Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), also known as Huang Qi, Milkvetch, and Yellow Leader, is a potent tonic herb whose claim to fame is its powerful immune-supporting properties. With a history of use dating back over 2,000 years, it is one of the key herbs used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), categorized in the highest class of potency in this ancient traditional system of medicine.
Astragalus eventually made its way into Western herbal medicine practices, and is now one of the primary immune tonic herbs in Western literature, including the European Pharmacopoeia and the World Health Organization’s Monographs on Selected medicinal plants. The combination of Astragalus’ antiviral, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and its immuno-stimulating effects further work together to prevent as well as treat infection, as described further under “Key Benefits” below.
Adaptogens are in essence tonics that strengthen bodily systems in a non-specific manner, and can be taken daily for overall health. Many of the adaptogens that are commonly used today, including Astragalus, have a history of use that dates back thousands of years.
Over the past few decades, Astragalus has received increasing attention as an adaptogen, particularly for its normalizing activity on the immune, nervous, and hormonal systems, and for its ability to increase stamina and endurance. It’s used in herbal medicine to help increase energy and resistance to stress (for example, in cases of mental and physical fatigue related to stress), and in TCM, it’s considered a tonic herbs for deficiency of Qi (vital energy or life force), used to treat symptoms of chronic fatigue and weakness as a result of physical exertion or stress.
Astragalus is one of the most prized immuno-modulating herbs, traditionally used in both TCM and Herbal Medicine to strengthen the lungs, treat colds and the flu, and to help maintain a healthy immune system. (1, 2) It’s commonly combined with other herbs like echinacea, licorice, schizandra and ginseng.
Astragalus is also used in TCM to tonify the spleen - the Chinese equivalent to the body’s metabolism - and to augment Qi (vital energy). It is thought that by fortifying the blood and increasing energy, the immune system is enhanced, the hormone system is balanced, and bone marrow, which produces the white blood cells of the immune system, is nourished.
This immuno-stimulating activity forms the basis of the integrative system of cancer care and prevention in TCM called Fu Zheng: a program of herbal therapies that treats disease by supporting the body’s own defence system. In TCM, cancer is considered a manifestation of an underlying imbalance in the body. Medical researchers in China have found that Fu Zheng therapy, which uses adaptogenic and tonic herbs, including Astragalus, helps to prevent many of the side effects of cancer treatment, including nausea and fatigue, and protect the immune system from damage resulting from chemotherapy and/or radiation.
Inflammation is tied to a large number of chronic diseases today, including arthritis, asthma, digestive conditions such as Crohn’s disease and inflammatory bowel disorder (IBD) and multiple sclerosis. It’s no surprise that Astragalus boasts both immuno-modulating and anti-inflammatory properties, as inflammation and immunity are closely related: early symptoms of inflammation in the body indicate that the immune function of the relevant cells has been affected.
Polysaccharides contained in Astragalus root have been shown to regulate both anti-inflammatory and pro-inflammatory factors, ultimately balancing immune response. It is proposed that Astragalus has the potential to disrupt various inflammatory diseases and affect certain inflammatory pathways. Although research on the anti-inflammatory mechanism of Astragalus has been conducted at the cellular level and in animal models, in-depth studies are in early stages and still lacking.