Astragalus is a perennial herb that is native to many parts of Asia as well as temperate climates within the Northern Hemisphere.
This herb has been incorporated into traditional Chinese medicinal treatments for centuries. As you might imagine, therefore, astragalus has a long and rich history as well as many medical uses and healing benefits.
In today’s guide to astragalus, we’ll be defining this fascinating herb according to its taxonomical classification before delving into its history, numerous benefits, common uses, and potential side effects.
Astragalus is a member of the Fabaceae family, from which peas and other legumes also derive. It is part of the Fabales order and the Rosanae superorder.
The Astragalus genus consists of more than 3,000 individual herbs and shrubs, although Astragalus membranaceus is most commonly used for its medicinal properties, as we will see shortly.
Astragalus mongholicus is the only other astragalus variety apart from its membranaceus relative to be widely used for its medicinal applications.
Therefore, where we reference astragalus throughout this article with regard to medicinal uses and properties, we are referring specifically to Astragalus membranaceus and Astragalus mongholicus.
The most common non-scientific name used to refer to astragalus in its many forms is milkvetch.
This name was originally applied because the use of astragalus was thought to stimulate the production of milk in goats.
In China, where astragalus is most widely used medicinally, the herb is known as Huang qi, a name that approximately translates to ‘yellow leader.’
This title describes astragalus’ revered position in the hierarchy of medicinal plants as well as one of its identifying features: the yellow tint of the inside of the root.
Astragalus has several distinctive features which can be used to identify the herb from sight.
As we mentioned previously, the inside of the astragalus root is a yellow color, which is where it derives part of its Chinese name (Huang qi).
While this is a helpful identifier, you won’t be able to verify whether this is the case when you come across the plant without digging it up and examining the inside of the root.
Therefore, it’s useful to have some other identifying features to work with.
Most members of the Fabaceae family, astragalus included, have what is known as papilionaceous flowers. This is a term for flowers that adopt a butterfly-like appearance while in bloom.
These flowers have five petals in total – one at the very top, two middle petals, and two lower petals. Fabaceae flowers are usually purplish-blue in color, although the Astragalus flowers resemble yellow peas.
You could also identify astragalus by taste since the flavor of the root is quite distinctive, although this isn’t a recommended method of plant identification.
The astragalus root is both earthy and sweet, delivering a pleasant, mild flavor.
Note: Assuming you are in an area to which astragalus is native, please only source plants for medicinal use with the help of a botanical expert.
The History of Astragalus
Astragalus has a long history that begins far before the first recorded description of the plant in the Western world.
In 1753, Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, physician, zoologist, taxonomist, compiled a volume of plant classifications called Species Plantarum.
This was one of the first comprehensive botanical indexes at the time, and it is still used as a point of reference and as a historical source today.
Amongst the 6,000 plants described and detailed in Linnaeus’ Species Plantarum, an in-depth classification and description of astragalus are provided.
However, prior to Linnaeus’ work, astragalus had been used in Ancient China and Ancient Greece for its medicinal properties.
The earliest historical record we have available to us with direct reference to astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus, to be exact) dates back to approximately 2,800 BCE and correlates with the lifetime of Emperor Shen Nong.
Shen Nong (who would eventually pass away from an unspecified overdose related to his medicinal experiments with plants) is thought to be the original author of a manuscript titled Shen Nung Pen Ts’ao King, which details Ancient Chinese medicinal traditions.
Later on, the Ancient Greeks would also make use of astragalus to treat a variety of ailments, including digestive and urinary issues.
The Benefits and Uses of Astragalus
The astragalus herb has been associated with many healing benefits over the centuries.
Please bear in mind that most of the medicinal applications of astragalus are confined to alternative medicine and are not currently backed by extensive or controlled scientific studies.
One of the primary uses of astragalus is as a booster for immune function. In Ancient Chinese medicine, astragalus was commonly used to enhance the strength and resilience of the immune system for robust health.
While there is, as yet, very limited evidence for the effectiveness of this treatment, the use of astragalus as an immunity booster is one of the most medically convincing uses of the herb.
More research is needed in the field of herbal medicine as a whole and of the specific applications of astragalus to confirm astragalus’ usefulness in this capacity.
However, it is suspected that astragalus may provide antiviral properties, which could be effective at warding off illnesses such as the common cold.
Another suspected benefit of astragalus is that it improves heart health.
Like all of the other potential benefits we’re going to be exploring in our guide, this is speculative because there is no hard scientific evidence to support the claim.
However, the reason it is believed that astragalus may have cardiovascular benefits is that it may have diuretic properties, minimizing pressure on the blood vessels.
With that being said, studies on the effect of astragalus on blood pressure with human subjects have yet to be carried out, so we would not recommend opting for astragalus supplements in favor of regulated hypertension drug treatment until then.
If you’re looking for an energy boost, either as a pick-me-up after the stressors and exertions of everyday life or as a remedy for an existing, fatigue-inducing health condition (think fibromyalgia), it’s possible that astragalus root may be able to help.
This is partially tied to the association of astragalus with improved immune function since a stronger immune system often yields more energy and stamina.
Some studies, however, have suggested that even individuals who do not suffer from compromised immunity could benefit from taking astragalus supplements to banish fatigue.
Athletes, for example, are one suggested target group. Chemotherapy patients have also been considered as potential beneficiaries.
Digestion and Urination
The use of astragalus to assist in healthy digestion and as a remedy for urinary issues (including kidney diseases) dates back to the Ancient Greeks, as we mentioned in our History section.
Although there is limited evidence to support the effectiveness of astragalus root in this capacity, astragalus is still sometimes used to correct digestive and urinary issues to this day.
The reason astragalus continues to be used for these purposes is that astragalus has long been associated with kidney health. Since astragalus may potentially stimulate blood flow to the kidneys, ensuring healthy kidney function.
Potential Side Effects of Astragalus
Astragalus is not a toxic plant, so for the most part, the consumption of the root should not induce any negative or dangerous side effects that we know of.
With that being said, the unfortunate fact is that the majority of the astragalus supplements available on the market are not regulated in the same way as most over-the-counter drugs, making it difficult to know the exact potential for negative reactions.
Moreover, as we’ve mentioned previously, a lot more research is needed into the benefits of astragalus.
In the same sense that we cannot be sure how effective astragalus is in terms of medicinal applications, we can’t be 100% confident in the lack of negative side effects, especially under specific circumstances.
For this reason, botanical experts recommend avoidance of astragalus root in its raw or supplemental form under certain conditions as a precaution.
Because pregnant and breastfeeding women/people are often susceptible to adverse side effects when taking a variety of medications, we do not recommend the consumption of astragalus to anyone who is currently pregnant or nursing.
There are also several diseases and conditions that increase the potential for sensitivity to ingested substances.
Given that we do not yet know for sure exactly how beneficial or detrimental the consumption of astragalus can be in terms of health, it is best for people who suffer from certain health conditions to avoid these supplements.
Autoimmune disorders are known for causing aggressive responses towards unknown substances, so anyone suffering from an autoimmune condition should approach astragalus and any other unregulated herbal supplement with caution.
For reference, the term ‘autoimmune disease’ refers to Chrons disease, type one diabetes, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and skin conditions such as psoriasis.
If you have any of these conditions and wish to use astragalus supplements, please consult your primary care practitioner beforehand.
It is suspected that certain medications and drug treatments can also be impeded by the consumption of astragalus, so before you decide to take one of these herbal supplements, it’s a good idea to make sure that no medication you are taking is known to react badly with this substance.
The most common point of interference between astragalus and drug treatments occurs with medication designed to suppress the immune system.
Once again, more research is required to confirm the nature of the interaction between astragalus and immuno-suppressant drugs.
However, because it is suspected that astragalus may have immunity-enhancing properties, the combination of astragalus with drugs that suppress the immune system is not recommended.
This ties into the risk of taking astragalus supplements with an autoimmune condition since these illnesses are often treated with immuno-suppressants.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it safe to take astragalus every day?
Because of the lack of current research into astragalus and astragalus supplements, there is no official recommended daily dose to abide by.
There is nothing in contemporary medical research to suggest that taking astragalus every day is likely to be harmful.
The only exception to this would be if a person were to match any of the criteria outlined above, which could make astragalus consumption risky at any dosage.
To recap, these conditions include autoimmune disorders as well as pregnancy. Taking astragalus while breastfeeding is not recommended at any dosage, nor is it suggested in any quantities while taking a course of immunosuppressant drugs.
Astragalus supplements are often sold in quantities of 60 mg per dose, and there is no reason to believe that taking this much per day would be harmful to the average person.
What is the best way to take astragalus?
Astragalus has been administered in many forms during history. Today, it is most commonly taken in the form of a pill or capsule, much like vitamin and mineral supplements.
However, astragalus can also be consumed in the form of soup, tea, tincture, or powder.
There is no evidence as of yet to suggest that one method of consuming astragalus root is more effective than another.
What we do know, however, is that a higher incidence of serious side effects is reported when astragalus is administered through an IV drip.
While minor side effects such as a rash, itchy skin, nausea, and diarrhea have been known to occur occasionally following the oral consumption of astragalus, the symptoms that can sometimes follow the herb’s administration via IV drip are more serious.
An irregular heartbeat is one such symptom, which is especially counterproductive if you are taking astragalus to improve your cardiovascular health.
Therefore, we would not recommend this method of administration.
Astragalus is suspected of having many different health benefits and has been used medicinally since at least 2,800 BCE in Ancient China.
Astragalus root continued to be used by the Ancient Greeks to treat various digestive and urinary afflictions, and it is still taken as a supplement today.
While it is theorized that astragalus may have benefits for heart health, blood pressure, immune function, and energy levels, more scientific research and controlled studies are needed before any of these benefits can be conclusively proven.