Astragalus is a herb.
It goes by a number of names, including: huang qi, ogi, hwanggi, bei qi, and milk vetch. There are thousands of species of astragalus but the two most commonly used for health support go by the Latin names Astragalus mongholicus and Astragalus membranaceus
Origins of astragalus
Astragalus originated in China and has been used for hundreds of years in Chinese traditional medicine. The root is mainly used to make tea, soup, extracts and powder for capsules. It is not usually consumed in isolation, but in companion with other herbs such as licorice, angelica or ginseng. Most Chinese herbs are prescribed in traditional combinations, and astragalus is no exception. In the West, astragalus is available singly, though the person may also be taking other supplements.
What astragalus is used for
The main purpose of Astragalus is immune support. A weak immune system can be a result of normal everyday stress, the challenges of winter, or for more serious ailments. Astragalus can be used to help build the body up during a chronic illness or is sometimes taken when fighting a severe illness such as cancer, as complimentary treatment. The types of cancers for it is more commonly recommended include cervical, breast and lung cancer.
Other conditions that Astragalus is used for include: hepatitis, heart disease, colds and flu, or upper respiratory infections, anaemia, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and kidney disease.
Astragalus is usually taken internally, but is sometimes applied to the skin to help with wound healing.
Astragalus has been found to be generally safe for people to take, depending on the variety, and the other medicines a person may already be taking. That said, there are some species that are not safe for human or livestock consumption – some can be toxic. That is why the two mentioned above, Astragalus mongholicus and Astragalus membranaceus, in particular, are the primary species that have been singled out for health uses.
The varieties that have been found to be harmful contain a neurotoxin called “swainsonine”, which is attributed to locoweed poisoning in animals. Some species also have unacceptably high levels of selenium (which is valuable in small doses, but not in excess).
When to avoid Astragalus
More research needs to be done, but as Astragalus may increase the activity of the immune system, it is not recommended for people with auto-immune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, as it may make their symptoms more pronounced. It is also not recommended for people taking immune-suppressive drugs, such as recipients of organ donations, as Astragalus has the opposite effect, nor should it be taken by people using medicines containing lithium.
You can ask your Chinese medicine practitioner about Astragalus and see if it is appropriate for your condition, or you can get hold of it at a health food shop or from a naturopath. Always inform your healthcare providers about any prescription or complementary medicines you are taking, and before you begin a new regime.
Katherine West is a health freak and freelance writer who in 2003 studied for a Diploma of Nutrition. She is also into yoga and pilates.