Astragalus has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries, and modern science is confirming why. This ancient herb has strong benefits for the immune system, including flu prevention and allergy relief.
What Is Astragalus?
The astragalus plant comprises over 2,000 species and has been used for hundreds of years in ancient medicine systems. In addition to medicinal uses, the root is also added to foods, such as soups or teas. It can also be made into extracts, capsules or an astragalus tincture.
The herb is considered an adaptogen, meaning that it can help the body adjust to mental or physical stresses. It also has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, combined with antioxidants to help protect cells. Astragalus is most commonly known for its immune-boosting benefits, giving it a wide range of potential uses.
Astragalus side effects can include diarrhea, fatigue and headache, although it is considered generally safe for most adults.
Astragalus Immune System Benefits
Astragalus boosts immune systems in humans in two major ways. It releases a variety of antioxidants that can fight free radicals, decreasing the risk of illness. Even more impressive is that it may also increase immune cell production.
Provides Antioxidant Support
Many astragalus root benefits can be attributed to its antioxidants. Antioxidants hunt the body for free radicals. When there aren’t enough antioxidants to fight off free radicals, oxidative stress occurs. That can lead to cell damage and a variety of conditions, like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, cardiovascular disease and more. By adding antioxidants to your diet, you may reduce your risk of chronic disease.
Researchers have isolated a couple of compounds in astragalus that act as antioxidants. Flavonoids, which are known antioxidants, seem to be the biggest contributor in astragalus. One study found that the total flavonoids in the plant can prevent membrane lipid peroxidation—a process where free radicals damage the structure of cells.
The researchers also identified the astragalus plant compound, saponins as having protective effects, although weaker than flavonoids.
Other components have been shown to have antioxidant effects, too. Astragalosides (compounds specific to astragalus) and polysaccharides (carbohydrates) showed significant prevention of tissue injury because of their antioxidant effects, according to a 2015 study.
Together, these astragalus effects suggest that the herb can provide a variety of antioxidants to balance out harmful free radicals and support the immune system.
Stimulates and Stabilizes the Immune System
Another reason people take astragalus root for immune system benefits is that it may promote white blood cell production.
The herb is believed to act as an immunostimulant, meaning that it activates or increases activity in the immune system. Some research has shown that astragalus may increase the production of white blood cells, specifically macrophages and T-cells.
White blood cells are cells in the immune system responsible for protecting you against illness or diseases. When there's a threat, such as a virus, these cells work together to locate and attack pathogens, allowing your body to begin healing. Astragalus appears to help boost this process, making immune cells more efficient at protecting the body.
For example, when chemotherapy weakens a cancer patient’s immune system, astragalus may help to stimulate immune cell production. A lab study performed on mice found that astragalus may reverse chemotherapy’s negative effect on T-cells in the immune system.
Researchers have also studied the effects of astragalus and immune systems in humans. One study of 115 patients with low white blood cell levels (leukopenia) found that the herb was, on average, 65% effective at increasing the count. The effectiveness rose to 82% when they took a higher concentrated dose. These astragalus benefits are why doctors of Chinese Medicine often recommend the herb to cancer patients.
A 2012 study also suggested that astragalus can fight the immune-suppressing effects of HMGB1—a protein that triggers inflammation. By mediating the amount of inflammation in the body, astragalus can stabilize immune responses. This means that it may play an important role in preventing and managing autoimmune diseases.
Astragalus uses largely revolve around the potential effects it has on the immune system. Astragalus dosage varies, but generally people take 0.5g - 60 g per day.
There’s some evidence that astragalus may help people with seasonal allergies reduce the severity of reactions.
In a 2010 study, researchers compared two groups of participants with seasonal allergies. They gave one group an astragalus supplement and the other a placebo. After six weeks, the supplement significantly decreased the intensity of allergies while the placebo did not. For people with allergies to weed pollen specifically, their symptoms and quality of life scores improved greatly.
Although more research needs to be done, astragalus benefits allergy symptoms likely because it can regulate the immune system and reduce sensitivity to allergens.
Suppressed Immune System
People also take astragalus extract for immune system benefits. However, it may provide the most advantages to people with compromised immune systems.
For example, people undergoing chemotherapy have suppressed T-cell levels. Because of astragalus’ immune-stimulating benefits, people with weakened immune systems may find that the herb reduces their susceptibility to infection.
For cancer patients, astragalus uses extend further. A 2002 study found that cancer patients who were given astragalus with chemotherapy had increased immune function, reduced tumor growth, fewer side effects and an overall better quality of life.
Cold and Flu
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, astragalus is used for a variety of ailments—one of the most common being to prevent or treat a common cold.
Since the herb appears to regulate the immune system, it can potentially help protect your cells from infection. Given its high concentration of antioxidants, astragalus may help combat oxidative stress caused by the flu. Additionally, it appears that the herb may have antiviral effects that extend to various types of infections.
For example, a 2009 study found that astragalus may promote recovery from viral hepatitis B and may prevent the virus from replicating.
Taking astragalus during cold and flu season may help reduce your chances of getting sick or shorten the duration of infection if you do get sick.
Astragalus in Summary
Astragalus is a traditional herb known for its immune-boosting and adaptogenic benefits. Research is discovering more and more about this promising plant, including its unique combination of antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and immuno-modulating benefits.
From seasonal allergies to cold and flu prevention, astragalus may be a powerful weapon for enhancing your body’s natural defenses. For anyone with autoimmune disorders, astragalus may help to stabilize immune reactions and improve well-being.