo treatments. The studies indicating this were poorly designed, so any evidence of this benefit is primarily anecdotal with support from so-so studies.

Heart disease. The antioxidant properties of astragalus are why it can help treat heart disease. There are studies indicating this, and other studies suggesting that astragalus may help lower cholesterol levels.

Anemia. Yes, there was a study done which indicated that astragalus might improve blood counts for people with aplastic anemia. Caveat: this was another poorly-designed study, so more research is needed to confirm or disprove this possible benefit.

Diabetes. Studies seem to indicate that astragalus can lower blood sugar, but more research is needed to confirm.

Cancer. Anti-tumor effects against some cancers, specifically leukemia and melanoma, have been suggested by preliminary studies.

Allergies. Seasonal allergy/hay fever/rhinitis sufferers may find that astragalus reduces their symptoms. 

Kidney disease. More studies are needed here, but early research suggests that astragalus might help treat kidney disease and protect the kidneys.

Hepatitis. The results supporting this possible benefit are mixed, but there have been a few studies which have included astragalus in a mix of herbs used to treat hepatitis. Again, more studies are needed to support or disprove this possibility.

How to take astragalus?

First things first: talk to your doctor before you start taking any new medication, supplement or herbal treatment. Astragalus is available as a tincture (liquid alcohol extract), standardized and non-standardized capsules and tablets (pro tip: opt for standardized versions), topical treatments and even in injectable forms (used in clinical or hospital or clinical settings in some Asian countries.

Also, don’t give astragalus to a child without asking a doctor first. 

Possible side effects:

If you take lithium, don’t try astragalus without talking it through with your doctor. Astragalus slows the body’s ability to rid itself of lithium, making a dangerously high build-up possible.

Adaptogens like astragalus can react with other medicines or supplements, specifically those for conditions including hypertension, depression, insomnia, diabetes and hypothyroidism. Interactions could include counteracting antidepressants, lowering blood pressure, increasing thyroid activity, changing sleep patterns or decreasing blood sugar levels.

Other possible side effects include:

  • Nasal symptoms
  • Itching
  • Rash
  • Stomachache or discomfort

Note: little is known about whether it’s safe to take during pregnancy or while breast feeding

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