What Is Astragalus?

Studies Supporting Astragalus Are Limited

Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous) is a plant native to Asia. The Chinese name of the herb, huang qi, means "yellow life energy," because the root is yellow, and it is considered to be one of the most useful herbs in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Other names for the herb include bei qi, hwanggi, and milk vetch. The part of the plant typically used medicinally is the root.

Astragalus comes in multiple forms including tablets and capsules that contain granules that have been extracted from the astragalus root. In Asia, the root is boiled and made into a decoction.

This article will take a closer look at the latest research, potential health benefits, and cautions with the use of astragalus.

Dietary supplements are not regulated in the United States, meaning the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve them for safety and effectiveness before products are marketed. When possible, choose a supplement that has been tested by a trusted third party, such as USP, ConsumerLabs, or NSF. However, even if supplements are third-party tested, that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily safe for all or effective in general. It is important to talk to your healthcare provider about any supplements you plan to take and check in about any potential interactions with other supplements or medications.

astragalus
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Supplement Facts

● Active Ingredient(s): Astragalus

● Alternate Name(s): Huang qi, Astragalus membranaceous, bei qi, hwanggi, milk vetch

● Legal Status: Available to consumers in liquid, capsule, and tablet form. It's available in intravenous and inhalation forms.

● Suggested Dose: 5 to 60 grams per day up to 4 months

● Safety Considerations: Astragalus has immune effects. It's not advised in pregnant or breastfeeding women, infants or children, or individuals with autoimmune conditions such as type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, or rheumatoid arthritis. It should not be used by individuals undergoing immunosuppressive therapy such as cancer patients.

Uses of Astragalus

Supplement use should be individualized and vetted by a healthcare professional, such as a registered dietitian, pharmacist, or doctor. No supplement is intended to treat, cure, or prevent disease. 

Astragalus is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for a variety of ailments. Scientists are studying the different properties of astragalus. More, higher-quality studies in humans are needed, however, before we can make any recommendations for its use.

The research on astragalus has generally concluded that most studies are small and of low quality.

We'll explore the following health claims for astragalus:

In addition to the above uses, some people use astragalus for constipation, allergies, the common cold, or upper respiratory infections.

Immune Support

Researchers studied the use of oral astragalus in the prevention of acute respiratory tract infections in children. Researchers concluded there was inadequate evidence to support Astragalus use in preventing respiratory infections in children.

Astragalus membranaceus was also studied in a small group of adult rowers to evaluate the impact on the immune system after exercise. The small, double-blinded study (neither the researchers nor the subjects knew if they were getting astragalus or a placebo) looked at the use of 500 mg of Astragalus membranaceus during an intensive 6-week training camp. Compared to the control group, the treatment group experienced better recovery. However, as this is a small study, researchers cannot conclude about using astragalus for immune system modulation.

Heart Disease

Researchers have studied astragalus for various heart conditions. It may have a diuretic effect which could lower blood pressure and cause blood vessels to relax.

A small study using astragalus for postmenopausal women with high blood pressure and metabolic syndrome suggested some benefits. The study evaluated traditional treatment of medication, 5 grams of astragalus per day plus regular treatment, and 10 grams astragalus capsules per day in combination with traditional therapy. After one year, astragalus improved diastolic blood pressure, waist circumference, and waist to hip ratio in the group receiving 10 grams per day. Larger studies are indicated before astragalus can be advised for hypertensive, postmenopausal women.

A systematic review of studies on Astragalus membranaceous in humans and animals suggested it may be helpful in treating viral myocarditis. Astragalus lowered harmful heart enzymes and troponin levels (a protein found in the blood when there's heart damage) in the treatment group. The researchers believed astragalus possesses antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and antifibrotic properties. More research is needed before advising the use of astragalus for viral myocarditis.

Complications of Diabetes: Diabetic Kidney Disease

Astragalus has been studied for use in diabetic kidney disease. A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies (a collection of studies) indicated that both oral and injectable astragalus may reduce urine protein loss and serum creatinine levels in diabetic kidney disease. Due to limited high-quality studies, more research is needed before astragalus use can be advised for diabetic kidney disease.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

In people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an inhaled form of astragalus improved forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1) and FEV1/forced vital capacity (FVC) 14 days after treatment. The researchers reported that it also improved the immune function of people with acute exacerbation of COPD. However, more research is needed before recommending astragalus for COPD.

What Are the Side Effects of Astragalus?

Your healthcare provider or even a friend or family member may recommend you take astragalus for hypertension, diabetes, or other chronic conditions. However, research is limited, and consuming astragalus may have potential side effects. These side effects may be common or severe.

Some side effects of astragalus may include rashes and itching as well as gastrointestinal complaints such as nausea and diarrhea. Other side effects are listed below.

Common Side Effects

Severe Side Effects

Severe side effects from astragalus are likely rare. Talk with your healthcare provider about any questions that you may have.

Precautions

Astragalus may cause immunomodulation (a change or an increase in your body's immune response). People with autoimmune diseases, such as Crohn's disease, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, or systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) should not use astragalus unless recommended by a qualified healthcare practitioner. People who have had transplant surgery should also not use astragalus.

Dosage: How Much Astragalus Should I Take?

Always speak with a healthcare provider before taking a supplement to ensure that the supplement and dosage are appropriate for your individual needs.

There is not enough scientific evidence to define an appropriate dose of astragalus for various age groups or conditions. Research studies have used doses of 5 grams per day up to 60 grams per day for up to 4 months, depending on the condition being studied.

The appropriate dose for you may depend on factors including your age, gender, and medical history. Speak to your healthcare provider to get personalized advice, and always inform them of herbs or supplements taken as they may have side effects or interact with prescription medications.

What Happens If I Take Too Much Astragalus?

Like many other herbal and over-the-counter supplements that are not regulated by the FDA, an upper tolerable limit or recommended intake is lacking for astragalus. The toxicity of astragalus could result in the side effects mentioned above including gastrointestinal distress or skin rashes.

Studies on its use of up to 60 grams per day beyond 4 months have not been done. Long-term side effects are unknown.

If you believe that you've taken too much astragalus, contact your healthcare provider immediately for further guidance.

Interactions

Astragalus may interact with the following medications:

  • Antivirals: Theoretically, astragalus may change the effectiveness of antiviral medications such as acyclovir and amantadine.
  • Blood pressure medications: The triterpene saponin, astragaloside IV (AS-IV), extracted from Astragalus membranaceus has demonstrated blood-pressure-lowering effects. While not all forms of astragalus will be standardized to (contain) a certain amount of AS-IV, it may interact with blood pressure medications.
  • Cancer treatments: Astragalus suppressed estrogen in a mouse study. Theoretically, it could reduce the effectiveness of certain cancer treatments that suppress estrogen.
  • Diuretics and drugs affected by diuretics: Astragalus may have diuretic effects. This may impact how well your body disposes of certain drugs. it may also interact with other diuretics.
  • Immunomodulators: Astragalus has immune effects. It may interfere with drugs that suppress the immune system such as tacrolimus and cyclosporine, or drugs that stimulate the immune system.

Astragalus may also interact with other herbs and supplements that have similar effects as the drugs mentioned above.

Astragalus supplements haven't been tested for safety and as dietary supplements are largely unregulated, the content of some products may differ from what is specified on the product label. Also keep in mind that the safety of supplements in pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and those with medical conditions or who are taking medications has not been established.

It is really important to carefully read the ingredient list and nutrition facts panel of a supplement to know which ingredients and how much of each ingredient is included. Always review this supplement label with your healthcare provider to discuss any potential interactions with foods, medications, or other supplements. 

How to Store Astragalus

Astragalus should be stored out of sunlight in a cool dry place.

Astragalus should not be used and should be discarded once it's past the "use by" date on the package. Keep out of reach of children and pets.

Similar Supplements

Supplements that are similar to astragalus include:

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can I take astragalus with other herbs?

    While astragalus may be included in combination with other herbs, particularly in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) preparations, it's important to keep in mind that each herb may have different and/or additive effects. Also, be advised that there's evidence that some TCM preparations may be contaminated with heavy metals and/or other contaminants, including undeclared pharmaceuticals.

  • Can I give astragalus to my child?

    It is not advised to give astragalus to children. Reach out to your child's healthcare provider for more information.

  • I have an autoimmune disorder. Can I take astragalus?

    Since astragalus has effects on the immune system, it's not advised to take it if you have an autoimmune disorder such as Crohn's.

Sources of Astragalus & What to Look For

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, astragalus is usually made into a decoction. The roots are boiled in water, then removed. It's often combined with other herbs, such as ginseng.

Astragalus can be found in supplement form at most health food stores. You may see the raw root in some locations, but more typically the herb is sold in capsule, liquid, or tablet form.

If you choose to buy astragalus or any supplement, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends that you look for a Supplement Facts label on the product that you buy. This label will contain vital information including the number of active ingredients per serving, and other added ingredients (like fillers, binders, and flavorings).

It's suggested that you look for a product that contains a seal of approval from a third-party organization that provides quality testing. These organizations include U.S. Pharmacopeia, ConsumerLab.com, and NSF International. A seal of approval from one of these organizations does not guarantee the product's safety or effectiveness but it does provide assurance that the product was properly manufactured, contains the ingredients listed on the label, and does not contain harmful levels of contaminants.

As with all supplements, it's important to talk with your healthcare provider before using astragalus to decide if it's right for you.

Astragalus Supplements

You can find astragalus supplements in multiple forms at health food stores or online. Forms of astragalus include tablets, capsules, liquid, or powders. Some astragalus supplements are derived from the root, while others may come from root extract.

Astragalus root may be available at specialty markets and could be made into tea. Injectable forms of astragalus have been used in hospitals, but studies are limited on their safety and efficacy. Inhalation forms are also available.

When possible, look for astragalus supplements certified by third-party authorities like ConsumerLab, NSF International, or U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP).

Summary

Astragalus, a plant native to Asia, has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for various health issues. Researchers are studying the different properties of astragalus, but higher-quality studies in humans are needed before we can make any conclusions about its benefits.

Astragalus comes in multiple forms, such as tablets and capsules that contain granules extracted from the astragalus root. Studies on astragalus have examined its roles in immune support, heart disease, diabetic kidney disease, and COPD. However, these studies have been mostly small and of low quality.

If you are considering using astragalus, it is essential to discuss it with a healthcare professional, such as a registered dietitian, pharmacist, or physician. Remember that no supplement is intended to treat, cure, or prevent disease. Follow your healthcare provider's guidance for the treatment of any health condition.

Originally written by
Cathy Wong
Cathy Wong

Cathy Wong is a nutritionist and wellness expert. Her work is regularly featured in media such as First For Women, Woman's World, and Natural Health.

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Additional Reading
  • Astragalus. Natural Medicines Database. Professional Monograph. 2/6/2019

  • Astragalus. National Institutes of Health. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. September 2016

  • Astragalus. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. About Herbs, Botanicals, and Other Products.November 5, 2018