Astragalus, Astragalus membranaceus
What brought me to want to share the knowledge of this herb was the intensity to which our communities have been dealing with the cold and flu season. Many have dealt with repeated virus invasions, colds, unending coughs and a general sense of unwell for most of this season. Astragalus is renown for building and supporting strong, healthy and dynamic immune health along with a slew of other positive health outcomes, something that can assist in the rebuild after a winter of tough immune stress.
I have a deep respect for Astragalus after relying on its ability to rebuild the immune system when we first arrived in BC 6 years ago. Our time in moving out to BC was super full, really stressful and highly active and intense. One year before we moved my Mom passed away from a lengthy battle with several types of cancer. The year after she passed I knew I wanted to do something larger with my life, my husband felt this way as well. We had purchased raw land out in the Slocan Valley years before this and up to this point had been sitting at the precipice of the change, waiting for the ‘right’ moment to take the step and move out of inner city Calgary to the woods and a radical life change.
Our opportunity came when we were asked if we want to take care of our friends’ property while they went overseas for work. This consisted of living year round in a 24-foot Yurt with outdoor plumbing, off grid electricity, wood heat in the wee village of Winlaw BC. We leapt at the chance for such a change. Putting most of our belongings in storage we moved our then 9-year-old daughter and ourselves from modern convenience to the unknown.
The year that followed this was dynamic to say the least. My immune system struggling, I fell vulnerable to every cold and flu bug that circulated. The year consisted of me just getting well to fall ill again, a cycle that seemed to never end. This is when I formally met Astragalus. I knew of this amazing herb, had used it with great success with many clients but hadn’t applied it to my own health prior to this. Including this herb, in addition to adjustments and other inclusions in my diet and lifestyle brought recovery for me and I managed to rebuild and strengthen my immune system plus so much more. Read on for all the goodness this root has to offer.
Astragalus is both the common name of one of the most widely used herbs in Chinese medicine, as well as the name of the plant group from which it originates. Astragalus membranaceus is known in China as “huang-qi” which means “yellow leader”. “Huang” means “yellow,” referring to the yellow interior of the root. “ Qi” means “leader,” referring to this herb as one of the superior “tonics” in Chinese medicine.
The genus Astragalus is a amazingly large and complex plant group of the pea family (Leguminosae). Most of the nearly 2000 species of Astragalus occur in northern temperate zones. In Europe, for example, there are 133 Astragalus species. In North America there are 368 Astragalus species, mostly confined to the western United States and Canada. This complex and large group contains a few ornamentals, medicinal plants as well as poisonous plants. One species found in Utah takes-up selenium from the soil and its presence on certain soil types is used as an indicator for the possibility of finding uranium.
It’s important to note that the plant we use for medicine is a specific genus and species. There are over 2,000 different species in the Astragalus genus. Some of these plants are toxic and none are known to have the same qualities as Astragalus membranaceus, although a few are used medicinally.
Astragalus root is considered to be a sweet tonic herb that is slightly warming. It has an ascending energy (which is important; we’ll get to that later).
From a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective Astragalus is specifically a Spleen Qi Tonic and a Lung Qi Tonic. Therefore, it is used when there is Spleen Qi Deficiency and Lung Qi Deficiency.
In TCM, the Spleen is responsible for transforming food and drink into Qi (energy) and Blood. If someone is lacking Qi or energy, we look for dysfunction of the Spleen first and foremost. If a person isn’t assimilating food correctly, how can they achieve good health?
After the Spleen transforms food and drink into Qi, the Qi ascends to the Lungs where it is combined with the Lung Qi and transformed into the Zhen Qi, or energy that supports our entire body.
When the Spleen is lacking Qi the person may experience fatigue and sluggishness, loose stools or diarrhoea, poor appetite, phlegm and dampness, weak arms and legs and prolapsed organs (such as haemorrhoids).
Astragalus root is a Spleen Qi tonic bringing energy, increases appetite and improves digestion and can lift prolapsed organs.
Astragalus is also a Lung Qi tonic. The Lungs take in air and create Qi. The Lungs house what is called the Wei Qi (pronounced “way-chi”), sometimes referred to as the defensive Qi. The Wei Qi is like a force field for our body, protecting us from invading pathogens (bacteria, virus, etc.). When the Lungs or the Wei Qi are weak we are more prone to illness, may have dull skin, and difficulty with breathing.
As a Lung Qi tonic, Astragalus root is useful for those who are frequently coming down with colds and the flu, have difficulty breathing (such as asthma) or those who sweat too much or not enough.
Astragalus builds up the protective chi. Imagine that there is a protective shield around your body, just below the surface of the skin, that keep out cold and other external influences. It vitalizes the non-specific immune defenses and wards off infections. This is the protective chi, and astragalus is the premier herb in Chinese herbalism to strengthen it. -Paul Bergner
Astragalus is a herb that slowly builds the system. Don’t expect immediate results. Because it is a food-like herb it is recommended to take it daily, in large amounts for an extended period of time. It is recommended anywhere from 10 – 30 grams per day for an adult. A heaping tablespoon is about 15 – 20 grams depending on the cut of the root.
Typically, astragalus root is used as a decoction of the root or it is cooked into food like stew or rice (the root will need to be removed before eating). Most texts recommend simmering it for a minimum of a half hour to a full hour.
While astragalus is traditionally used as a decoction or cooked with foods, western herbalists have started tincturing the root as well. Herbalist David Winston recommends 2 – 3 ml of a 1:5 astragalus extract three times per day. During my recovery stage of rebuilding my immune system I took a dosage of 5 ml twice daily for three months.
Remember, when using the root in food (soups, rice, quinoa, etc.) you will always have to remove the root since it is too fibrous to eat.
There are several ways to include this root in your everyday life, decoct it into your bone broth recipe, include it in your chai blend of herbs, cook rice with it, stews and soups greatly benefit from its inclusion. The options are endless.
PREVENTATIVE OR ACUTE USE?
Astragalus is best taken to prevent colds and the flu but it should be avoided during acute illness. This is due to its tonic energy. Tonic energy strengthens and holds energy in the body. When one is sick, it is necessary to diffuse that illness from the body, not tone within.
I frequently combine astragalus with reishi mushroom to improve immunity and instruct patients who easily get sick to drink a daily dose of the two throughout fall and winter. Similarly, it may be included in soups or cooked with grains and eaten on a weekly basis to help the whole family get through the winter without a single cold (people are always impressed with how well they feel and avoid colds and flu.)
-Lesley Tierra, Healing with the Herbs of Life
Astragalus also has great benefits as an Adaptogen, easing symptoms of chronic stress and exhaustion. Astragalus is renown for its ability to improve longevity due to its high anti-oxidant quality. Astragalus is known to strengthen the heart, protect and repair liver and kidney function, and regulate fluid metabolism.
Astragalus is also a blood tonic. It helps to regulate fluid metabolism, and those who consume it regularly are said to rarely suffer from fluid retention and bloating. -Ron Teeguarden, Chinese Tonic Herbs