Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Astragalus: Chinese Medicine's Premier Herb for Fortification

Milk Vetch
(Astragalus membranaceus)

In the Traditional Chinese Medicine pharmacopeias, one of the premier herbs for building Qi energy is Astragalus membranaceus. In fact, this root is currently garnering a lot of attention in both modern Western Herbology as well as with physicians of allopathic medicine. Studies have shown this ancient herb to be an excellent nutritive addition to anyone with a compromised immune system either due to age, frequent or long term illness, chemotherapy, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or other factors.

WikiCommons © Doronenko
Native to Mongolia and the northern and eastern parts of China, Astragalus can be grown in New England with relative ease. It prefers well drained, sandy and slightly alkaline soil and lots of sun. Roots are generally harvested in autumn of their fourth year, and the plant is propagated by seed. A relative of the pea plant, Milk Vetch is fairly cold-hardy and is often used as fodder for livestock, although some species of vetch are actually toxic to animals and humans alike. Prospectors have used the mineral-absorbing roots as fairly reliable indicators for mining purposes, but herbalists have found Astragalus itself to be worth its weight in gold.

Astragalus has been shown to increase white blood cell counts when deficient and to help balance and normalize them when required. Many practitioners (allopathic and alternative alike) utilize this herb as part of a complimentary cancer protocol to assist patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation by keeping their blood levels healthy during these invasive and systemically taxing procedures. It has been proven to restore red blood cell production in bone marrow and to assist immune function by stimulating natural interferon production. It can help to alleviate the side effects of cancer therapies and protect against liver damage during such procedures as well.

In the Chinese Medicine Materia Medica, Huang Qi is known as a Spleen and Lung tonic and enhances Qi energy. It is used to stimulate a poor appetite, encourage digestion and improve conditions marked by fatigue, shortness of breath, spontaneous sweating, weakness and even diarrhea. Raising Yang Qi energy is another traditional function of Astragalus, therefore it is particularly useful for conditions of “sinking Qi” such as hemorrhoids, organ prolapse and certain types of abnormal uterine bleeding. In China the Wei Qi is somewhat analogous to our concept of the immune system and Huang Qi is famous for its ability to nourish the Wei Qi. Lowered immune functions exhibited by frequent colds, tiredness, weakness, slow healing sores, cold limbs and loss of appetite are markedly improved with the addition of therapeutic doses of Astragalus.

Milk Vetch root is also utilized as a diuretic and is helpful for edema when accompanied by fatigue and other symptoms of deficiency. Because of this, modern uses for the herb have shown it to be beneficial for the treatment of diabetes, kidney and urinary problems. Astragalus also lowers blood pressure and can help to normalize elevated blood sugar. Modern day herbalists find Astragalus to be balancing overall to the internal organs and it is considered a valuable adaptogen that enhances energy, endurance and stamina, increases immune function, improves circulation and generally nourishes the whole body.

Astragalus is commonly used in combination with Dang Gui to nourish the Blood for the treatment of post partum anemia or severe blood loss and hemorrhage. Dry frying the herb alone or with raw honey enhances its already powerful tonifying effects. When used in combination with ginseng, Astragalus is a powerhouse of energy-enhancing nourishment for those who are very weak and health-compromised. For people who are frequently lethargic and chilled, decoct Astragalus with cinnamon and dried ginger and drink this delicious combination warm with your coziest slippers on.

When used to treat an invading pathogen accompanied by chills and fatigue, combining Astragalus with fresh ginger slices and diaphoretics like yarrow or elder flowers will support the immune system while kicking the pathogen out of the body. It is not wise to use Astragalus alone when treating a cold, flu or virus; use it in combination with diaphoretic herbs. If precautions aren’t taken to use it in proper combinations, Astragalus has such a strong ability to “strengthen the fortress walls,” that it’s akin to sealing the gate after the army has invaded.

Milk Vetch root resembles a large tongue depressor when purchased as a whole herb. Its long slices are fibrous, slightly yellow and have a mild, slightly sweet flavor. The Chinese name Huang Qi aptly describes the herb when translated to “Yellow Qi.” It is so mild that it can be easily cooked with grains, beans or soups to enhance nutrition without compromising flavor. The root slices are simply removed from the dish before being served. Long, slow cooking or decocting in water is in fact the best way to prepare Astragalus for consumption and it actually enhances the value of other herbs and foods that are taken with it.

For a warming, stimulating tonic that will put a little vim and vigor in your step and increase your overall health, use 4-18 grams of Astragalus in a single dose. For intensive need, up to 30 or even 60 grams may be used safely without adverse effects. One of my favorite ways to get concentrated nutrition into clients undergoing chemotherapy or otherwise immune-compromised is to prescribe an individualized health-promoting and immune enhancing soup complete with customized herbal and mushroom packets:

Immunity-Enhancing Chinese Herbal Chicken Soup
64 oz. Organic Chicken Broth (preferably homemade)
64 oz. Cold Water
3 Cups Chopped Carrots
3 Cups Chopped Celery
2 Large onions coarsely chopped
3 cups Cooked Quinoa (a whole grain available at most health food stores.)
1 Head of Garlic (about 8 or 9 cloves-optional)
2 Bay Leaves
1 Tbs. Parsley
2 tsp Thyme
2 tsp Rosemary
2 tsp Sage
2 tsp Atlantic or Celtic Sea Salt (this is important)
Freshly Ground Pepper to taste
1 Herbal packet (may include Astragalus, Codonopsis, Dang Gui, Red Dates, Lily Bulbs, He Shou Wu, prepared Rehmannia root, ginger, Goji berries or other herbs specific to the patient’s needs)
1 Mushroom packet (may include Reishi, shiitake, wood ear, lion’s mane, maitake, turkey tail, straw, porcini and/or chanterelle)

Soak herb mixture and 64 oz. organic chicken broth in a large stainless-steel or Pyrex glass pot for 1 hour (do not use aluminum or iron). After soaking, bring entire contents of the pot to a boil over high heat, as soon as it comes to a boil, cover and reduce heat. Simmer for one hour then strain the herbs from the broth, reserve broth. (Herbal mixture may be cooked again in water or broth for a slightly less potent second batch. Use half the amount of liquid and eliminate the soaking time.)

Place mushroom mixture in a large pot and cover with 64 oz. cold water, soak for 1 hour. Bring to a boil over high heat and then immediately reduce heat and cover. Simmer on low heat for one hour. Combine with chicken broth. All mushrooms may be consumed, but the reishi mushroom has a poor consistency, so you’ll probably want to take it out. The others may be sliced to your preference.

To the hot broth add chopped carrots, celery, onions, garlic and seasonings; continue to simmer until vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes. Add cooked quinoa, stir and serve. Freeze any remaining soup in small containers for easy-to-prepare meals. Microwaving this soup is not recommended.

Astragalus is a serious and potent herb for the treatment of immunodeficiency disorders, but it is extremely safe and adaptable to the body’s specific needs. Don’t be shy; educate your family about this marvelous root and incorporate it into your meals. The taste is so mild; you may not even realize it’s there!

Lisl Meredith Huebner, Dipl.CH (NCCAOM), RH (AHG) is a nationally board certified Chinese Herbalist, and a Registered Herbalist with the American Herbalists Guild. Lisl is also a certified Medicinal Aromatherapist, a level II Reiki practitioner, an Acupressurist, an Auriculotherapist, a photographer, a renowned diagnostician, a teacher and a published writer in private practice for twenty years. She is available by appointment.
Please call 8 6 0 - 4 8 0 - 0 1 1 5 or email if you have any questions, would like to schedule an appointment, attend meditations, weed walks, or are interested in taking classes.


  1. Thank you for sharing this wonderful and very useful information. God Bless!

  2. Finally ordered my seeds and am looking forward to watching this plant grow. Thank you for the information! I look forward to trying the soup (four years from now!?).