Traditional Chinese Medicine Magic: Astragalus

Astragalus Membranaceus (henceforth, AM) is a weird plant, to speak of it both scientifically and historically. A multipurpose superstar – if the anecdotes can be backed up.

Historically, AM is a component of traditional Chinese and Kampo (Japanese) medicine. What makes it weird is that it is not just one ‘elixir’, but appears to be a component of a very large variety of different mixtures of herbs for many purposes. It is uncommon to find herbs with such widespread usage; usually they are just used for a few purposes and then just shelved for those specific times.

Scientifically, the composition of the herb is weird. It has a steroidal saponin content that is unique to Astragalus (Astragalosides 1 through 7, in which number 4 is sometimes seen as the main component) and the flavonoids, which are present in almost every plant, are also fairly unique to Astragalus. AM has a few flavonoids (formononectin, calycosin) that are not commonly seen in other places.

Basically, AM is not like a normal herb. It is quite different. Is this difference good or bad? That is where the human evidence and animal models come in.

As for the actual intervention research, AM is currently in the phases of validating its panacea state. There has historically been many studies using injections of AM and seeing almost idealistic and perfect effects from it, being able to reduce blood sugar and protect the heart while repairing the kidneys and fighting inflammation and oxidation. AM is still being investigated for whether or not it serves a role in hospital settings to pump into an IV tube for people post-surgery to protect the kidneys.

Do these benefits correlate with oral ingestion of tablets or herbs? We are not sure due to a lack of oral ingestion studies. This is an important distinction, as the main compound noted above (Astragalus IV) has a bioavailability of about 1-2%, meaning that is the amount of compound that goes into your mouth that actually gets absorbed. By taking 10mg Astragalus IV, 0.1-0.2mg will circulate in your blood and the rest will leave in the toilet. This is an unavoidable consequence of oral ingestion, but it means we cannot just take injection studies and assume them true for us.

I’ve personally used some Astragalus in the past few days, as a test of sorts. I am dosing it at 10-15g daily in an attempt to override this poor absorption (if you look at many pills, they are sold at 500mg) and I have read a case study where a kidney inflammatory disorder was outright healed at 15g daily; although not a practical dose (guzzling 20-30 pills a day is no fun), it appears safe.

Taste-wise, AM root extract is slightly sweetened sawdust. Not adverse, but quite “meh” on its own. It goes down easy, and a bit easier in a protein shake or something.

I cannot back up this paragraph with science, but I feel that Astragalus is able to potentiate the effects of stimulants. The amount of times I spontenaously burst into euphoric dances or otherwise just had silly happy moments has outright doubled, but I believe this is due to some other compounds I am ingesting (L-tyrosine, caffeine) and Astragalus is merely increasing the frequency. If taking AM by itself, I am not sure I would have these effects.

The anti-inflammatory effects are real, and my workouts cannot really make me sore anymore. That is a nice side effect. I cannot speak on any health parameter as I cannot measure that.

Some bullet points on the pros and cons of AM supplementation:

Pros:

  • Aside from a possible adverse interactions with pharmaceuticals (the same thing that St.John’s Wort does), there does not appear to be any other known harm with AM supplementation
  • If it gets into your blood, it appears to exert panacea-like effects on the parameters for which it is highly studied (cardiovascular and blood health, blood glucose control, inflammation, kidney protection, etc). It is not the most potent in any of these regards, but works beneficially on them all
  • Rare for a herb, but it doesn’t taste bad (it is a general rule of thumb that herbal supplements, in powder form, taste horrible)

Cons:

  • Lack of human studies which we can apply to our daily lives and oral ingestion. We can only extrapolate from animal studies and injection studies which, although they provide info, must be taken with a grain of salt
  • The effective dose appears to be far greater than what is commonly sold as supplements, measured in grams (1-5g at a low dose, up to 15g for high doses)
  • There are some avenues that have not been explored, such as AM and its effects on testosterone and muscle mass or body fat. Unknown as to whether there are good, bad, or no effects on these parameters.

When more studies come up, they will be added to Examine’s page on astragalus membranaceus as to keep the page reliable. Until then, AM can either be an adventure or good table talk.

Sol Orwell

Sol Orwell is a co-founder of Examine.com, a science-based compendium on supplements, nutrition, fitness, and health.

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