Astragalus membranaceus

Last night I was sharing information about the wonders of Astragalus with my Herbal Medicine Correspondence Course students, as we have just begun our lesson on the Immune and Lymphatic System.  Since it is an herb with inestimable value for so many and with such a long lived and respected reputation, I was inspired to share about it here with readers of the Way of the Wild Heart blog as well.

Astragalus has been growing in our gardens for nearly twenty years now.  It is quite hardy and withstands even the coldest Maine winters. It grows into a large bush, is quite feathery, bright green and very pretty looking, with dainty, fan-like yellow flowers in mid to late summer.

Oftentimes, when closely observing nature, you will notice that the gifts of a plant make themselves known to you in the manner in which the plant grows, the conditions it requires, and its degree of hardiness.  When a plant thrives no matter what, take a deeper look and you may find that it will help you to do the same.  Astragalus strikes me as such a plant. Rugged, resilient, strong, powerful, long-lived, graceful, and elegant.

Astragalus is a tonic and restorative food and a potent medicine plant.  The Chinese have been using this plant to strengthen immunity for centuries. They say it “strengthens the exterior,” or protects against illness.  Known as Huang-qi, astragalus is written about in the 2,000-year-old   Shen Nong Ben Cao Jin, and is still considered to be one of the superior tonic roots in traditional Chinese medicine.  Its name literally means yellow, referring to the inside of the root, and leader, referring to its medicinal potency.

Mildly sweet, moistening, slightly warm and stimulating, astragalus invigorates vital energy, is nourishing and restorative, will strengthen resistance, restore damaged immunity, promote tissue regeneration, is cancer inhibiting, antiviral, adaptogenic, protects and strengthens the heart and the liver, is tonic to the lungs and enhances digestion.

Many scientific studies have verified its immune enhancing action.  Astragalus is a powerful “non-specific” immune system stimulant.  Instead of activating our defense system against a specific disease organism, astragalus nourishes immunity by increasing the numbers and activity of roving white blood cells, the macrophages.  Macrophages are the cells that T-lymphocytes “call” to come engulf invading organisms.

As an immunostimulant, astragalus engages and activates every phase of our immune system into heightened activity.  In one study, the activity of macrophages was significantly enhanced within six hours of treatment with astragalus and remained so for the next seventy-two hours.

In Chinese medicine astragalus roots are said to tonify the spleen, blood, and chi. They are used as a tonic for the lungs, for those with pulmonary disease, frequent colds, shortness of breath, and palpitations. Astragalus is also prescribed for those who suffer from fatigue, from any source, chronic nephritis, night sweats, prolapsed uterus or rectum.

Its tissue regenerating and anti-inflammatory abilities make astragalus an excellent ally to heal chronic ulcerations and persistent external infections, as well as to heal hard-to-heal sores and wounds and to drain boils and draw out pus.

Astragalus roots processed in honey is a specific against fatigue, used to boost vital energy, to nourish the blood, and also against incontinence, bloody urine or diarrhea.

In a study conducted by the University of Texas Medical Center in Houston, researchers compared damaged immune cells from cancer patients to healthy cells.  Astragalus extracts completely restored the function of the cancer patients’ damaged immune cells, in some cases surpassing the health and activity of the cells from healthy individuals.

The extract of astragalus also significantly inhibited the growth of tumor cells in mice, especially when combined with lovage, Levisticum officinale (cousin of angelica). According to a study reported in Phytotherapy Research, astragalus appears to restore immunocompetence and is potentially beneficial for cancer patients as well as those suffering with AIDS. It increases the number of stem cells present in the bone marrow and lymph tissue and stimulates their differentiation into immune competent cells, which are then released into the tissues, according to one study reported in the Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Astragalus also stimulates the body’s natural production of interferon, increases its effectiveness in treating disease, and increased the life span of human cells in culture.

Astragalus protects adrenal cortical function while undergoing chemotherapy or radiation and helps modify the gastrointestinal toxicity in patients receiving these therapies.  Chinese doctors use astragalus against chronic hepatitis, and many studies have demonstrated that astragalus protects the liver against liver-toxic drugs and anti-cancer compounds commonly used in chemotherapy, such as stilbenemide.  When used as an adjunct to conventional cancer treatments, astragalus appears to increase survival rates, to increase endurance, and to be strongly liver protective.

Astragalus helps lower blood pressure, due to its ability to dilate blood vessels, and protects the heart.  Scientists in the Soviet Union have shown that astragalus protects the heart muscle from damage caused by oxygen deprivation and heart attack.

According to reports in the Chinese Medical Journal, doctors at the Shanghai Institute of Cardiovascular Diseases found that astragalus showed significant activity against Coxsackie B virus, which can cause an infection of the heart called Coxsackie B viral myocarditis, for which no effective treatment exists.  In a follow-up study, astragalus helped maintain regular heart rhythms and beating frequency, and Coxsackie B patients showed far less damage from the viral infection (as much as 85%).

In Chinese medicine, astragalus is often combined with codonopsis.  This compound is said to strengthen the heart and increase the vital energy while invigorating the circulation of blood throughout the body. It is also traditionally combined with ginseng and used as a tonic against fatigue, chronic tiredness, lack of energy, enthusiasm, or appetite, and to ease “spontaneous perspiration” or hot flashes.

Japanese physicians use astragalus in combination with other herbs to treat cerebral vascular disease.  According to a research paper published by Zhang in 1990, adolescent brain dysfunction was diminished more with a Traditional Chinese Medicine formula containing astragalus in combination with codonopsis, than with Ritalin.

Integrating astragalus roots into your diet, especially during the winter months, as the Asians have been doing for years, turns out to be a very good idea. Scientists have demonstrated that astragalus will not only prevent colds, but cut their duration in half. Astragalus possesses strong antiviral properties, and in one study regenerated the bronchial cells of virus-infected mice.

Astragalus has been safely used throughoutAsiafor thousands of years.  The Chinese typically slice astragalus roots and add them, along with other vegetables, to chicken broth to create a nourishing and tonic soup.  Discard the root after cooking, and consume the broth.  No toxicity from the use of astragalus has ever been shown in the millennia of its use in China.

The genus Astragalus is the largest group of flowering plants, with over 2,000 species, most of which are found in the northern temperate regions.  Plants in this genus are amazingly diverse, some are nourishing and medicinal, some useful as raw materials, and others, such as the locoweeds, are toxic.

Astragalus membranaceus grows in the wild along the edges of woodlands, in thickets, open woods and grasslands.  It is native to the Northeastern regions of China, but grows excellently in our Maine soils and temperatures, as do most Chinese medicinal plants we’ve attempted to grow thus far.

Astragalus appreciates deep, well drained, somewhat alkaline soil. Seeds are easily gathered and when planted in the fall require no prior soaking.  They will germinate the following spring as soon as conditions are right.  The seeds have a hard seed coat, and some people nick the covering with a file or soak the seed overnight to hasten germination.  Give each plant plenty of room, as much as a foot all around, and harvest after the fourth or fifth year of growth.  Use whole or sliced, fresh or dried root for tinctures, honey, infusions, syrup, or in soups.

You’ll find our Certified Organic tincture of Astragalus membranaceus here:

Our Mushroot Chai Deep Immune Tonic contains Astragalus and American ginseng along with a selection of medicinal mushrooms, you’ll find it here:

Our Liver Support Blend as well as our Lung and Digestive Blend, both contain Astragalus and can be found here:

Many healthful blessings to you!

About gailfaithedwards

Gail Faith Edwards is an internationally recognized Community Herbalist with over thirty years experience. She is the author of a number of books about herbs and has taught in India, Italy, Poland and Russia, at the Yale School of Nursing, the University of Maine and the College of the Atlantic, among others. She is the founder of Blessed Maine Herb Farm and Director of the Blessed Maine Herb Farm School of Herbal Medicine. She is the mother of four grown children and the grandmother of four grandsons. Gail leads sacred journeys and ancestral pilgrimages to Southern Italia twice a year.
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  1. Patrick says:

    Hey Gail and thanks a lot for this detailed presentation of this beautiful plant… I’ve been using Astragalus for a few months now and I can feel how my energy level gets heightened right away. Yesterday, I went to a Chinese shop in Paris selling herbal goodies. I asked for Astralagus and the shopkeeper didn’t have a clue what I was talking about… But after some fruitul search on the internet via her cell phone, we found the Chinese word for it (huang qi). And she suggested that I use Codonopsis (Dang Shen) with it, as you mention in your presentation… I have a couple of questions though. You don’t mention the presence of telomerase in the plant which has sparked a lot of research about reversing the aging process. I wanted to get your take on this. And if the Asparagus boosts the production of cells, isn’t that dangerous for a cancer patient with a lot of malignant cells?
    Thanks for your time, Gail.

    • Patrick, Astragalus is a super food for the immune system and a specific when dealing with cancer, not contraindicated at all. I don’t know about the telomerase, I will have to research that, thanks for calling my attention to it.

  2. Chantal says:

    Pretty! This was a really wonderful post. Thank you
    for supplying this information.

  3. Betty says:

    What is the youngest age of child can this safely be used? Where do I buy it? How do I know that I’m getting a pure product? Thank you.

    • Betty, Astragalus is safe for children in smaller doses, usually depending on weight. There is a link at the bottom of the article where you can purchase a 1oz. bottle of USDA/MOFGA certified Organic astragalus tincture of impeccable quality from Blessed Maine Herb Farm. We’re a certified grower and processor of medicinal herbs and can trace on paper every step of production from the seed to the final product. This assures our customers that we have met or exceeded the highest standards set in the herbal medicine community. The drops of tincture can be diluted in water, tea or juice. Clark’s Rule is a mathematical formula used to calculate the proper dosage of medicine for children aged 2-17. Take the child’s weight in pounds, divide by 150 lb, and multiply the fractional result by the adult dose to find the equivalent child dosage. For example: If an adult dose is 30 mg and the child weighs 30 lb. Divide the weight by 150 (30/150) to get 1/5. Multiply 1/5 times 30 mg to get 6 mg. Good luck!

  4. Great Ideas… Number 3 is a great forcesharing what you have learned is a great educationThanks for sharingGreg Avery

  5. Well said. You are reminding me that I’m long past due to have some Astragalus myself. 🙂

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