Astragalus root: its traditional uses and benefits
What is Astragalus?
Astragalus is a herb that’s been used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for at least 1800 years.
It’s also known as Huang Qi, Radix Astragali milk vetch, membranous milk vetch, Mongolian milk vetch or yellow vetch.
There are around 2900 species in the Astragalus genus of plants, which are part of the legume family of plants (Fabaceae) and are native to many parts of Asia, North America, the Middle East and Africa. A number of those species have been used in the folk medicine traditions of the regions they grow in.
However, it’s the root of the species called Astragalus membranaceus (and sometimes A. mongholicus) that’s predominantly used in TCM, and that we’ll refer to as ‘astragalus’ in this article.
This species of astragalus grows in grasslands in dry areas of northern China and Mongolia.
Beneath the soil, the astragalus plant is characterised by a fibrous tap root. A high quality astragalus root is one that’s long and thick, with few branches emerging from it. Under its thin bark, the astragalus root should have yellowish-white flesh, a yellow centre and a sweetish taste.
Astragalus roots are traditionally harvested in spring and autumn when they’re about four years old, and are then dried in the sunlight before being soaked in water and cut into slices for medicinal use.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF ASTRAGALUS ROOT ACCORDING TO TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE
Astragalus: traditional Chinese immune tonic
Astragalus root is traditionally used to improve immunity in TCM. For example, it’s traditionally taken to help reduce the frequency of common colds.
However, from the perspective of TCM, the traditionally prized benefits of astragalus for promoting immunity are an extension of its actions as a Qi tonic – so to truly understand how valuable it is, you need to understand Qi too!
Astragalus and Qi
There’s no direct translation for the Chinese word Qi in English. It’s pronounced ‘chee’ (as in ‘cheese’), and is the word used to describe the life force energy that powers all aspects of life – including our physical, mental and emotional functioning.
One specific form of Qi is called defensive Qi, protective Qi or Wei Qi.
In TCM defensive Qi is traditionally understood to circulate just beneath the exterior surface of the body, where it acts as a kind of shield that reduces the likelihood that factors like cold and wind can enter the body and cause illnesses like common colds.
Astragalus is traditionally used to strengthen Qi in TCM, and to act as a restorative tonic that replenishes Qi when it’s been depleted. In TCM it’s also understood to have supportive effects on defensive Qi, which it exerts by helping to stabilise the exterior surface of the body.
As a result, astragalus root is traditionally taken in TCM not only to enhance immune defences, but also to increase vitality and help the body to cope during times of stress.
TRADITIONAL USES OF ASTRAGALUS ROOT IN WESTERN HERBAL MEDICINE
In addition to its widespread use in TCM, astragalus has been used in Western herbal medicine since the 1800s, where it’s traditionally taken to enhance immune defences and improve the functioning of the immune system (for example to stimulate healthy immune system responses) and to support the immune system in fighting against illness.
WHAT OTHER HERBS CAN ASTRAGALUS ROOT BE USED WITH?
In TCM, astragalus is rarely used alone, and instead is typically taken in combination with other herbs. An example might be reishi mushroom, which is traditionally used in TCM to enhance immunity and relieve fatigue and general feelings of being run down.
Other herbs that astragalus is often combined within TCM include Chinese licorice, codonopsis, white atractylodes and fang feng.
HOW MUCH ASTRAGALUS ROOT SHOULD YOU TAKE?
An adult dose equivalent to 6 grams of astragalus root taken once or twice daily is consistent with traditionally prescribed dosage regimes from TCM. This is easy to achieve in tablet form with Fusion's Astra 8 Immune Tonic.
CAN CHILDREN TAKE ASTRAGALUS ROOT?
Yes! Astragalus root is traditionally used to improve children’s immune defences and reduce the frequency with which they catch common colds, as well as to relieve fatigue and improve vitality in TCM.
Since kids often find tablets difficult to swallow, Fusion's Kids' Astra 8 Immune Shield contains astragalus in a delicious-tasting, blackcurrant-flavoured liquid, where it's accompanied by the Chinese herbs white atractylodes and fang feng. These three herbs are traditionally taken together to help reduce common colds in TCM.