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Astragalus

Latin Names: Astragalus membranaceus; Astragalus hoangchi

Other Names: Yellow Vetch (common English name); Huang Qi, Bei Qi (Chinese)

Taxonomy: Vegetable Kingdom, Fabaceae / Leguminosae Legume or Bean / Pea family

Part Used: The dried root.

Basic Qualities: Hot 2, Dry 2 (moderately warming and drying)

Other Qualities: Astringent, consolidating, lifting, derivative

Taste: Mildly sweet; slightly pungent and astringent

Humoral Dynamics: Sanguine – Tonifies the Blood and its vital and thymic immune force; dilates the peripheral blood vessels and capillaries; concocts and ripens pus and purulent toxins.  Phlegmatic – improves the efficiency of fluid metabolism; cleans and dries up stagnant turbid fluids and dampness.  Choleric – no marked effect.  Melancholic – a mild astringent, consolidator and derivative with a lifting, binding and drying effect; as a tonic, it strengthens the external thymic immune shield and increases the Spleen’s Retentive Force of holding organs up and in, and in holding blood in the vessels.

Tropism: The blood and its vital force; the thymic immune shield; the peripheral blood vessels and capillaries; the lungs, liver, spleen and pancreas; the flesh and muscles; the kidneys, urinary tract and pelvic organs.

Constituents and Pharmacology: Astragalus root is an extremely rich source of a wide variety of immune stimulating polysaccharides, as well as saponins, astragalosides, isoflavonoids and triterpenoids, which all contribute to its tonic and restorative effects on the organism.  The polysaccharide cycloartane glucoside fractions found in Astragalus include astragalosides I – IV and trigonosides I – III.  The major isoflavonoids found in Astragalus include formononetin, ononin, calycosin and its glycoside.  The triterpenoids and saponins found in Astragalus have a structural similarity to steroid hormone precursors.  According to animal and human studies, the polysaccharides, isoflavones and saponins found in Astragalus can lower blood glucose levels, having an antidiabetic effect.  Astragalus polysaccharides have been shown to have antiviral and antimicrobial activity, and to increase endogenous interferon production and enhance its potency.  There is in vitro evidence that Astragalus can potentiate the effects of chemotherapy while reducing its side effects via stimulation of the immune system.  The constituents of Astragalus, particularly the flavonoids, appear to have cellular protective effects against pathology in the cardiovascular, hepatic, pulmonary and renal organ systems.  Astragalosides appear to enhance cardiovascular function in a number of ways, improving angiogenesis in the myocardium, strengthening ventricular systole and lowering arterial tension by dilating the peripheral blood vessels; astragalosides have a cardiotonic and diuretic effect, potentiating the excretion of sodium ions through the urine.  The immune stimulating effects of Astragalus include an increase in cell-mediated immunity, increase the levels of tumor necrosis factor and interleukin 6, and enhance the activity of macrophages and natural killer cells.  Astragalus extracts have also produced beneficial effects on the hormonal and reproductive systems, which include increased growth hormone release by the pituitary in rats and enhanced sperm cell motility and viability in infertile men.  Source – For more information and details, go to: Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous)

Medicinal Properties: Tonic, adaptogen, immune tonic and stimulant, astringent, derivative, anhydrotic, antiviral, cardiotonic, mild diuretic, restorative, peripheral vasodilator, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant.

Cautions and Contraindications: Due to its mildly astringent properties, Astragalus has a binding and strengthening effect on the external Wei Qi or thymic immune shield of the body.  Therefore, a cardinal symptom or key indication for its use is the slight, furtive sweating, even without hot weather or vigorous physical activity that comes from a weakening of the external thymic immune shield and its regulation of the closing and opening of the pores.  And so, Astragalus is contraindicated whenever the exogenous pathogenic factors of cold, flu or rheumatic wind and dampness have penetrated the surface immune shield of the body – these exogenous pathogenic factors on the superficial level must first be sweated out or eliminated before Astragalus can be used.  If this is not done, “the robber is trapped inside the house”, so to speak, and the symptoms of these exogenous pathogens and the generalized malaise they can cause will only intensify.  However, this contraindication can sometimes be circumvented by combining Astragalus with the right diaphoretic or sweat inducing herbs; my personal favorite for this purpose, which is also used in Chinese herbal medicine, is Fresh Ginger root; another is Spanish Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) or Chinese Cinnamon twigs (Gui Zhi).  Using Astragalus in tonic medicinal wines and alcoholic extracts or tinctures may be another way to circumvent this contraindication.  So, although Astragalus is a great immune tonic, it should generally not be used when exogenous pathogenic factors are present, unless judiciously combined with the above herbs or media of administration.

Medicinal Uses: As an immunostimulant herb in immunodeficiency conditions like cancer, AIDS, chronic fatigue syndrome, etc…  As an adjunct to radiation or chemotherapy treatment in cancer, to enhance their effectiveness and shorten recovery time.  As an energy tonic and adaptogen in fatigue, weak digestion, poor immunity, edema and poor fluid metabolism, etc…  To improve circulation, immunity, digestion and metabolism, blood sugar control and renal and hepatic function in type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.  Drunk as a decoction in megadoses instead of water as a traditional Chinese medical treatment for kidney failure.  As a derivative, either local or systemic, in conditions marked by accumulation of stagnant, turbid dampness, like water retention and edema, ringworm or weeping eczema, or leucorrhea, either by drinking / ingestion or topical application.  As a tonic to increase levels of the blood and its Vital Force and thymic immune force.  As a peripheral vasodilator to relax arterial tension, either by itself or in conjunction with other herbs, in high blood pressure.   To lift up and increase organ tone, usually in the pelvic area, in various conditions of organ prolapse or dystonia.

Preparation and Dosage: Astragalus is a fairly mild, but effective tonic herb when and where it is indicated, so even large doses may be taken. In powder form, one teaspoon to even one tablespoon constitutes a dose, which may be taken two to three times per day. In decoction, Astragalus may be combined with other herbs in doses of 6 to 9 grams, or even to 15 grams / ½ ounce; or it may be decocted by itself in doses of a whole ounce or more. Astragalus can also be prepared alcoholically, in combination with other tonic herbs in medicinal wines, or by itself as an alcoholic extract or tincture, in standard doses. The tonic effects of Astragalus are increased in traditional Chinese herbal medicine by soaking it overnight in honey water and then roasting it in a dry skillet until it is golden brown.

Herbal Formulation: Because it is a tonic herb, that is also an adaptogen, Astragalus combines most naturally with other energy tonics or adaptogens of a similar nature and character. Any herb that is an energy tonic or adaptogen, or one which stimulates or enhances immunity, is also a natural for combining with Astragalus. Because Astragalus is also a mild diuretic and helps in the regulation and metabolism of body fluids, it can be combined with certain diuretic or fluid draining herbs with great effect. Being a peripheral vasodilator that improves circulation and lowers arterial tension, Astragalus can also be combined with similar herbs for a synergistic effect. All told, Astragalus is a very versatile herb for herb combining and formulation. Because Astragalus is mildly astringent and binding, care must be taken when combining it with other herbs that have marked astringent properties; combining Astragalus with mildly dispersing and / or diaphoretic herbs, or with warming anodynes, complements and counterbalances this mild astringency.

Classic Combinations: With Ginseng (Panax ginseng) as a great energy tonic and adaptogenic duo that also helps with male potency and blood sugar control.  With American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolium) to stimulate vitality and immunity, and to enhance recovery from chronic disease or debility, as well as from respiratory infections.  With Reishi / Ling Zhih (Ganoderma lucidum) for treating cancer, AIDS and other chronic immunodeficiency disorders, as well as for healing and balancing the immune system in autoimmune diseases.  With Dong Quai (Angelica sinensis) as a tonic for the blood and the Vital Force, and to improve the circulation and vital function of the blood; to this duo can be added a third herb, Dang Shen or Codonopsis root (Codonopsis pilosulae) to help with the generation of blood.  With Gui Zhi or Cinnamon Twigs (Cinnamomum cassia) as a warming, invigorating anodyne and antirheumatic duo, and to tonify the spleen and pancreas to improve blood sugar control and reduce a craving for sweets.  Canela or Spanish Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) may be substituted if Cinnamon Twigs are unavailable.  With Fresh Ginger (Zingiber officinale) to clear, regulate and strengthen the surface thymic immune shield of the body, and to strengthen one’s immune resistance against colds and flu.  With Fang Feng (Radix Ledebouriellae) to disperse superficial exogenous pathogenic factors of colds and flu while strengthening the surface thymic immune shield of the body; to this duo is added a third herb, White Atractylodes rhizome (Atractylodes alba / macrocephala) to make the famous Jade Screen Powder for strengthening one’s immune resistance in preparation for cold and flu season.  With Eleutherococcus / Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) to dilate the peripheral blood vessels and relax arterial tension in high blood pressure; this combo also has beneficial adaptogenic and immunostimulant effects.  With Stephania rhizome (Stephania tetandra) to clear wind and dampness in rheumatic conditions, improve fluid metabolism and drain fluid retention and cellulite in edema and overweight / obesity of a Phlegmatic nature and temperament.  With Pau d’Arco (Ipe roxo-taheebo) bark as a mild diuretic which also improves immune resistance to Candida albicans, as well as yeast and fungal infections.

Description:

Astragalus root, an herb from the traditional herbal pharmacopeia of Chinese Medicine, has, in recent years, become very famous and much studied as an immune tonic and immunostimulant herb, with applications in treating a wide variety of immunodeficiency conditions, including cancer and AIDS.  However, there are a wide variety of immune tonic and immunostimulating herbs out there, so when should you use Astragalus as opposed to some other immunostimulant herb?  While modern scientific research has elucidated the cellular and antimicrobial details of Astragalus’ therapeutic profile as an immune tonic and immune-stimulating herb, the traditional medicinal uses and indications of Astragalus in Chinese Medicine provide other details as to how and when to use Astragalus for optimum effect – as well as when and where it is contraindicated (see Cautions and Contraindications, above).  In addition, the humoral dynamics of Astragalus are quite interesting from the standpoint of traditional Greek Medicine. 

The indications and traditional functions for the use of Astragalus in Chinese herbal medicine are most instructive and enlightening.  First of all, Astragalus is an herb that strengthens the Wei Qi, the surface thymic immune shield of the body, and the cardinal symptom or indication that it needs strengthening is a tendency towards a slight or furtive sweating, even if the weather is not hot or warm, and even if there is no heavy exercise or physical exertion.  Because of Astragalus’ constricting and consolidating action on the skin pores and the thymic immune shield, it should not be taken if a cold, flu or surface rheumatic condition is present; these conditions should be sweated out or eliminated first.  Secondly, Astragalus tonifies the Qi of the spleen / pancreas, or the vital force of digestion and metabolism, improving these functions as well as blood sugar control.  Thirdly, Astragalus, with its subtle but profound astringency, not only tones and consolidates the surface immune shield, but also strengthens the Retentive Force of the spleen in holding organs and body parts in, especially in the urinary system and pelvic area, as well as holding blood in the vessels.  Fourthly, Astragalus tonifies or increases our supply of both blood and its Vital Force and thymic immune force, and also dilates the peripheral blood vessels and capillaries to lower arterial tension and nourish and tonify the muscular system and periphery of the body.  And fifthly, Astragalus improves the overall efficiency of fluid metabolism throughout the whole body as a tonic to what Chinese Medicine calls the Triple Heater, which controls fluid metabolism in the thoracic, epigastric and pelvic cavities, having a mild diuretic effect.  In this last function, Astragalus helps the body eliminate stagnant turbid or putrid fluids if they have accumulated in the organism. 

It is also in relation to this last function that Astragalus has a distinctive therapeutic property from the perspective of traditional Greek Medicine, and one that involves its humoral dynamics.  A while back, I was in correspondence with an author who was writing a historical novel about a medieval surgeon, and he was consulting with me regarding various technical therapeutic terms for the herbs this medieval surgeon used in his craft.  His main question was about what a derivative was, and I explained to him that a derivative herb was one whose subtle astringent and binding properties were used to dry up pools of stagnant or turbid fluids that had accumulated anywhere in the body.  The first herb that came to my mind with this property was not any traditional Western herb used in Greek Medicine, but the Chinese Astragalus root.  I told him this, even though other examples, such as Lady’s Mantle, or Alchemilla vulgaris, also came to mind.  And this derivative drying effect on turbid fluids and dampness that Astragalus possesses works both on a systemic level when the herb is ingested, as well as on a local level with topical application to the affected part.  I have seen Astragalus used, with great effectiveness, as a key ingredient in external herbal washes for conditions with turbid or putrid discharges or exudations, such as ringworm and weeping eczema.  It is also a key ingredient in certain traditional Chinese herbal formulas that are ingested internally in the form of decoctions for treating conditions like leucorrhea or prurient, itching hemorrhoids.  Like an absorbent mop or sponge, the derivative properties of Astragalus “clean up the crap”. 

Because it improves fluid regulation and metabolism, strengthens the Vital Force, improves digestion and metabolism, improves blood sugar control and strengthens the kidneys and urinary tract, helping to tone them up when they have become run down, as well as improving immune function, Astragalus is a valuable tonic herb for treating type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.  A traditional Chinese formula that builds on all these stellar tonic properties of Astragalus is the Decoction to Tonify the Middle and Raise the Qi, or Bu Zhong Yi Qi Tang, which utilizes and incorporates many of the classic herbal combinations with Astragalus that are mentioned above.  This is a valuable core formula for treating various immune deficiency syndromes, like chronic fatigue syndrome and AIDS.  This formula, as its name implies, holds up and fortifies the central organs of digestion and metabolism, strengthens immunity, saves the Vital Force from collapse, and strengthens its functioning throughout the body.  To this core formula, many other auxiliary herbs can be added, as the situation warrants. 

Astragalus can be used in herbal tonic wines by soaking it in 80 proof alcohol spirits for two weeks to one month or longer, and then taking it in doses of one to two tablespoons in a cup of hot water.  Other popular tonic herbs with which Astragalus can be combined in these tonic wines include Ginseng, Codonopsis root, White Atractylodes root, Dong Quai, and others.  Because of the dispersing property of the alcohol, taking Astragalus in herbal tonic wines like this may be a way to circumvent the basic contraindication of not taking Astragalus when there is an active cold or flu present.  In traditional Chinese households, Astragalus root is also cooked into various soups and broths, especially in the winter time, which strengthens the nourishing properties of the foods as well as the tonic properties of the herbs.  Throw a little Fresh Ginger root into the pot and the basic contraindication for Astragalus can also be circumvented.  Yummy!  Tonic herbal wines containing Astragalus can also be cooked in with food if one so desires.  The alcohol is dissipated by the cooking, but the herbal essences still remain. 

It wasn’t long ago when Western herbalists first became aware of Astragalus, and indeed, Western herbal knowledge of how to best use this incredible tonic herb is still in its infancy.  To give you a good cross section of the sheer variety of ways in which this versatile herb can be used, I will present you with brief descriptions of certain important herbal formulas in which it is used:
Jade Screen Powder (Yu Ping Feng San) – Containing only three ingredients – Astragalus, Fang Feng (Radix Ledebouriellae), and White Atractylodes rhizome (Atractylodes macrocephala), these three herbal ingredients are mixed in equal proportions and then powdered.  Jade Screen Powder strengthens immune resistance against colds and flu while dispersing any lingering exogenous pathogenic factors at the same time.  A dose is one teaspoon.    
Decoction to Tonify the Middle and Raise the Qi (Bu Zhong Yi Qi Tang)- This decoction contains Ginseng, Astragalus, Dong Quai, White Atractylodes, Bupleurum, Tangerine Peel, Black Cohosh, Baked Licorice root, Fresh Ginger, and Black Jujube Dates.  Its name aptly describes what it does, and it has been discussed above.  It is one of the main formulas for strengthening immunity in Chinese Medicine. 
The Ten Big Complete Tonic Decoction (Shih Chuan Da Bu Tang) – This decoction formula combines four herbs to tonify the Vital Force or Qi with four herbs to tonify the blood; to these eight, it adds Astragalus and Cinnamon Twigs to further enhance the tonic power of the formula.  It is Chinese Medicine’s main formula for tonifying both the blood and the Vital Force. 
Stephania and Astragalus Decoction (Fang Chih Huang Qi Tang) – This formula removes wind and dampness from the periphery of the body in rheumatic conditions with excess dampness; it can also improve fluid circulation and metabolism, eliminate fluid retention and cellulite, and promote weight loss in those of a watery Phlegmatic constitution, with pallor and easy or profuse sweating.  The combination of Stephania and Astragalus drains the excess fluids as if by magic. 
White Phoenix Pills (Bai Feng Wan) – This formula comes in the form of chewable, chocolate candy-like pills that are available in Chinese herb stores.  Traditionally, the formula is a valuable tonic for women who have trouble holding a pregnancy to term, and these tasty pills tonify blood, the essence or Radical Moisture, and strengthen the internal Qi or Vital Force and keep it from collapse.  In addition to Astragalus, these pills contain Rehmannia root, Dioscorea Yam, White Atractylodes, Dong Quai and Essence of Black Cock, or black boned chicken.  Yummy! 

Gecko Lung Tonic Wine – In addition to Ginseng and Astragalus, and other lung tonic herbs, this medicinal tonic wine contains a pair of dried Gecko lizards – one male and one female.  This formula is a valuable tonic for the lungs and respiratory tract in cases of chronic asthma, often congenital, which are primarily due to a weakness of the Qi or Vital Force of the kidneys and adrenal glands to hold and grasp the lung Qi, resulting in shallow breathing, breathlessness and a persistent hacking cough and wheezing.

Related Species: Chinese Astragalus root is not without its botanical cousins and close relatives, both within the genus of Astragalus as well as outside it.  The seeds of a related species of Astragalus, Semen Astragali Complanati, are used in traditional Chinese herbal medicine to astringe or consolidate the sperm in spermatorrhea and premature ejaculation, to strengthen the kidneys and lower back, and to nourish the liver blood in blurred vision.  Tragacanth, which is Latin for “goat thorn” is a gum that is obtained by milking the sap from the roots of a variety of related species of Astragalus, such as Astragalus gummifera, A. adscendens, and A. tragacanthus.  Tragacanth gum has many uses in the food processing, pharmaceutical and other industries as an emulsifier and binding agent; medicinally, its soothing emollient properties have been used to treat coughs and diarrhea.  Restharrow (Ononis spinosa), although not of the genus Astragalus, is an herb that resembles Astragalus in many ways, being the root or rhizome of an herb in the Leguminosae or Pea family like Astragalus.  It is mainly known for its diuretic properties which, although gentle and relatively free of any negative side effects, are nevertheless stronger and sometimes harsher than those of Astragalus.  Restharrow is very similar in its basic taste and energetics to Astragalus, and is used to treat edema and fluid retention, uric acid aggravation / diathesis, urinary catarrh, kidney inflammation and rheumatism.  It is also an aperient, or mild laxative.

Sources: Semen Astragali complanati
Wikipedia: Tragacanth
Restharrow

DISCLAIMER:  The information in this article is for educational purposes only, for general health maintenance and prevention, and is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical disease or condition. The reader assumes all personal responsibility and liability for the application of the information contained in this article, and is advised to seek the services of a physician or licensed healthcare practitioner should his or her symptoms or condition persist or worsen.