Botanical Name: Astragalus membranaceus, A. propinquus, A. mongholicus.
Other Common Names: Bei qi, goat’s horn, green dragon, huang-qi, huang ch’, hwanggi, locoweed, milk-vetch root, ogi, radix astragali, yellow leader.
Habitat:: This medicinal plant is native to northern and eastern parts of China, as well as Japan, Mongolia, and Korea.
It grows along forest margins, on grassy hills and in shrub thickets along hillsides, but it is also found in thin open woods. It thrives in sandy, well-drained soil and full exposure to sunlight.
Description:: The genus astragalus is one of the largest groups of flowering plants and belongs to the legume family, Fabaceae (peas and beans). Astragalus membranaceus has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years.
This plant is a twining, multi-branching perennial that reaches 16 to 36 inches in height.
The stems are somewhat hairy and the pinnate leaves are made up of 12 to 18 pairs of elliptical leaflets. Each plant produces three to nine flowers, which give rise to spindle-shaped pods just over an inch long with beaked tips.
Astragalus has a long flexible root equivalent in diameter to a forefinger. The root is covered by a tough, wrinkled, yellowish to brown skin, which can break out into many wooly fibers.
The root pulp is woody and yellowish to white and has a faint and slightly sweet taste that’s reminiscent of licorice root.
Plant Parts Used: The roots (harvested in autumn from four-year old plants).
Therapeutic Benefits, Uses and claims of Astragalus
Although there are more than 2,000 species of astragalus, there are only two related species A. membranaceus and A. mongholicus that are primarily used for health purposes.
The plant is used as an herbal treatment for physical exhaustion and as an energy tonic, though it is less well-known than ginseng remedies.
It is often combined with ginseng to treat general fatigue or fatigue associated with conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, infections such as candidiasis and herpes simplex virus, mononucleosis and hypoglycemia.
There is considerable research on the herb’s ability to support the body’s immune system, particularly in cancer patients.
Studies have shown that cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy recover faster, have prolonged life expectancy and are better able to withstand the side effects of modern cancer treatments when given astragalus.
It is thought that the presence of saponin, polysaccharides (astragalan I, II and III) and triterpenes in this herb encourage the bone marrow to produce more white cells as well as enhance white blood cell function. Astragalus may also enhance the effects of platinum-based chemotherapy drugs such as ciplatin.
Astragalus has both antiviral and antibacterial properties. It is thought it may stimulate the body to produce interferons, which are proteins that trigger the immune system to respond to a foreign invasion.
This herb contains antioxidants, which protect cells against damage by free radicals. This may make it a natural treatment (in conjunction with conventional treatment) for people with severe forms of heart disease.
It was used to treat patients suffering from Coxsackie B viral myocarditis and it was found that these patients had improved natural killer cell activity. It may be beneficial in the repair of the heart muscle.
Saponins present in astragalus have anti-inflammatory and anti-hypertensive functions. They also make this herb a natural diuretic useful in treating fluid retention disorders including edema.
This herb has been used as a natural remedy for prolapsed organs, particularly the uterus. It has been found to be beneficial in cases of uterine bleeding or excessive bleeding during the menstrual cycle.
Astragalus has also been used traditionally as an herbal remedy for arthritis, asthma, nervous conditions, Hodgkin’s disease, shortness of breath, persistent infections, fever, some allergies, systemic lupus erythematosus, anemia (when combined with Chinese angelica), kidney disease, hepatitis, stomach ulcers and general digestive disturbances such as gas, bloating and diarrhea.
Dosage and Administration
Astragalus is available as a decoction, tincture, tablets or capsules, topically and even in injectable forms in Asian clinical settings. Tea is made from 3 to 6 grams of dried root per 12 oz of water. The mixture should be boiled five minutes and allowed to steep a further 20 minutes.
Supplements generally contain 500 mg and two to three tablets or capsules are usually the recommended daily dosage.
Prepare tincture in a 1:5 ratio, in 30 percent ethanol and 3-5 mL should be taken three times daily.
Make an ointment for topical use with a concentration of 10 percent astragalus.
Possible Side Effects and Interactions of Astragalus
Astragalus has few side effects at low to moderate doses although it is thought to suppress immune system function at a higher dosage.
Its safety for use among pregnant or nursing women as well as children is unknown so should be avoided.
The reported side effects of this medicinal herb include belly bloating, loose stools, low blood pressure and dehydration.
It is not recommended to give astragalus to children with a fever as it may prolong the fever or even increase body temperature.
This herb does interact with a number of other herbs and prescription medications, including antihypertensives and immune suppressants. People who have had transplant surgery should not take astragalus due to its immune-boosting effects.
Astragalus may also interfere with blood clotting and should not be taken if on blood-thinning medications.
People with autoimmune diseases (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis and type 1 diabetes) should consult a doctor before using this medicinal herb.
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