The Health Benefits of Alfalfa

Low in Calories, High in Fiber, and Rich in Vitamins

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Alfalfa, also known as Medicago sativa, is a perennial plant that belongs to the Fabaceae family. In addition to being used as animal feed, its leaves, sprouts, and seeds are used to treat a variety of health ailments. The dried alfalfa leaf is widely available in herbal and vitamin shops as well as health food stores. It is sold as an herbal tea, tincture, tablet, or powder.

The alfalfa seed is often sprouted into alfalfa sprouts and eaten in salads and sandwiches. Alfalfa has been said to be beneficial in treating many things, such as allergies, asthma, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, high cholesterol, and menstrual disorders. However, research is insufficient and alfalfa supplementation could be dangerous for certain populations.

Alfalfa originally came from South and Central Asia, but has since been grown around the world for centuries. Other common names for alfalfa inclue:

  • Buffalo Herb
  • Lucerne
  • Purple Medick
  • Purple Medicle
  • Purple Medic

Health Benefits

Alfalfa is a low-calorie, nutrient-dense food. According to the USDA nutrient database, 1 cup of alfalfa sprouts contains approximately 8 calories, .2 grams fat, .7 grams carbohydrate, .6 grams fiber, and 1.3 grams protein. Alfalfa is a rich source of fiber, which is the indigestible carbohydrate that can help to reduce cholesterol and increase feelings of fullness.

It also contains certain vitamins and minerals including calcium, potassium, iron, phosphorous, vitamin C, and vitamin K.

Alfalfa has been used for many years for the treatment of many conditions including:

  • Kidney conditions
  • Bladder and prostate issues
  • Cholesterol
  • Asthma
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Diabetes
  • Upset stomach

Kidney, Bladder, and Prostate Conditions

Anecdotal claims suggest that alfalfa acts as a diuretic and, therefore, aids in the treatment of conditions of the kidney, bladder, and prostate. However, there is insufficient information to support this claim.

Lowering Cholesterol

Alfalfa contains fiber but it also contains saponins, which is a substance thought to bind cholesterol with bile salts in the body and reduce serum (blood) cholesterol levels. Animal studies have shown a positive correlation between alfalfa saponin extract and cholesterol-lowering effects in rats.

Alfalfa was also found to lower cholesterol levels in humans in small uncontrolled trials; however, these studies were conducted in very small groups during the 1980s and we do not know the long term effects. Longer clinical trials need to be done to determine a better association.

Asthma

No clinical studies have proved a correlation between asthma and alfalfa.

Neuroprotective Effects

One in vitro animal study conducted on mice suggests that supplementation with alfalfa had neuroprotective effects.

Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis

Many people use alfalfa in the treatment of arthritis with the belief that alfalfa can reduce inflammation and help the body maintain a good pH. While alfalfa may have anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties, there are no known studies to support this claim.

Diabetes:

Since alfalfa is rich in fiber, eating it may help to control blood sugar levels. Fiber is the indigestible part of carbohydrate that is slowly released into the bloodstream, which is why foods high in fiber cause a slower blood sugar rise. So what about supplementing with alfalfa extract?

One study conducted in 2015 tested the effects of alfalfa supplementation in diabetes-induced rats for 21 days. Researchers found that, at the end of the experiment, ingestion of alfalfa extract significantly reduced glucose, cholesterol, triglycerides, and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels in the diabetic rats, while also enhancing high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels (good cholesterol).

ALT and AST liver enzyme levels were also reduced in blood. While this might sound promising, unfortunately, there are no human studies to date and so we can not yet determine if alfalfa supplementation is useful in humans.

Upset Stomach

In learning about alfalfa on the web, you'll probably hear about its benefits from gastrointestinal disorders; however, there is no scientific evidence to prove these claims.

Promotes Menstruation and Lactation

Alkaloids found in the seed are thought to be responsible for alfalfa's ability to promote menstruation and lactation. While Alfalfa is purported as a galactagogue (a food that increased milk supply), there is limited data to support this claim.

Possible Side Effects

Due to its fiber content, ingestion of alfalfa could result in gas, abdominal discomfort, and diarrhea.

Be sure to increase your water intake any time you are increasing your fiber intake and increase your consumption of fiber gradually.

Immune-Compromised Warning

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an advisory indicating that children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems should avoid eating alfalfa sprouts because of frequent bacterial contamination. If you are immune compromised you are at increased risk of developing infections and are more prone to getting sick.

Because alfalfa sprouts have been linked to a number of food poisoning outbreaks (E. Coli and salmonella), it's probably a good idea for immune compromised people to avoid it.

Pregnancy

You should also not supplement with or ingest alfalfa if you are pregnant. Alfalfa could have hormonal implications and therefore should be avoided by these populations - it could promote menstruation and lactation.

Cancer, Lupus, and Autoimmune Disease

People who have hormone-sensitive cancer (such as breast, prostate, cervical or uterine cancers) should avoid alfalfa as it can have estrogenic effects.

For people living with lupus or other autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis, alfalfa should also be avoided. Supplementing or ingesting alfalfa could lead to a lupus relapse. Alfalfa seeds also contain a toxic amino acid, L-canavanine. Levels of this amino acid vary widely across various cultivations of plants and decrease as the plant matures.

It is thought that this amino acid may be responsible for alfalfa’s ability to cause a relapse of lupus symptoms in people who are in remission from the disease, and large levels of L-canavanine from alfalfa supplementation may have additional detrimental effects in humans.

Further Warnings

Alfalfa contains a high level of purines, a type of chemical compound found in foods and drinks that are part of a normal diet. People who have gout have a hard time metabolizing purines and should avoid alfalfa.

If you are using oral contraceptives, be wary when ingesting alfalfa as it could lower the effectiveness of the birth control.

Drug Interactions

You should be sure to consult with a doctor before taking any supplements that could potentially interact negatively with any medications you already take.

Warfarin

If you are taking Warfarin (Coumadin) a blood thinner, you should monitor your intake of alfalfa, as alfalfa is rich in vitamin K. Vitamin K is responsible for blood clotting. People taking Warfarin must ingest consistent intake of vitamin K and have their blood checked regularly.

Contraceptives

Birth control might be problematic when taking alfalfa because taking alfalfa may decrease the effectiveness of birth control pills.

Hormones

Taking alfalfa along with estrogen pills might decrease their effectiveness.

Diabetes Medications

Alfalfa supplementation may decrease blood sugar. Therefore, if you are taking medication to lower your blood sugar, you should monitor your blood sugar regularly. If your blood sugar seems to be going lower on a regular basis, an adjustment to your medication regimen may need to be made. Be sure to contact your medical team with any new pattern.

Immunosuppressive Drugs

Alfalfa may decrease the effectiveness of medications that decrease the immune system. Therefore, if you are taking medications that decrease the immune system, you may not want to supplement with alfalfa.

These include medications such as, azathioprine (Imuran), basiliximab (Simulect), cyclosporine (Neoral, Sandimmune), daclizumab (Zenapax), muromonab-CD3 (OKT3, Orthoclone OKT3), mycophenolate (CellCept), tacrolimus (FK506, Prograf), sirolimus (Rapamune), prednisone (Deltasone, Orasone), and corticosteroids (glucocorticoids). Always discuss with your medical professional if you are unsure.

Light-Sensitive Medications

Large doses of alfalfa may increase your sensitivity to light. Therefore, if you are taking medicines that also increase your sensitivity to light, you may want to avoid alfalfa altogether.

These may include amitriptyline (Elavil), Ciprofloxacin (Cipro), norfloxacin (Noroxin), lomefloxacin (Maxaquin), ofloxacin (Floxin), levofloxacin (Levaquin), sparfloxacin (Zagam), gatifloxacin (Tequin), moxifloxacin (Avelox), trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole (Septra), tetracycline, methoxsalen (8-methoxypsoralen, 8-MOP, Oxsoralen), and Trioxsalen (Trisoralen).

Ingesting alfalfa while on these types of medications can increase your risk of sunburn, blistering, or rashes.

Dosage and Preparation

The amount of alfalfa you should consume will depend on what you are using it for and how you are ingesting it. There is no universal dosage, as alfalfa has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration; however, according to Medline Plus (part of the National Library of Medicine) the following doses have been studied in scientific research:

  • for high cholesterol: a typical dose is 5 to 10 grams of the herb, or as a steeped strained tea, three times a day. 5 to 10 milliliters (mL) of a liquid extract in tincture form (1:1 in 25 percent alcohol) three times a day has also been used.

If you are looking to add fresh sprouts to your diet, purchasing, storage, and preparation will be important in reducing the risk of foodborne illness. Sprouts are prone to bacteria because bacteria thrive in a humid, warm environment—this is how sprouts are grown. In past years, alfalfa has been linked to E. Coli and salmonella.

Symptoms of foodborne illnesses include diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps that occur 12 to 72 hours after infection. If you experience any of these symptoms after ingesting alfalfa, contact your physician immediately.

What to Look For

To keep alfalfa safe, aim to purchase sprouts that have been kept properly refrigerated. Avoid sprouts that have been out in the heat or sun. You'll also want to avoid sprouts that appear to be slimy or smelly. Once you find your clean, crisp, and cool sprouts, store them in a clean refrigerator at a temperature of 40° F or below.

Before preparing sprouts, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water so as to prevent the spread of bacteria. Next, rinse sprouts before use. Cook sprouts to reduce the risk of food poisoning by killing bacteria, while still getting the nutritional benefits. You can toss them into soups, stir-fries, or roast until brown.

If you'd prefer to eat sprouts raw, make sure they've been washed thoroughly.

Alfalfa powders, pills, and teas are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and should be purchased from a reputable source. If you can, find one that has a third party certification, this will ensure the product has not been contaminated or adulterated.

Common Questions

Are there any interactions with supplements?

There is some potential for alfalfa to lower blood sugar. Therefore, if you are taking other herbs such as devil's claw, fenugreek, guar gum, Panax, ginseng, and Siberian ginseng (which also may lower blood sugar), you may not want to take alfalfa, too.

Alfalfa could also lower the body's ability to absorb dietary iron and may interfere with the way the body takes in and uses vitamin E.

Isn't alfalfa used to feed livestock?

Yes, it has been used as livestock feed for a long time, but can also be consumed by humans.

How does it taste?

The taste is sweet, bitter, and earthy.

A Word From Verywell

Alfalfa may help to reduce cholesterol, improve blood sugar, and produce anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. However, the elderly, children, and people who are immune compromised are cautioned to avoid alfalfa (particularly raw sprouts) due to their potential for causing foodborne illness. Additionally, alfalfa may interfere with many types of medications, such as coumadin and supplements. If you are taking medications or supplements, make sure to consult your physician before beginning adding or supplementing alfalfa into the diet.

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