Known as the “yellow leader” or “yellow energy” due to its golden roots, this sweet, warming herb has been woven into Chinese medicine for thousands of years. Known as a mild adaptogen – or herb that helps the body adapt to physical and emotional stress – that is well tolerated, astragalus membranaceus has earned mentions in historical texts such as the Divine Husbandman’s Classic of the Materia Medica, which was published in the first century AD.
It has long been used to support immune function, and “is also regarded as a potent tonic for increasing energy levels.” (source) This may be due to its positive impact on the mitochondria, which serve as the “batteries” that power our cells. (source)
Newer research also suggests that it may also have anti-aging properties and support hormone balance.
Anti-Aging Benefits of Astragalus
In one study, researchers found that a compound within astragalus activates production of the telomerase (hTERT) enzyme. (source) This enzyme maintains or lengthen telomeres, which is significant because telomeres directly impact cellular aging.
Telomeres are sometimes compared to the plastic ends on shoelaces that prevent them from fraying, only instead of protecting laces they protect our DNA. Here’s how an article in Scientific American explains it:
Telomeres consist of up to 3,300 repeats of the DNA sequence TTAGGG. They protect chromosome ends from being mistaken for broken pieces of DNA that would otherwise be fixed by cellular repair machinery. But every time our cells divide, the telomeres shrink. When they get short enough, our cells no longer divide and our body stops making those cells. (source)
The faster the telomeres shrink, the more quickly we age at a cellular level. By helping to maintain telomere length, astragalus is thought to support optimal aging.
Astragalus & The Immune System
“In China, astragalus has enjoyed a long history of use in traditional medicine to strengthen Wei Qi, or ‘defensive energy,’ or in Western terms, the immune system.” (source) Several modern studies support this traditional perspective, and in fact it is not recommended to be consumed with immune-suppressing drugs due to it’s potential to counteract them. (source 1, source 2, source 3)
Because of its immune supportive properties, astragalus is a favorite herb to include in tinctures and teas during cold and flu season.
Astragalus & Hormone Balance
As I shared in this post on rebooting our body’s stress response, when we get stuck in stress mode, our bodies “steal” a hormone called pregnenolone to make extra cortisol. Pregnenolone is often called the “mother hormone” because it’s used to make all kinds of hormones – estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, DHEA, and of course cortisol.
Adaptogenic herbs like astragalus help the body maintain hormonal balance by making it more adaptive to stress. Here’s a guide to getting started with adaptogens.
How To Use Astragalus
Astragalus is rarely used alone. Instead, it is combined with complementary adaptogens such as licorice root, ginseng, shisandra and cordyceps, among others. I include it in my adaptogen chai tea recipe and take it as a tincture when I need energy or immune support.
Is astragalus safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding?
Though it is a Safety Class 1B adaptogen, no studies are available on the safety of using astragalus membranaceus during pregnancy and breastfeeding. It is generally considered safe and appropriate for “young, old, weak, strong, and even small children and infants (dosage would need to be adjusted accordingly).” (Source: Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism, 369)
Though renowned herbalist Susun Weed does not mention breastfeeding specifically, she does recommend it to postpartum mothers whose children were born by cesarean. (source)
Certain varieties, such as A. lentiginosis or A. mollissimus (locoweed), are toxic and should be avoided.
How much is recommended?
Adaptogens are herbs rather than pharmaceutical drugs, so there are no dosages. However, herbalists do share knowledge about what methods of consumption seem to produce a beneficial effect for most people.
In Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief, ethnobotanist David Winston and herbal expert Steven Maimes recommend the following:
- For a 1:5 tincture (1 ounce dried astragalus by weight, mixed with 5 ounces of 60 proof or higher alcohol) – 40-80 drops, three times per day. (Mommypotamus note: Another option is to purchase a pre-made astrgalus tincture and follow the instructions that come with it.)
- As a decoction – Simmer 2 teaspoons dried, sifted roots in 12-16 ounces water for 20-30 minutes, then let steep for an additional 30 minutes. Drink up to three cups per day.
What else do I need to know?
“In traditional Chinese medicine, tonic herbs such as astragalus should not be taken when someone has an acute infectious illness such as colds, flus, bronchitis, or pneumonia, because it can cause stagnation and ‘feed’ the illness.” (Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief, p. 149)
Due to its immune supporting properties, astragalus may counteract immune suppressing drugs.