The Health Benefits of Astragalus Membranaceus

For Anti-aging, Boosting the Immune System, and Treating Inflammation

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). It is also considered an edible herb, used to flavor gin, vodka and other infusions. 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 is used medicinally) is yellow in color, has a texture that is fibrous and firm, and tastes slightly sweet.

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. Astragalus has shown 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

Although astragalus has been used as an anti-aging supplement, there is no clinical research evidence showing an actual increase in life span. However, in a 2017 study published in the medical journal Aging and Disease, the study authors stated, “Based on the existing studies and clinical practices, Astragalus membranaceus has a good potential for broad application in aging and aging-related diseases.” Studies are increasingly verifying that A. membranaceus can lend itself to anti-aging by:

  • 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

The benefits of astragalus are thought to come from its 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)
  • An antioxidant

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
  • Colds and flu
  • Viral and bacterial infections
  • Diabetes
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Hepatitis
  • Allergies
  • Heart failure
  • Wounds (applied directly to the skin)
  • Uterine bleeding
  • Fatigue
  • Cancer

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. 

How It Works

A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Chinese Medicine, reports the major active components of A. membranaceus include:

  • 14 polysaccharides (the primary antioxidant agents from medicinal plants, also considered a strong anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial, antiviral agents)
  • Over 63 flavonoids (including isoflavones, thought to protect against age-related disorders such as heart disease and cancer)
  • Over 161 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.

According to a 2016 study, published by Current Drug Targets, “When used appropriately, astragalus appears to be very safe and to have few side effects.” However, high doses of astragalus can suppress the immune system. People with certain conditions or disorders should not take astragalus, these include:

  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Lupus
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Diabetes (may impact blood sugar)
  • Hypertension (may affect blood pressure)
  • Women who are pregnant or nursing 

As with any herbal supplement, it’s important to consult with a physician, neuropathic doctor, or other health care provider before taking astragalus.

Drug Interactions

Herbal supplements often interact with prescription and over-the-counter medications. A person who is taking any type of medication should consult with the healthcare provider before taking astragalus.

Astragalus may interact with cyclophosphamide drugs (such as Clafen, Cytoxan and Neosar) that 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 is believed to increase immune function.

Astragalus may interact with drugs such as cyclosporine (brand names Neoral, Sandimmune) or Zenapax (daclizumab) by lessening the effects. This is due to the herb’s purported immune-boosting properties (these drugs are immunosuppressant, meaning they decrease the immune system).

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.

Dosage and Preparation

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 may also be used in tea or added to food (such as smoothies or shakes). 

In Asian countries, astragalus has been used as an injectable or IV preparation.

Tea preparation: Use a teaspoon of dried herb to 1 cup of boiling water and steep for 5 to 10 minutes or add a half of a teaspoon of the liquid (from a tincture) to a cup of warm water.

Add astragalus as a flavoring to vodka, gin or other infusions. The root is used in soups, it is similar to psyllium husk, which is a fiber supplement.

Dosage

The right dose 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.  

Some herbal experts recommend taking 1 tsp of the root in a cup of cold water and boiling it (then letting it steep for 15 minutes) for a decoction; add lemon, ginger, and honey to taste. Drink the decoction three times per day, unless otherwise instructed by the health care professional.

What to Look For

There are over 2,000 species of astragalus and as many as 300 grow in the United States, 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.

Other Questions

Is the astragalus root safe to eat in food?

There is not enough clinical research data to definitively prove safety for the ingestion of A. membranaceus, but it is thought that the plant has few side effects. However, 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.

Can children take astragalus?

No, the safety of the use of astragalus has not been established for the use in infants, children or teenagers.

What is the historical use of astragalus?

Astragalus has a rich history, originating in the north and eastern regions of Siberia, China, Korea, and Mongolia. The herb was listed in the earliest complete "Pharmacopoeia of China" (an official compilation of drugs, covering Traditional Chinese and Western medicines). Astragalus was originally described in the “Classic of Herbal Medicine” (translated, “Shennong Bencao Jing”) which was written during the Warring States Period (from 475–221 BC).

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. 

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