Astragalus is the most studied herb in Traditional Chinese Medicine. For thousands of years, this has been the go-to plant for numerous ailments. Whether it is fatigue, diarrhea, lack of appetite, night sweats, sores and ulcers, stress, or the common cold, Chinese and alternative medicine practitioners swear by the potency of this adaptogen. It is also called Huang Qi, literally translated as ‘yellow leader’, because it is believed to be a superior tonic with a Qi restorative effect. Qi is a term used to refer to vital energy and is closely linked to overall strength, immunity, and longevity.
Astragalus is deemed to be so effective that it is now considered an official drug in the modern Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China. In the Western world, however, there is still insufficient clinical evidence on the medicinal benefits of Astragalus to influence the outcome of human diseases despite the sheer volume of pharmacological studies related to the plant. Nevertheless, it is slowly taking its ground as a supplement with its immunostimulant, antioxidative, cardioprotective, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and stem cell stimulating properties.
Astragalus is the name of a plant genus with more than 2000 species. Among these, Astragalus membranaceus and Astragalus mongholicus are the most popularly used species for medicinal purposes. Other types of Astragalus contain neurotoxins and are not suitable for human consumption. The root of Astragalus is harvested from plants that are about four to five years old and is sold as dried slices, powder, shavings, whole root, shredded root, capsules, liquid extracts, tincture, and injectable forms.
There are more than 200 active constituents identified in the Astragalus species studied in the last few decades. The chemical components of various Astragalus types are highly uniform and mainly comprised of terpenoids, flavonoids, and polysaccharides called astragalans. Astragalus is also made up of various forms of saponins that show very interesting biological properties. The amounts of each component depend on the size, age, and growing conditions of the root.
Many species of Astragalus have been proven to be rich in cycloartane-type saponins that help regulate cholesterol, protect the heart, fight depression, boost the immune system, and suppress tumor growth. Astragalus also has oleanane-type saponins.
Astragalus, just like many other herbs, is a rich source of flavonoids. Flavonoids are plant metabolites that help in detoxifying the body while also keeping heart diseases and viruses at bay. Flavonoids also provide benefits through cell signaling.
By gas chromatography, researchers have identified that arabinose, fructose, glucose, and mannose monosaccharides are present in Astragalus. Polysaccharides have many health benefits too because of their antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral capabilities.
Amino acids, proteins and minerals can be obtained from Astragalus genus plants. Examples of other components are folic acid, selenium, zinc, copper, calcium, potassium, and iron.
Astragalus (Huang Qi)…
– helps reduce inflammation.
– helps protect the liver
– supports healthy bile flow
– helps the immune system
– supports detoxification
– strengthens and protects the gastrointestinal tract
– increases proliferation of stem cells
Astragalus for Inflammation
Long before the discovery of inflammatory markers, chemokines, and cytokines, ancient medical practitioners already know that Astragalus helps heal sores and ulcerations. Now that scientific evidence is available, we understand that Huang Qi has that effect because of a variety of mechanisms.
1. Taking Astragalus helps in modulating signaling pathways of activator proteins (like NF-κB and AP-1) that play a role in the expression of many genes involved in inflammation, cancer development, and cell death.
2. Astragalus suppresses inflammation by decreasing the secretion of chemokines while increasing the human interleukin cytokine. This process inhibits the synthesis of pro-inflammatory cytokines and chemokines. IL-10 also upregulates immune responses and weakens cell-mediated immune reactions.
3. Lastly, Astragalus has an anti-inflammatory effect through the p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) known to regulate cytokine production.
All these actions combined make Astragalus a potential treatment for inflammatory diseases.
Astragalus for Liver Protection
Various studies have already proven the effectivity of Astragalus in the management of different liver conditions. It is believed that Astragalus treatment may cause significant improvement among patients with alcohol-induced fatty liver; so much so that it can help reverse liver damage. Regular intake of Astragalus may also assist in keeping your cholesterol levels in check. Aside from reducing total and liver cholesterol and triglycerides, the herb is said to prevent fats from being absorbed from the intestines. It even facilitates accelerated evacuation of fats from the body.
Aside from those hepatic benefits, oral administration of Astragalus tincture on mice inhibits liver fibrosis and protects against liver damage by scavenging free radicals, decreasing levels of Transforming growth factor beta 1 or TGF-β1, a cytokine that is involved in cell growth, cell proliferation, and cell death. A similar experiment also showed how Huang Qi effectively slows down the progression of cholestatic liver fibrosis progression through the same mechanism. This liver disease may be caused by genetic or mechanical defects, toxins, or irregularities in the immune system that damage bile ducts and cause accumulation of bile.
Astragalus for Healthy Bile Flow and Gallbladder Function
Astragalus also helps the gallbladder and the liver since it affects bile acid biosynthesis. Huang Qi decreased accumulation of toxic bile in the liver, normalized serum bile acid levels, and increased the excretion of biliary and urinary bile acids. All these mechanisms make Astragalus an effective gallbladder protection by reversing the disordered homeostasis of bile acids.
Astragalus for Immune System Boost
What makes Astragalus a popular all-around remedy for TCM practitioners is its ability to support the immune system.
Astragalus helps strengthen the body’s natural defenses by:
1. Activating immune cells – Astragalus administration significantly increases both humoral and cellular immune response through its ability to stimulate cell proliferation, induce the expression of antigens, enhance the maturation of T-cells, and promote the production of antibodies.
2. Decreasing overactive immune function in patients with autoimmune diseases – This was illustrated in patients with lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and various allergies.
3. Acting as an adaptogenic herb, shielding the body from stress by supporting adrenal function and boosting detoxification.
4. Warding off some viruses and bacteria – Considering the wide variety of bacteria and viruses thriving around us, this claim still needs a lot of concrete evidence. At the moment, however, Astragalus has been used for vaccination against foot and mouth disease virus, Newcastle disease, virus, and Infectious bursal disease virus (IBDV).
Antioxidant and Anti-aging
Various research studies confirm that Astragalus helps in the body’s natural detoxification process. It serves as a scavenger for reactive oxygen species that causes free radical damage, a main component in disease development and aging.
Astragalus also protects our cells in various ways. Firstly, it helps shield the mitochondria, also known as the powerhouse of the cell responsible for metabolism and cell death. Aside from preventing premature cell death, this mechanism increases the activities of antioxidases. Astragalus also inhibits the process of aging in the cellular level by maintaining the health of telomeres. Telomeres are molecular caps found in each chromosome that are essential for proper cell function. The production of telomerase enzyme helps reverse the aging process.
Lastly, Astragalus intake helps in the detoxification as it up-regulates the expression of glutathione peroxidase. In our previous blog post, we discussed how we benefit from glutathione, our body’s natural antioxidant that unfortunately gets depleted over time.
Astragalus for the Gastrointestinal Tract
Astragalus helps strengthen and protect the gastrointestinal tract by improving the movement and muscle tonus in the intestine. It also helps lower excessive stomach acidity, increases the body’s metabolic rate, and promotes regular bowel elimination. In rat experiments, Astragalus is also proven to protect the colon from colitis (inflammation).
Regular intake of Huang Qi improves the composition of the gut microbiota. Animal experiments show that Astragalus supplementation increased beneficial Lactobacilli and Bacillus cereus numbers, while decreasing E. coli numbers.
Astragalus and Stem Cells
Stem cell treatment is one of the emerging viable alternative treatments for various health conditions like neurodegenerative, autoimmune, and inflammatory diseases. With the use of stem cell technology, patients with untreatable and chronic conditions like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, muscular dystrophy, and cancer are given hope with the possibility of getting better.
Astragalus, together with the other popular herbs in Chinese medicine play a role in the generation and protection of these stem cells. An example is a 2014 study on the potential of Chinese herbs to promote the proliferation, differentiation, and activation of neural stem cells and mesenchymal stem cells. Another similar study conducted in 2010 concluded that astragaloside IV found in Astragalus has a significant positive effect on the proliferation of mesenchymal stem cells and the increase of stem cell factors as exhibited in their animal experiments.
The Astragalus herb can be used when cooking soups and stews. Some people also boil the roots and drink the Astragalus tea. However, it may be challenging to do this every day to get your daily Huang Qi dose. That’s why Astragalus supplements in various forms are becoming more and more popular.
Astragalus supplements are considered safe for most adults. However, there is no standard or prescribed dosage. Some alternative medicine practitioners advise the following dosage:
Capsules: up to 500 mg three times a day
Tincture: 3-6 ml three times a day
Boiled Root: up to 15 grams of the Astragalus root in tea form
If you don’t have a trusted Astragalus supplement brand yet, you may try the following:
Hei, Z. Q., Huang, H. Q., Zhang, J. J., Chen, B. X., & Li, X. Y. (2005). Protective effect of Astragalus membranaceus on intestinal mucosa reperfusion injury after hemorrhagic shock in rats. World Journal of Gastroenterology: WJG, 11(32), 4986.
Kwon, H. J., Kim, Y. Y., & Choung, S. Y. (2005). Amelioration effects of traditional Chinese medicine on alcohol-induced fatty liver. World Journal of Gastroenterology: WJG, 11(35), 5512.
Li, X., Qu, L., Dong, Y., Han, L., Liu, E., Fang, S., … & Wang, T. (2014). A review of recent research progress on the astragalus genus. Molecules, 19(11), 18850-18880.
Liu, P., Zhao, H., & Luo, Y. (2017). Anti-aging implications of Astragalus Membranaceus (Huangqi): a well-known Chinese tonic. Aging and disease, 8(6), 868.
McCulloch, M., See, C., Shu, X. J., Broffman, M., Kramer, A., Fan, W. Y., … & Colford Jr, J. M. (2006). Astragalus-based Chinese herbs and platinum-based chemotherapy for advanced non-small-cell lung cancer: meta-analysis of randomized trials. J Clin Oncol, 24(3), 419-30.
Ryu, M., Kim, E. H., Chun, M., Kang, S., Shim, B., Yu, Y. B., … & Lee, J. S. (2008). Astragali Radix elicits anti-inflammation via activation of MKP-1, concomitant with attenuation of p38 and Erk. Journal of ethnopharmacology, 115(2), 184-193.
Si, Y. C., Li, Q., Xie, C. E., Niu, X., Xia, X. H., & Yu, C. Y. (2014). Chinese herbs and their active ingredients for activating xue (blood) promote the proliferation and differentiation of neural stem cells and mesenchymal stem cells. Chinese medicine, 9(1), 13.
Wu, J. S., Li, Y. F., Li, Y. Y., Dai, Y., Li, W. K., Zheng, M., … & Liu, P. (2017). Huangqi Decoction Alleviates Alpha-Naphthylisothiocyanate Induced Intrahepatic Cholestasis by Reversing Disordered Bile Acid and Glutathione Homeostasis in Mice. Frontiers in pharmacology, 8, 938.