Astragalus: Cancer-Fighting Herb Shows Promise
Could an ancient Chinese secret hold the answer for people debilitated by a very modern disease?
That’s the promise of this herb that’s been used for millennia by practitioners of Chinese medicine and other traditional healing systems.
In fact, the Chinese view it as the most important of all tonic herbs. Often combined with other plant-based remedies, this humble root is said to strengthen the immune system, protect against the effects of stress, and treat various health conditions.
But recent scientific research suggests another benefit: Taken in supplement form, his herb may be a useful therapy for people with cancer.
An Ancient Chinese Secret…
The root of the membranous milk vetch – a perennial legume native to Northern China and Mongolia –astragalus has long held a place of esteem in traditional Asian medicine. Shen Nong, who is considered the founder of Chinese herbal medicine, discovered the herb more than 5,000 years ago.
Practitioners of Chinese medicine valued astragalus for its purported effects on the immune system, the stress response, weakness and fatigue. In traditional terms, these benefits are said to stem from the herb’s ability to balance qi (pronounced “chee”), or vital life energy.
Based on this reputation, astragalus (known as Huang Qi or “yellow leader” for its color) is considered one of traditional Chinese medicine’s most important tonic herbs. Its sweet flavor makes it a popular ingredient in nourishing soups meant to boost immunity in sick people.
But astragalus isn’t just revered in Asia.
The plant was also widely used by Native Americans. For example, the Lakota tribe used astragalus to stimulate breast milk in nursing mothers, while the Dakotas relied on it to ease chest pain, coughing, and fever. In Europe, astragalus was a valued herb in folk medicine for treating tumors in the eye, liver, and throat.
All told, there are more than 1,000 different species of astragalus worldwide – but some are downright deadly. North American settlers learned that the hard way, when they found that feeding the plant to livestock made the animals psychotic, an unpleasant discovery that earned astragalus the name “locoweed.”
But don’t worry. Astragalus supplements won’t make you crazy.
Fortunately, the non-poisonous type of astragalus used in medicine is Astragalus membranous. Although the herb hasn’t been widely studied here in the West, some research does suggest that it may have real health benefits.
Let’s take a look at the evidence.
At the Root of Good Health?
Much of astragalus’s reputation as a superior tonic herb stems from its long use in Asian medicine – and few Western studies have been conducted on it.
That said, preliminary research does suggest that the plant’s usefulness isn’t just folklore.
Laboratory studies have found that astragalus root has antioxidant, antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties. Preliminary research has found that the herb may decrease fatigue in athletes.1, 2,3
Even more impressive, astragalus appears to have positive effects on the immune system. For example, research shows that the herb may increase the amount of white blood cells, stimulate production of antibodies, and improve resistance to viruses and bacteria – all signs of better immune activity.4
Perhaps that’s why astragalus shows promise as an adjunctive treatment for cancer. There’s some evidence that astragalus, used along with a plant-based remedy called glossy privet, may improve immune function in people with breast or lung cancer.3
One randomized, controlled study of astragalus examined the herb’s effects on people with advanced cancer and moderate to severe cancer-related fatigue. The patients were divided into two groups, one of which received a partially purified extract of astragalus and one of which received a placebo. After four weeks, all of the patients received astragalus for another month.
The researchers found that people who initially took astragalus had significant improvements in cancer-related fatigue, and 82 percent of them continued to report benefits during the rest of the study. Plus, more than 70 percent of people who didn’t experience symptom relief during the first four weeks on astragalus went on to significantly improve during the second treatment cycle.5
There’s also research to support astragalus as an adjunctive therapy for people with cardiovascular problems. For instance, one study of 92 people with angina (chest pain) found that symptoms improved when they were given astragalus.1,2,3 Another small study of 19 patients showed that the herb appeared to improve markers of angina, leading to relief of chest pain and dyspnea (trouble breathing) in nearly 80 percent of people.2, Astragalus may help protect the heart by increasing circulation and preventing clogged arteries.
Taking a Tonic…
Although such findings suggest positive health benefits for astragalus, much more research needs to be done before we can say for certain that the herb can improve cancer, heart disease, or other conditions.
However, astragalus appears generally safe and free of side effects, so it may be worth trying astragalus supplements if you suffer from fatigue, angina, cancer, or seem to come down with a lot of colds.
The recommended dose of astragalus ranges from 1 to 30 grams of the powdered root (available in capsule form) a day. But don’t assume that more is better: Some research has found no additional benefits at doses of 28 grams or more daily. In fact, astragalus may actually impair immunity at such high doses. So don’t take too much. Most over-the-counter versions of the supplement recommend 1 gram a day, and that’s a good place to start.
You shouldn’t take astragalus if you have lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, or another autoimmune disease, since it might activate the immune system, exacerbating these conditions. Also pass on astragalus if you take cyclophosphamide (Cytoxin or Neosar) or other immunosuppressant drugs, because it can interact with this class of medication.
Obviously no herb or supplement is a cancer cure-all, but as a means to support your immunity and as an adjunct to therapy, this ancient herbal powerhouse is a great addition to your supplement regimen.
And remember, keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework…and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.
5Chen HW, Lin IH, Chen YJ, et al. A novel infusible botanically-derived drug, PG2, for cancer-related fatigue: a phase II double-blind, randomized placebo-controlled study. Clin Invest Med. 2012 Feb 1;35(1):E1-11.
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