The Health Benefits of Astragalus Membranaceus

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Astragalus membranaceus (syn. Astragalus propinquus), from the Fabaceae plant family—commonly known as astragalus—is one of the most important herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The herb was listed in the earliest complete Pharmacopoeia of China, an official compilation of drugs covering Traditional Chinese and Western medicines.

Other common names for astragalus include huang qi, běi qí, Mongolian milkvetch, Chinese astragalus, membranous milk vetch, membranous milkvetch, milk vetch astragale, and Mongolian milk.

The astragalus plant is a perennial that grows between 16 to 36 inches in height. It can be found in grassy areas and other places where there is plenty of sun exposure. The roots are harvested twice per year (in the spring and fall), then dried in the sun and processed for medicinal use. The root (which is the only part of the plant that's used medicinally) is yellow in color, has a texture that's fibrous and firm, and tastes slightly sweet. It's considered an edible herb, used to flavor soups, vodka, and other infusions.

Some scientific data has been gathered on the benefits of astragalus for the treatment of inflammatory diseases and cancer, but many of these studies have been in animal models or in vitro. There are also some preliminary data on its usefulness in treating kidney conditions. Traditional uses of A. membranaceus include TCM’s use as a general tonic, a supplement to protect the liver, and a natural agent to fight bacterial and viral infections.

The astragalus root is used to make traditional medicines to treat many conditions, but there is not enough scientific evidence to back up the claims of effectiveness and safety for its many common uses.

Health Benefits

Recent studies have examined this herb and its phytochemistry (plant chemistry) in the treatment of inflammatory diseases and cancer, showing promise for its ability to reduce toxicity caused by cancer drugs and other medications. A. membranaceus has also shown promise in clinical studies for its use of extracts that may help to protect against gastrointestinal (stomach and intestines) inflammation and cancers, without major systemic (affecting the entire body) side effects.

Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners use astragalus for many health benefits, including its:

  • Immune-boosting properties (particularly in situations where the body is stressed, such as cancer)
  • Antiviral and antibacterial properties
  • Anti-inflammatory properties
  • Anti-aging properties

While research evidence hasn't shown a direct link between astragalus and longevity, a 2017 study explained that there's potential thanks to the following properties:

  • Increasing telomerase activity (an enzyme that maintains the length of a structure called telomeres, which are related to aging of the cell)
  • Producing anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antihyperglycemic (lowering blood sugar) effects
  • Improving the immune system
  • Lowering the level of fats in the blood (hypolipidemic effects)
  • Protecting the liver (hepatoprotective effects)

In terms of medicinal properties, the herb is considered an adaptogen (a natural substance that helps the body processes adapt to stress); a tonic (a medicinal substance given to induce a feeling of vigor or well-being); and an antioxidant.

Astragalus is also known for improving heart function and providing protection against heart disease. The herb is thought to improve blood flow by increasing the diameter of the blood vessels. A study found that people with heart failure who received astragalus (along with standard treatment) twice daily for just two weeks experienced an improvement in heart function compared to those who just received standard treatment. 

There is not enough clinical research data to back up the safety and effectiveness of A. membranaceus in many of its common uses, including:

  • Anorexia
  • Fatigue
  • Upper respiratory infections
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Hepatitis
  • Heart disease
  • Fatigue
  • Cancer
  • Wounds (applied directly to the skin)

How It Works

The major active components of A. membranaceus include:

  • Polysaccharides (the primary antioxidant agents from medicinal plants, also considered a strong anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial with antiviral agents)
  • Flavonoids (including isoflavones, thought to protect against age-related disorders such as heart disease and cancer)
  • Saponins (thought to lower cholesterol, improve the immune system, have anticancer effects, and more)

Possible Side Effects

Common side effects include diarrhea and mild gastrointestinal (stomach and intestines) symptoms.

Astragalus generally has few studied side effects. However, high doses can suppress the immune system. Certain people should not take astragalus, such as those with autoimmune diseases, like multiple sclerosis, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as people with diabetes (may impact blood sugar) and hypertension (may affect blood pressure).

Drug Interactions

Herbal supplements often interact with prescription and over-the-counter medications. If you're taking any type of medication, you should consult with the healthcare provider before taking astragalus.

Astragalus may interact with cyclophosphamide drugs (such as Clafen, Cytoxan and Neosar) that are used to treat cancer and nephrotic (kidney) syndrome. They work by suppressing the immune system. Astragalus may decrease the effectiveness of these drugs because it's believed to increase immune function.

Astragalus may also interact with immunosuppressant drugs such as cyclosporine (Neoral, Sandimmune) or Zenapax (daclizumab) by lessening the effects due to the herb’s purported immune-boosting properties.

Astragalus has a diuretic effect, meaning it rids the body of fluids. When this occurs, it may also affect the body’s ability to get rid of some drugs—such as lithium—potentially causing toxic concentrations of lithium to build up in the body. Those who are taking lithium should talk to the prescribing physician or other health care provider; the lithium dose may need to be adjusted.

Preparation

The dried root of astragalus may be formulated into a powder to make an extract (in a capsule, tincture, liquid, or powdered form). It can also be used in tea, added to food (such as smoothies or soups), or as a flavoring to vodka, gin, or other infusions. In Asian countries, astragalus has been used as an injectable or IV preparation as well.

Dosage

The right amount of any herbal preparation depends on many factors, such as age, health status and more. There is currently no scientific evidence to determine the safe or effective range of doses for astragalus. Always follow the product’s package insert and consult with a homeopathic doctor, health care professional, or pharmacist about the correct dose of astragalus or any other herbal supplement. Keep in mind, the safety of the use of astragalus for use in infants, children, or teenagers has not been established in high-quality studies.

What to Look For

There are over 2,000 species of astragalus and as many as 300 grow in North America, but only two are used in supplements. These include Astragalus membranaceus and Astragalus mongholicus.

Be cautious when harvesting your own A. membranaceus because several species of the astragalus plant contain a neurotoxin called swainsonine, known to cause a type of poisoning “locoweed” in animals.

Other species reportedly have toxic levels of selenium. The toxic species are not sold as dietary supplements, so purchasing organic A. membranaceus brands that have been tested by an independent third-party entity (such as the U.S. Pharmacopeia) is the safest way to use the herb.

Be aware that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate herbal supplements to the extent they do pharmaceutical products. There are no approved health claims for astragalus, so be wary of products that make such claims.

A Word From Verywell

Although there is more clinical research data available on A. membranaceus than on most other medicinal herbs, many of the astragalus studies involve animals, or are considered weak studies because they are short in duration, do not involve very enough study participants, or lack the elements considered gold standard studies—such as randomized controlled trials. Everyone reacts differently to herbal supplements. It’s important to consult with a trusted health care professional before using medicinal herbs in any way, including eating them.

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