The Health Benefits of Alfalfa

Nutritious herb may help prevent or treat certain illnesses

Alfalfa sprouts

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Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is a perennial plant belonging to the Fabaceae family that has long been used in traditional medicine to treat a variety of health conditions. It has a sweet, bitter, grassy flavor when consumed fresh in the form of sprouts. When taken as a supplement, alfalfa is thought to be beneficial in treating diabetes, high cholesterol, arthritis, urinary tract infections, menstrual problems, and an array of other disorders.

Also Known As

Health Benefits

Alfalfa is a low-calorie, nutrient-dense food. According to the USDA Nutrient Database, one cup of alfalfa sprouts has only 8 calories but delivers 0.2 grams fat, 0.7 grams carbohydrate, 0.6 grams fiber, and 1.3 grams protein. Alfalfa's rich soluble fiber content may help reduce cholesterol and aid in weight loss by increasing satiety (a feeling of fullness).

Alfalfa also contains a number of important vitamins and minerals, including:

Beyond its dietary benefits, alfalfa is often used in alternative therapies to treat medical conditions and metabolic disorders. For the most part, the scientific evidence to support these claims is weak.

High Cholesterol

Alfalfa contains saponins, a substance thought to bind cholesterol to bile salts and reduce serum cholesterol levels. Animal studies have shown a direct association between increasing doses of alfalfa saponin extract and decreasing blood cholesterol levels in rats.

Whether the same effect can be achieved in humans is uncertain. Alfalfa has been understudied as a potential treatment of hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol), and it is unclear if the same relative dose in rats can be used safely in humans. Further research is needed.

Diabetes

Fiber-rich foods like alfalfa may help control blood sugar by slowing the absorption of glucose in the intestines. As such, alfalfa may aid in the treatment of diabetes or prediabetes. There has been some evidence of this, albeit scant, in animal studies.

A 2015 study published in Interventional Medicine and Applied Science reported that rats with chemically-induced diabetes experienced a reduction in blood glucose, cholesterol, triglycerides, and "bad" low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol after receiving an alfalfa extract for 21 days. There was also a significant increase in the level of "good" high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.

At present, there is little evidence the same benefits can be achieved in humans. Further research is again needed.

Urinary Tract Disorders

Alternative practitioners believe alfalfa acts as a natural diuretic ("water pill") and can be used to treat urinary tract disorders, including renal calculi (kidney stones) and urinary tract infections (UTIs).

Despite claims to the contrary, there is little evidence that alfalfa can help prevent or clear kidney stones, much less treat an acute urinary tract infection.

Premenstrual Syndrome

Alfalfa contains phytoestrogens, plant-based hormones that mimic the action of the female hormone estrogen. Herbalists contend alfalfa can be an effective remedy for menstrual disorders such as premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

There is little evidence the estrogenic effect is robust enough to be of any benefit. There is even less evidence to support claims that alfalfa can prevent or treat menopause symptoms, osteoporosis in postmenopausal women, or breast cancer as some alternative practitioners claim.

Breast Milk Production

Alfalfa is regarded as a plant-based galactagogue, meaning it can stimulate breast milk production. Alfalfa is, in fact, one of the most popular traditional medicines used as a galactagogue alongside black seed (Nigella sativa) and fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum).

A 2014 review in the journal Procedia suggests that Medicago sativa tablets can be used safely for this purpose but provides little evidence as to how effective the treatment may be or what dose is needed.

Arthritis

A number of test-tube studies have reported that alfalfa exerts potent anti-inflammatory effects by suppressing the production of inflammatory compounds known as cytokines.

Some alternative practitioners believe this effect can reduce pain and inflammation associated with osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis. Alfalfa is, in fact, one of the more popular ingredients used in herbal arthritis remedies.

To date, these benefits remain largely unproven. With rheumatoid arthritis particularly, the underlying cause of inflammation is autoimmune (meaning the body's own immune cells attack healthy joints). Alfalfa in no way alters this action. In fact, there is evidence that alfalfa can trigger acute symptoms of certain autoimmune diseases.

As for osteoarthritis, there has yet to be any clear evidence that alfalfa in any form can help relieve joint pain or inflammation.

Possible Side Effects

Alfalfa sprouts are considered safe and nutritious but may cause side effects in some people. Due to its high fiber content, consuming raw alfalfa can cause gas, abdominal discomfort, and diarrhea.

Arguably, the greater (and more common) concern is the contamination of alfalfa sprouts by bacterial pathogens such as Salmonella or E. coli.

FDA Consumer Warning

In 2016, the FDA issued a warning about an outbreak of Salmonella infections in 12 states directly linked to alfalfa sprouts. As a result, the FDA now advises certain people not to consume raw sprouts, namely:

  • Children under five
  • Adults 65 and over
  • Pregnant women
  • People with weakened immune systems, such as organ transplant recipients or those with untreated HIV

Symptoms of Salmonella and E. coli contamination include diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps. If you experience symptoms like these hours or even days after eating fresh alfalfa, contact your doctor immediately.

Because of its estrogenic effects, alfalfa should be avoided in people with hormone-sensitive cancers such as breast, prostate, cervical, or uterine cancers.

Alfalfa sprouts also contain an amino acid called L-canavanine that can trigger inflammation in people with certain autoimmune diseases, particularly lupus. Eating alfalfa or taking it as a supplement can trigger acute lupus symptoms.

Speak with your doctor if you have an autoimmune condition, including multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis, before eating alfalfa sprouts or taking alfalfa supplements.

Drug Interactions

Alfalfa supplements may interact with certain medications. It is unknown how robust these interactions may be or if they may require a dose adjustment or change in treatment.

Among the drug interactions of concern:

The degree of drug interaction is unknown and may or may not be problematic. As a general rule, higher doses tend to increase the potential for drug interactions.

To avoid interactions, let your doctor know if you use alfalfa or any other supplements for medical purposes.

Dosage and Preparation

Alfalfa supplements are widely available in vitamin shops as well as many health food stores. It is also sold as an herbal tea, tincture, tablet, powder, and dried herb. Fresh alfalfa sprouts can be purchased in many grocery stores.

Although there are no guidelines for the appropriate use of alfalfa, the herb has been used safely in medical research. According to the data from the National Library of Medicine, alfalfa supplements have been used in doses ranging from 5 grams to 10 grams three times daily with no reported harm.

If taking an alfalfa supplement in any form, never exceed the dose on the product label. Little is known about the long-term safety of alfalfa supplements.

Fresh alfalfa sprouts are generally considered safe in people with normal immune systems. Even so, there always is a risk of bacterial contamination with any store-bought sprouts.

What to Look For

There are a number of things to consider when eating fresh alfalfa or taking alfalfa in supplement form.

Alfalfa Sprouts

To reduce the risk of bacterial contamination, purchase sprouts that have been properly refrigerated and are not slimy, wilted, discolored, or smelly. Sprouts are best stored in the refrigerator at around 40 degrees F.

Before eating them, wash and rinse sprouts thoroughly to mitigate potential exposure to bacterial contaminants. Better yet, cook the sprouts rather than eating them raw. The same applies to alfalfa juice. Cooking will alter the flavor and texture but retain some of the nutritional value.

Alternately, purchase alfalfa seeds online or at a health food store and sprout them at home.

Alfalfa Supplements

Nutritional supplements are not strictly regulated in the United States and can vary in quality from one brand to the next.

When purchasing nutritional supplements, tinctures, or powders, opt for brands that have been independently tested by a certifying body like U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), ConsumerLab, or NSF International.

Certification does not mean that supplements are safe or effective, but it does ensure the ingredients on the product label are correct and pure.

It is more difficult to assess the quality of the traditional Chinese remedy Mu Xu. It generally is advisable to avoid imported herbal remedies. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, herbal remedies from China are sometimes tainted with drugs, heavy metals, pesticides, and other harmful ingredients.

Common Questions

How do you sprout alfalfa?

To sprout fresh alfalfa you will need alfalfa seeds and a sprouting jar with a perforated lid (available for purchase online and in many gardening centers).

To grow alfalfa sprouts:

  1. Add two tablespoons of alfalfa seeds to the sprouting jar.
  2. Cover with 1/2 cup of water and let soak overnight.
  3. Drain the seeds through the mesh lid and rinse thoroughly. Repeat.
  4. After eight hours, drain and rinse again. Store away from sunlight.
  5. Thereafter, drain and rinse two to three times daily. Tiny sprouts will appear in after around three days.
  6. Once the sprout tails develop, move the jar to indirect sunlight. This will help them turn green. (Placing the sprouts in direct sunlight can kill them.)
  7. When the sprouts are three inches tall, more or less in two to three days, they are ready to harvest and eat.

A Word From Verywell

Alfalfa sprouts may be tasty and healthy, but there is no evidence they can treat or prevent any diseases or health conditions. Moreover, fresh alfalfa sprouts pose a potential risk to young children, older adults, pregnant women, and anyone with a compromised immune system.

If you intend to use alfalfa for medicinal purposes, let your doctor know so that you can be monitored for side effects or possible drug interactions.

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