Botanical Name: Medicago sativa.
Its common name comes from the Arabic, al-fac-facah, “father of all foods”.
Other Common Names: Chilean clover, buffalo grass, father of all foods, buffalo herb, lucerne, purple medic, Spanish clover, California clover, purple medick, medicago, fuelle de luzerna (French), holy hay, trefoil.
Habitat:Alfalfa is believed to be native to Central Asia (Transcaucasia, Armenia, Iran, etc.). Wild types are found in the Caucasus and in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan and surrounding regions.
Medicago sativa favors temperate-warm or subtropical semi-dry climates. It adapts well to soil that is deep, permeable and rich in calcium and phosphorus.
Plant Description: Alfalfa is a perennial herb that’s widely cultivated as feed for livestock. It has been cultivated for at least 15,000 years for both livestock forage and as food and medicine for humans.
The taproot of the alfalfa plant reaches deep into the soil, allowing the plant to extract a wide range of nutrients from deeper substrate even when the superficial soil is exhausted. Medicago sativa is a valuable plant for the improvement of poor and depleted soil.
The leaves are alternate and trifoliate. The flowers are blue to purple, arranged in short axillaries. The fruit is black or brown when ripe and has several yellow seeds that are kidney-shaped or irregular in shape.
Therapeutic Uses, Benefits and Claims of Alfalfa
Active Ingredient and Substances: The active components include up to 50 percent protein, beta carotene, chlorophyll, octacosanol, saponins, sterols, flavonoids, coumarins, alkaloids, acids, vitamins (A, B, B6, B12, C, D, E, K, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, folic acid), amino acids, sugars, minerals (Ca, K,P, Ma, Fe, Zn, Cu), and trace elements.
History of Alfalfa Use
Alfalfa is one of the oldest cultivated plants and it is used as livestock forage, as a highly nutritious food for humans, and as an herbal medicine for at least 1500 years. It is considered to have the highest nutritive value of all fodder plants.
Alfalfa has a long history of use in China as an appetite stimulant and as an herbal treatment for digestive disorders, especially ulcers.
Ayurvedic medicine used medicago sativa as an herbal treatment for ulcers, to alleviate the pain of arthritis and as a treatment for fluid retention.
Early American herbalists used the herb as a treatment for arthritis, boils, cancer, scurvy, and for diseases of the urinary and digestive systems. Pioneer women in America used alfalfa as an herbal remedy for menstrual disorders.
Alfalfa is traditionally used as an herbal treatment for debility during convalescence or in cases of anemia. In addition, it was used as a natural treatment for infections from surgical incisions, bed sores and as an external poultice for the treatment of earaches
Modern Day Applications
Medicago sativa is alterative, antipyretic, anti-scorbutic, aperient, diuretic, oxytocic, nutritive, stimulant and tonic.
Modern herbalists use medicago sativa to help women with disorders related to hormonal imbalance. Due to its alterative qualities (ability to maintain normal hormonal levels), alfalfa is used as a natural treatment for disorders such as hot flashes during menopause, fibrocystic breasts, osteoporosis, polycystic ovaries, fibroids and premenstrual tension.
Alfalfa may be used to treat both hypoestrogenism (insufficient estrogen) and hyperestrogenism (excessive estrogen) and traditional herbalists use it to dilute the strength of digitalis.
In Columbia, the mucilaginous fruits are used as an herbal treatment for cough.
Alfalfa is one of the best natural sources of vitamin K. Vitamin K helps bones to knit by working with vitamin D and glutamic acid to activate osteocalcin. The combination of these three nutrients is essential for building bone; the body cannot use calcium without all three.
Alfalfa helps to keep calcium out of the linings of arteries. Atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, is a result of calcium replacing cholesterol in the lining of the blood vessels. This happens when a microscopically small amount of cholesterol becomes lodged in the arterial wall. These can form a mass that can be replaced by artery-hardening calcium. Alfalfa may help prevent the formation of calcium deposits on the arterial wall.
What Does the Science Say?
Scientific research confirms the effectiveness of medicago sativa as a natural treatment for high cholesterol. It is known to reduce low-density lipoproteins (LDL, or bad cholesterol) without reducing high-density lipoproteins (HDL, or good cholesterol).
Studies have shown that alfalfa may reduce blood sugar levels due to its high manganese content. Clinical studies have shown that medicago sativa with a high level of manganese improved the condition of diabetic patients who do not respond to insulin.
The plant contains a molecule analog to the thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH). Thyrotropin-releasing hormone is common in the animal kingdom but unknown in the vegetable kingdom. The TRH hormone analog found in alfalfa is also biologically active in animals, suggesting that medicago sativa may be an effective natural therapy for treating secondary hypothyroidism as well as diseases caused by an excess of prolactin, as in polycystic ovaries.
Scientific studies indicate that medicago sativa may have a stimulating effect on the immune system.
Alfalfa has been shown to inhibit the development of certain viruses, including herpes simplex virus.
Some in vitro studies have shown that L-canaverina present in the herb has anti tumor actions against certain types of leukemia in mice and a selective toxicity against cancer cells in dogs.
Dosage and Administration
The usual dose of alfalfa leaves for tea is 1 to 2 teaspoons per cup, steeped for 10 to 20 minutes. Powdered alfalfa may be taken in capsule form according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. For cholesterol reduction, the recommended dosage is 5 to 10 grams of dried alfalfa leaves, taken three times a day.
Possible Side Effects and Interactions of Alfalfa
The biggest risk in using alfalfa is eating sprouts grown in contaminated water or sprouts that have gone bad and are decomposing. For most people, alfalfa is safe, but it may interact with certain medications.
Those who are taking anti-rejection drugs for transplant, should not use any form of alfalfa. People who take Coumadin or other anticoagulant drugs should consult with their physicians concerning what amounts of green vegetables (which contain high amounts of vitamin K) are safe to consume.
Eating the sprouts has been linked to systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Those diagnosed with SLE should avoid alfalfa products. Consuming large amounts of the seeds has also caused reversible blood abnormalities. In rare instances of excessive consumption of alfalfa herb or sprouts, abnormal red blood cell counts, enlargement of the spleen or relapses of lupus may occur.
van Wyk, Ben-Erik: Food Plants of the World. Portland, Oregon. Timber Press 2006.
Balch, Phyllis A.: Prescription for Herbal Healing. New York. Avery 2002.
Stuart, Malcolm: The Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism. London, Orbis Publishing 1979.
Balch, Phyllis A.: Prescription for Nutritional Healing. 4th Ed. New York. Avery 2006.
Mindell, Earl: Earl Mindell’s Herb Bible. New York. Simon & Schuster / Fireside 1992.
Foster, Steven: 101 Medicinal Herbs. Loveland, Colorado. Interweave Press 1998.
Gruenwald, Joerg et al.: PDR for Herbal Medicines. 4th Ed. Montvale, New Jersey. Thomson Healthcare Inc. 2007.