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This Flowering Legume Has Wide-Ranging Health Benefits

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

astragalus benefits

Story at-a-glance -

  • Astragalus, a perennial flowering legume widely used in China, is able to protect your mitochondria and may help treat chronic diseases
  • Astragalus may help prevent the development of diabetic cardiomyopathy and diabetic retinopathy, associated with metabolic memory
  • Some research indicates astragalus may be useful in treating leukemia and liver, bladder, lung, nasopharyngeal and gastric cancers
  • Astragalus has shown positive results in treating acute respiratory infection in children, chronic fatigue syndrome, post-stroke fatigue and estrogen-related bone and hearing loss
  • The role of astragalus in enhancing chemotherapy is now also under investigation, due to its anticancer properties
  • You can easily grow your own astragalus at home

Mitochondria are the power generators of your cells. These small structures, located within each cell, transfer electrons from fat and sugars to oxygen and generate adenosine triphosphate (ATP) which is the energy "currency" of your body.1 Mitochondria have two ATP-producing membranes that allow the storage of energy as ATP like batteries and are literally where we get our vim and vigor.

The well-being of your whole mitochondria system can determine whether or not you develop many chronic diseases, including cancer. As I have often noted, your mitochondrial function can be improved through ketogenic diets that force your body to burn fat as its primary fuel rather than sugars. Additionally, there is now fascinating research suggesting that the herb astragalus can also have a protective role in the health of your mitochondria.

Astragalus — A Plant We Are Just Learning About

Astragalus membranaceus, also called Huang Qi, ogi, hwanggi and milk vetch, is a perennial flowering legume prevalent in northern China, Mongolia and Korea.2 It contains polysaccharides, saponins, flavonoids and other components.3 Astragalus has been used medicinally for centuries in China for many conditions, yet its positive health uses have been slower to be recognized in Western medicine.

Researchers writing in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences note that astragalus polysaccharides (APS):4

" … protects mitochondria by scavenging reactive oxygen species (ROS), inhibiting mitochondrial PT and increasing the activities of antioxidases. Therefore, APS has the effect of promoting health."

Harm that was sustained in the mitochondria of mice with ferrous ion (Fe2+) was reversed through the application of APS, write the researchers.

"In the current investigation we have incubated the mouse liver and brain mitochondria with or without the presence of Fe2+, and examined their effects on mitochondria by measuring the absorbance at 532 nm.

The current results show that formation of TBARS in mitochondria, which was enhanced significantly following treatment with Fe2+–Vitamin C, was inhibited in a concentration-dependent manner in presence of APS which indicates that APS possess the antioxidant activity."

Same Protection Has Implications in Diabetic Cardiomyopathy

Researchers writing in a 2018 issue of the Dove journal Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity found the mitochondria protection of astragalus polysaccharides (APS) likely also has implications in the abnormal cardiac structure known as diabetic cardiomyopathy (DCM).5 Oxidative stress and apoptosis (cell death) which harm the mitochondria, contribute to the development of diabetic cardiomyopathy, and APS inhibits such processes write the researchers.

"Our findings indicated the beneficial effect of APS on high glucose-challenged H9C2 cells, which was associated with inhibition of oxidative stress in vitro.

Recent investigations have demonstrated that the major causes of DCM are activated oxidative stress, which enhances the formation of mitochondrial ROS, and the subsequent oxidation-mediated apoptosis by hyperglycemia."

Astragalus polysaccharides contain manganese superoxide (SOD), an important detoxifying enzyme6 and it contributes to the mitochondria protection:7

"Due to the localization within mitochondria, manganese SOD (Mn-SOD, coded by the SOD2 gene) is the most effective member of the SOD enzyme family which protects the mitochondria from oxidation. Astragalus polysaccharides (APS) are the main bioactive hydrosoluble heterosaccharide component of Astragalus."

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Astragalus May Also Benefit Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy (DR), is the leading cause8 of adult blindness in the world caused by hyperglycemia, a primary long-term vascular complication of diabetes which causes gradual alterations of retinal microvasculature.

Even after the hyperglycemia that drives the DR is normalized, this progressive condition can persist in what is called metabolic memory.9 Yet astragalus may present encouraging possibilities here too. Scientists writing in a 2019 article in the journal Molecular Medicine report on research that suggests that:

"The function of APS in metabolic memory is still unknown. Previous reports found APS ameliorated the mitochondrial dysfunction through Sirtunin1 pathway in chronic fatigue. Furthermore, studies showed mitochondrial damage also occurred in metabolic memory rat model. So we hypothesized APS could control the metabolic memory via regulating mitochondrial dysfunction …

… APS suppressed high glucose-induced metabolic memory in retinal pigment epithelial cells through inhibiting mitochondrial dysfunction-induced apoptosis by regulating miR-195."

The Molecular Medicine scientists found that astragalus APS had a reciprocal role with oxidative stress: They arrested cell degradation and death or apoptosis from the stress and their positive effects were reversed by the oxidative stress exerted by MicroRNA (called miR-195, a substance linked to cancer and other diseases).10

"APS alleviated the oxidative stress, mitochondrial damage and cell apoptosis induced by HG and HG + NG treatments in RPE cells via regulating miR-195. Furthermore, we found overexpression of miR-195 abolished the alleviated effects of APS on the HG-treated RPE cells."11

Many Other Uses of Astragalus Are Being Studied

In addition to protecting your mitochondria, other exciting uses of astragalus are under investigation. The legume may have value in combating the bacterium E.Coli12, leukemia,13 acute respiratory infection in children,14 chronic fatigue,15 liver,16 bladder,17 lung,18 nasopharyngeal19 and gastric cancers,20 post-stroke fatigue21 and estrogen-related bone22 and hearing23 loss.

Thanks to its anticancer properties, the role of astragalus in enhancing chemotherapy is now also under investigation. Researchers writing in the International Journal of Medical Sciences this year stated:24

"Astragalus membranaceus has been shown to possess anti-inflammation and antitumor properties. Several studies have indicated that extracts of Astragalus membranaceus (PG2) have growth inhibitory effects on tumor. However, the effect of PG2 on enhancing the chemotherapy, modulating tumor immune escape and their mechanism of action is unknown and need further investigation.

Herein, we provide evidence that the treatment of PG2 induced Cx43 expression, decreases IDO expression and enhances the distribution of chemotherapeutic drug.

However, the effects of combination therapy (PG2 plus cisplatin) in animal models significantly retarded tumor growth and prolonged the survival. We believe that the information provided in this study may aid in the design of future therapy of PG2, suggest suitable combinations with chemotherapies."

You Can Grow Your Own Astragalus

Astragalus grows well in zones 6 through 11 with the flowering season running from midsummer through late fall. Plants can reach up to 4 feet and will produce flowers that turn into egg-shaped beans. Astragalus seeds will germinate in three to 10 days after a three-weeklong cold period — though germination rates can be low so retain your seeds. After seeds have been cold stratified, rub them with fine sandpaper to abrade the outer shell and boost the germination rate.

Soak your seeds in water for a few hours or overnight and place them in a small pot or starter tray with a high quality seed starting mix. Press the seeds about one-quarter inch to 1 inch into the soil and cover them up.

Keep the soil moist but not soggy until seeds start to sprout. Place your pots or starter tray on a window sill or in an area that receives morning sun. Once the seedlings have grown to a few inches, transfer them to larger pots or, if you like, straight into your garden, if there's no risk of frost.

Whether you're growing your astragalus in a pot or in the ground, make sure the root ball stays moist, especially during summer. Every few months, apply compost or rotted manure around the plant. If you intend to use the root medicinally, obviously avoid all synthetic, inorganic fertilizers and pesticides. Prune the plant annually.

After two to three years, the astragalus root can be harvested. Use a garden fork or needle-nose spade to loosen the soil around the plant so you can extract the taproot. Two years is considered the minimum of maturity for an astragalus plant; before that, the rootstock will be too small to you to use for medicinal purposes.

With all the interesting medicinal astragalus uses, you can grow and continue to grow this versatile plant yourself.