| What is it?
In herbal medicine we use the roots of Astragalus, harvested in autumn after the plant is between 3 and 5 years old. Astragalus is native to Mongolia and northeast China, it comes to us in narrow sliced strips and you know you have the good stuff when it has a nice yellow tinge to it.
How has it been used?
Astragalus was first mentioned in written form in the Chinese medicine classics from over 2000 years ago and it would have certainly been in use long before then too.
The best way to summarise Astragalus would be to say it is a tonic, meaning it nourishes and supports the body in its own self-healing process. This is no small thing in chronic illness where our ability to self-repair has fallen short of being able to get us well.
The ancient understanding of Astragalus was that it strengthened the ‘Wei Chi” the defensive energy of the body. We use a different language when we talk about the immune system but we are still describing the same thing; Astragalus strengthens immunity and helps us fight disease.
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Science on Astragalus
In recent years Astragalus has received a great deal of scientific attention and, when put to the test, it has clearly been getting some remarkable results...
~ Average white blood cell counts increased significantly in two groups of 115 patients with leukopenia (low white blood cell levels) after treatment with concentrated Astragalus preparations for 8 weeks. (Weng XS. Chung Kuo Chung Hsi IChieh Ho Tsa Chih 1995; 15(8): 462-464)
~ Natural killer cell activity in the immune system was increased significantly in patients with Coxsackie B viral myocarditis who were treated with Astragalus for 3 to 4 months. General condition and symptoms improved and alpha and gamma interferon levels increased in comparison with pretreatment levels. By contract the patients treated with conventional therapy demonstrated no improvement. (Yang YZ, Jin PY, Guo Q et al. Chin Med J 1990; 103 (4): 303-307)
~ Combined treatment of Astragalus and Panax Ginseng significantly increased survival rates (some patients gaining 3-17 years) in patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy for small cell lung cancer. (Cha RJ, Zeng DW, Chang QS et al. Chung Hua Nei Ko Tsa Chih 1994; 33(7):462-466)
~ In a comparative clinical study Astragalus and Panax Ginseng reduced toxic chemotherapy events, increased body weight and increased cellular immune function compared with chemotherapy alone in patients with malignant tumours of the digestive tract. (Li NQ. Chung Kuo Chung Hsi I Chieh Ho Tsa Chih 1992; 12(10):579, 588-592)
~ A large number of patients with chronic viral hepatitis were given Astragalus with over 70% showing a return to normal of the elevated liver enzyme glutamic-pyruvic transaminase (GPT) within 1-2 months. (Han DW, Xu Rl, Yeoung SCS: Abst Chin Med 2(1):105-134, 1988)
~ In a comparative trial, 92 patients with ischemic heart disease were treated with Astragalus and Salvia miltiorrhiza or the anti-angina drug nifedipine. Results were superior for the Astragalus treated group as demonstrated by marked relief from angina pain and several other objective parameters. (Li L, Yu H, Pan J. Chung Hua Nei Ko Tsa Chih 1995; 34(10):670-672)
~ Astragalus was shown to help prevent the common cold as well as decrease the duration of infection. Laboratory studies with Astragalus show that it stimulates natural killer cell activity, protects against immune suppression and appears to enhance interferon activity as it improves the body's resistance and response to viral illness. (Wang Y, Qian XJ, Hadley HR et al. Mol Biother 1992; 4(3):143-146)
~ In a double blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial of 507 elderly people, oral administration of Astragalus demonstrated significant anti-aging effects. Improvements were noted in vigour, strength, vision, cellular immunity and serum lipofuscin levels. The total effective rate was 76.6% compared to 34.5% for placebo (p<0.001). (Du X, Zhang ZL. Chung Hsi I Chieh Ho Tsa Chih 1986; 6(5):258-259, 271-274)
Safety of Astragalus
Astragalus is an extremely safe herb, able to be taken in high doses without fear of adverse reactions and entirely suitable for young and old as well as in pregnancy or breastfeeding, nor is there any need to be afraid of Astragalus interfering with other prescription drugs.
All this said it has to be noted that Astragalus, like Ginseng, is a very warming herb. High doses of Astragalus in someone who is already quite constitutionally hot will not harm them but it may overheat them!
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Astragalus is extremely reliable when you want to lift up a person's immune health and help them increase their resistance to disease and I have personally developed a great deal of trust in this marvellous herb and rely on it greatly in my work where I meet many people who have compromised immune systems.
A lowered immunity can show up in such obvious ways as getting too many infections but it can also just as well be the cause of someone feeling very tired or taking a long time to recover from stress or injury.
I almost always analyse the blood of my patients and the type of microscope I use is particularly helpful at assessing immune system health which, when good, has robust looking white blood cells that literally glisten with vitality. Conversely I see many cases where the white blood cells look battered, bruised and listless. Instead of that glistening (cytoplasmic streaming) that signifies high levels of metabolic energy within the cells we can see them with a dull, listless appearance.
In such instances I often use a strong course of Astragalus and then usually expect to see a rapid return to good white blood cell structure and visible vitality. The scientific research into this herb, as quoted in parts above, bears out that Astragalus is a herb that will stimulates and support the immune system, but to see it in front of your own eyes along with my patients who can see the changes just as well as I can is quite wonderful.
Astragalus is a herb that must be used confidently. I do not think it is wise to take small doses and expect a miracle recovery from a weakened immunity or any kind of serious illness requiring its support. There is much to be said for the traditional Chinese medical approach to use Astragalus in decoction form where 10 grams or so a day can easily and economically be taken. These may be the kind of starting doses necessary to see the necessary shift.
In most instances a more moderate dose within tincture form is enough to keep the strong support going for the immunity but even here I will prefer to use a relatively strong amount, e.g. perhaps around 5 or 6 mls in a day.
A personal appreciation of Astragalus can come to anyone with a special interest in herbal medicine by taking just a small dose of it with a quiet and attentive mind and then seeing what happens. Your body is a remarkably intelligent living laboratory which will respond to such an enquiry with much instinctive and palpable feedback! In the case of Astragalus this action has been described by my colleagues and students when I have done such experiments with them as 'a kind of warming, nourishing sweetness that makes you feel good deep down within' Unlike most remedies I have found Astragalus to be universally liked by my colleagues with whom I have made such experiments and I think it is a herb that can be given quite freely to anyone who needs its help.
Astragalus combines perfectly with Echinacea to build the immune system, with Panax Ginseng and Licorice to build vitality and with Withania root to build the nervous system and healthy blood. I use a tremendous amount of these tonic herbs in my work; I see that they have the power to change and improve people's lives.
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Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Astragalus is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with plant B. There is value in this approach, especially in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another, but it falls short in one vital area; and that is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Something that works brilliantly for one person may do less for another -- why is this?
The reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are more hot or cool and at the same time more dry or damp; more info about this here.
There is an old wisdom in treating the person first and the condition second and in this light Astragalus shows itself as a herb that can particularly offer its benefits when a nourishing action is needed in the 'cycle of healing' - something that is discussed here and shown in a chart here.
John Heinerman on Astragalus
There are certain energy-draining diseases that leave a victim's body thoroughly exhausted, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, candidiasis, herpes simplex, mononucleosis and hypoglycaemia.
A number of different measures, including dietary, herbal, nutritional and drug, are resorted to by those who are desperately seeking solutions to their problems. In Oriental medicine one herb stands out as extremely useful as a remedy for this physical weakness: Astragalus root.
It has been employed by Chinese herbalists for 'every sort of wasting or exhausting disease'. Astragalus root is regarded as a wonderful tonic for the 'spleen and lung chi' (chi is considered to be the vital energy of the body).
Please understand that I cannot personally advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in my clinic but ideas
on how you might find a good herbalist in your area are here.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!
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