ASTRAGALUS ROOT (Astragalus membranicus)

Latin: Astragalus membranaceus

Chinese: Huang qi

WHAT IT DOES: Astragalus root is sweet in taste and slightly warming in action, It strengthens the vital force (Qi), boosts the immune system, and strengthens the heart and lungs.

RATING: Yellow, due to limitations in usage.

SAFETY ISSUES: Should not be used to treat acute infections.  Use cautiously in patients with hypertension or heat signs. Discontinue use if it causes headache.

STARTING DOSAGE: dried powder
•  Dried powder: 1-3 grams per day for long-term use

Astragalus root is a very important vital energy (Qi) in TCM, as important as ginseng root.  It has long been used to treat immune deficiency and fatigue (including from chemotherapy), to heal wounds, and to improve digestion and reduce edema caused by cardiac weakness.  It is also very useful for chronic or acute low blood pressure.  Astragalus root and rehmannia root are key herbs in most TCM prescriptions for treating chronic nephritis (Su et al., 1993, Zhang et al., 1986, Zhao, 1983).  Astragalus is noticeably stimulating, and its action is described as being able to “push the blood,” and “bring energy up to the head.” I wholeheartedly agree with the latter statement–I get a headache if I take it myself, indicating I don’t need this type of energy stimulation. But patients who get dizzy easily from lack of blood flow often feel it helps a lot.

To determine if a patient should take astragalus for immune tonification (research clearly show it strengthens the immune system cells), the simple key sign I look for is fatigue, weakness or low blood pressure.  It is very useful for patients who complain of catching every bug that comes around.  It is best used in small doses over a long period of time for prevention of infections, in contradistinction to echinacea or chrysanthemum flowers, which are best used with acute infections. Astragalus is a key ingredient in the Chinese immune formula called Jade Screen, used to boost immunity and prevent infections.

I often use astragalus in conjunction with TCM blood nourishing herbs like dang gui or shou wu to “lead the herbs upward” if I want to boost circulation for problems with hair, sinus, sense of smell or taste, hearing etc.

TCM doctors also use astragalus root for treating prolapse syndromes of the uterus, stomach and anus, and to help stop uterine bleeding.  I urge caution when using astragalus unless under the care of a qualified health care practitioner, because while it works really well in weak patients with signs of coldness, it can create nervousness, headache and even raise blood pressure in patients with heat signs or hypertension.

Research highlights

• In a study of the effects of astragalus on strength and endurance in mice, the group that received astragalus decoction exhibited greater weight gain and greater endurance in swimming tests in comparison to the control group (reported in Bensky and Gamble, 1986).

• In various pharmacological and animal studies, astragalus root shows considerable immune-enhancing activity.  Oral doses of the whole root or root extracts have been shown to increase phagocytic activity (cellular debris gobbling), enhance production of interferon (an important immune chemical) and activate natural killer (NK) cell activity.

• Astragalus also excites the central nervous system, strengthens heart contraction in fatigued patients, decreases protein in the urine, and conserves liver glycogen (Ma et al., 1998; Liang et al., 1995; Hong et al., 1994; Hong et al., 1992; Zhao et al., 1990; reported in Yeung, 1983).

• Astragalus has been studied in vitro for its effects on ischemic heart disease, heart failure, angina pain and liver protection against poisonous agents (endotoxin).  In one study of patients with ischemic heart disease, astragalus root relieved angina symptoms and improved EKG results (Li et al., 1995).

• A review of live animal research has indicated that it affords a cardio-protective benefit in cases of ischemic heart disease, heart failure, angina pain, and liver poisoning by endotoxin.  It is an in vitro antioxidant mechanism that allows the herb to offer this protection.  (Miller, 1998).  Other researchers have come to the same conclusion with regard to liver protection (Wang and Han, 1992).

• In one interesting study that tested the ability of astragalus root to increase vital energy (Qi), researchers inserted microcomputers inserted into the stomachs of healthy dogs after they received a concentrated astragalus solution.  The readings indicated that the solution strengthened the movement and muscle tone in the intestine, especially the jejunum (Yang, 1993).

• Several studies have confirmed the ability of astragalus root to prevent heart damage caused by viral myocarditis.  Researchers used a formula composed primarily of astragalus root, ophiopogon root and honeysuckle flower in a randomized controlled cross-over clinical study of viral myocarditis in mice.  They compared left ventricular function in the test group to the same function in a control group that received Coenzyme Q10.  The researchers concluded that the formula could directly inactivate the Coxsackie B3 virus, protect the heart cells, and increase interferon and NK immune cell activity (Yan, 1991).

• Another group concluded, “it is a rational choice to treat patients with astragalus in viral myocarditis” (Guo et al., 1995; Peng et al., 1995).

• Two weeks after receiving injections of astragalus fraction, 15 of 19 patients with congestive heart failure experienced relief from chest distress and dispnea, and improved capability to exercise (Luo et al., 1995).

• In a study of rats with acute brain edema caused by pertussis vaccine, a TCM formula called bu yang huan wu tang that contains 84% astragalus root was shown to raise declining levels of the important cellular antioxidants SOD and glutathione peroxidase.  Researchers concluded that the formula protected the blood-brain barrier and certain brain cells from damage (Zhou et al., 1994).

• A controlled study to test the ability of TCM formulas to improve the quality of life of persons with chronic renal failure treated 36 patients with a decoction containing ginseng root, astragalus root, licorice root, rhubarb root and cinnamon twigs.  Researchers studied the effects on six symptoms: fatigue, lassitude in loin and legs, aversion to cold, anorexia, sexual dysfunction and mental depression.  Five patients improved markedly in symptom scores, and their creatine levels approached normal readings (Sheng et al., 1994).