Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) also known as lucerne, is a complicated thing. Technically a legume, but regarded as an herb, it has been grown as feed for livestock for centuries – but is also eaten by humans in the form of alfalfa sprouts, and used by us in several traditional medicine preparations.
It came to favor as a feed because compared to other feed sources, it had better protein, vitamin, and mineral contents. was long prized for its superior content of vitamins, minerals, and protein, compared to other feed sources.
Humans have long found value in eating Alfalfa sprouts, because they deliver a high concentration of vitamins and minerals for very few excess calories. For example:
1 cup (33 grams) of alfalfa sprouts delivers:
- Vitamin K: 13% of the RDI.
- Vitamin C: 5% of the RDI.
- Copper: 3% of the RDI.
- Manganese: 3% of the RDI.
- Folate: 3% of the RDI.
- Thiamin: 2% of the RDI.
- Riboflavin: 2% of the RDI.
- Magnesium: 2% of the RDI.
- Iron: 2% of the RDI.
The same cup also gives us a gram of protein and a gram of carbs from fiber. Alfalfa sprouts are practically a multivitamin in and of themselves.
But how has Alfalfa been additionally used in medicinal applications?
The major use of Alfalfa in traditional medicine is through its seeds or dried leaves.
Alfalfa: its uses in modern medicine
While no one in modern science is going to argue with the calorie-efficient delivery of vitamins and minerals Alfalfa represents, most of the health benefits for which it is used in traditional medicine have not yet been sufficiently researched that they can be used as part of modern Western medicine.
Certainly though, initial small-scale studies suggest Alfalfa might work as an anti-cholesterol supplement, as it seems to act as an absorption blocker. More and larger research will be needed before Alfalfa as an anti-cholesterol supplement crosses over from traditional medicine to modern Western medicine – but initial findings at least look promising.
Also unofficially used for…
Kidney, bladder, and prostate conditions, and to increase urine flow.
- Both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
- Upset stomach.
- Relieving menopausal symptoms.
- A bleeding disorder known as thrombocytopenic purpura.
None of these yet has sufficient research underpinning their use. Further testing is needed before any or all of these traditional uses for Alfalfa can be verified – or dismissed.
While Alfalfa leaves are probably safe for most people, eating Alfalfa seeds over an extended period is probably unsafe. That’s because Alfalfa seed products can cause reactions similar to lupus erythematosus, an autoimmune disease.
There is also an unusual possibility, in that Alfalfa seeds, if eaten to excess, might also make some people’s skin extra sensitive to the sun, like a kind of dietary vampirism. While eating a lot of Alfalfa seeds, you should probably wear sunblock outside, even if it looks relatively overcast. This is especially important if you’re naturally light-skinned.
Pregnant women should not use Alfalfa beyond normal amounts found in food. It could be unsafe during both pregnancy and breastfeeding. There is some evidence that an excess of Alfalfa affects the body like a shot of estrogen, which might go on to affect the pregnant.
Anyone who has an autoimmune disease should probably avoid Alfalfa. This includes conditions like multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and other similar conditions.
Alfalfa may cause the natural immune system to get more active, which could increase or exacerbate the symptoms of the underlying auto-immune disease. While the evidence is not strong or conclusive in terms of overall risk factor, there are two case reports in which a lupus sufferer experienced a flare-up of their condition following a prolonged use of Alfalfa seeds.
While, as we say, this does not constitute strong enough grounds to form a generalized causal link, even the possibility of a link is enough to impose a public safety responsibility, and to say that – at least until more is known about any potential cause and effect link, it’s wiser if those with auto-immune diseases stay away from Alfalfa.
Anyone with a hormone-sensitive condition should probably stay away from Alfalfa while their condition is ongoing. Anything from beast or uterine cancer to ovarian cancer, endometriosis, or even uterine fibroids is on this list.
The potential for danger comes with Alfalfa behaving in the body like the female hormone estrogen. If you have a condition that could potentially be intensified or complicated by extra estrogen in your system – avoid the Alfalfa that can mimic the hormone.
Trans men should avoid Alfalfa too. Trans men don’t have a condition, of course, they’re just themselves. But, on the one hand, it can be harder to live their authentic truth as men if there’s a chemical being introduced to their bodies that behaves like estrogen.
And on the other hand, if they’re taking testosterone to manifest their true selves, it’s positively self-defeating to then take in a supplement that counterbalances the effect of the treatment.
If you take blood thinners, like Warfarin, beware too much Alfalfa. The reason for once has nothing to do with Alfalfa behaving like estrogen in your system. It has to do with it being high in Vitamin K. High doses of Vitamin K can stop the likes of Warfarin from being as effective as they normally would be, so your blood-thinning medication may have an unfortunate interaction with your Alfalfa.
Diabetics don’t need to strictly avoid Alfalfa, though unless there’s a good and pertinent reason to take it, avoiding it might be the smarter idea. Alfalfa could well lower blood sugar levels in the body. That could be fine if your blood sugar levels are high – but if they’re normal or low, you’ll need to monitor your blood sugar levels extra carefully if you use Alfalfa.
If you’re recovering from a kidney transplant, it’s time to stop using Alfalfa. Why? Again, as with the people with an autoimmune disease, there’s little to worry about – but one report of a kidney patient whose transplant was rejected after a three-month use of a supplement containing black cohosh and Alfalfa.
There’s some evidence that Alfalfa can boost the immune system. Again, normally, this is a great thing. If you’re recovering from a kidney transplant though, it’s less great, because as your natural immune system kicks in, the drug that’s pumped into your system specifically to stop your system from rejecting the transplanted organ, cyclosporine, can be overwhelmed by your suddenly boosted immune system.
If the cyclosporine is overwhelmed or made less effective, you run the risk of organ rejection. We know Alfalfa can be pretty great – it’s not that great. Cut out the Alfalfa, avoid organ rejection, live your life. It’s as simple as that.
Alfalfa: History of an herb
There’s no real getting around the fact that for the vast majority of its history, Alfalfa wasn’t especially considered fit for human consumption. Nor is there any getting away from the fact that the vast majority of Alfalfa’s history is the vast majority of human history too.
We probably began cultivating Alfalfa before we started recording our history. It began its life in Mesopotamia, in Western Asia (now parts of Turkey and Iran).
If there’s any doubt that Alfalfa really didn’t start out as a yummy, vitamin-rich snack for human beings, you can pretty much crush it as soon as you learn that “Alfalfa” comes from the Arabic word “al-fisfisa.”
Want to know what that means?
It means “Horse fodder.” Alfalfa is the original super-feed. It’s a cleverly evolved legume with deep roots and an ability to keep its protein right where it needs it – and conveniently, right where the horse wants it, too.
By 490 BC, Alfalfa was doing the rounds, first to Arabia, and then on to Greece. As is often the way of these things, when Greece was conquered by the Romans, they took Alfalfa with them and spread it pretty much all over the empire.
Lucky break for a legume.
At the same time the Ancient Greeks and Romans were discovering that their horses worked harder for longer if fed on Alfalfa, the early Babylonians were discovering more or less the same thing in their own lands. When you have a war machine based on the efficient use of cavalry, or come to that, as with the Romans, the efficient moving of supplies from place to place by horse, Alfalfa’s worth a couple of cohorts of fighting men, because it can help you push your horses further for the same feeding time.
More efficient nutrition means more work. More work means reaching your objective first, and, for instance, burning your Gaulish enemy’s town to the ground while he’s out hunting, confident you won’t be at his gates for a day and a half. Alfalfa was in some respects the rocket fuel of the expansionist age.
Spool on a little while and the Europeanized Alfalfa goes with Spanish and Portuguese explorers on their voyages to the New World. Still, frankly, only the very hungriest of humans had even contemplated eating it themselves.
Much like the Spanish and Portuguese themselves, Alfalfa made its way to the New World in a slightly circumspect way, arriving first in Mexico and Peru, then expanding across South America for a good two centuries before it made the leap up to California in the 19th-century.
Still, two hundred years on – horse food.
In fact, Alfalfa remained relatively unknown in the United States until after the California Gold Rush of the mid-19th century.
By the end of the 19th-century, it was being grown in places like Montana, Ohio, and Iowa, and yes it was still more or less being grown exclusively as horse-fodder. Very good horse fodder, right enough, some of the best, most vitamin-packed, mineral-rich horse fodder ever invented, absolutely. Just not something we’d put into human beings.
The truth is probably rather more complex and wrapped up with the habits of the terminally hungry. It seems unlikely that the poor of civilizations gone by would have thought of Alfalfa as so uniquely a horse fodder – especially after seeing how well their horses seemed on it. But as a dietary supplement, it seems not to have occurred to anyone to try it before the 20th-century.
Once we got the idea though, we began to understand what the horses – and subsequently, cattle, meat rabbits, and the like – had been getting from it all that time. The high protein content, low calorie, carb-from-fiber nature of the compact vitamin-bombs that were Alfalfa sprouts made for a great raw food in salads and sandwiches. What’s more, they gave us exactly the boost of vitamins and minerals we’d witnessed in our farm animals for thousands of years.
In the hands of herbalists, Alfalfa was used in a number of ways to help with the symptoms of various conditions. In particular, the idea that Alfalfa could help those with high cholesterol took hold, and as we’ve seen, modern mainstream medicine has seen at least a small-scale demonstration of the potential effectiveness of Alfalfa in blocking the absorption of cholesterol.
We’ve also seen, in the number of people who are advised to stay away from Alfalfa at various points in their life, that it can act like estrogen in the body, could potentially lower blood sugar, and can boost the immune system. If it didn’t, people with diabetes and people with autoimmune diseases would have nothing to fear from using as much Alfalfa as they like.
For the time being, the guidelines and warnings are entirely sensible, until the exact nature of Alfalfa’s actions within the body is understood more precisely.
But in terms of a unique supplement, Alfalfa has a lot to offer – as a food, the sprouts are a complex nutrient-dense addition to our daily ‘bread,’ which don’t cost us much of our daily calorie budget. And if initial testing by Western medicine is followed by wider trials, there might well be a variously useful future for Alfalfa seed supplements in smaller doses that won’t run the risk of triggering lupus-like symptoms.
If Western medicine can take the sting out of regular Alfalfa use, it could potentially be extremely useful in regulating blood sugar, blocking cholesterol, and even helping women with menopausal symptoms to get the extra estrogen they need without resorting to synthesized chemistry.
Only time – and extra testing – will tell.