Belonging to the legume family Fabaceae, astragalus is actually a large genus of plants numbering over 2000 species (1).
The main variety used is the one that grows on the margins of Chinese forests. Indeed, astragalus has been popular for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine, for various applications.
Astragalus membranaceus plants are normally left until they’re 4 or 5 years old before being harvested for medicinal use. The plants are uprooted, and the roots - the parts that contain significant amounts of active ingredients - are sliced and dried (2).
It’s these dried astragalus roots which are traditionally used in Ayurveda to prepare infusions. They can also be reduced to a powder for spicing up dishes or juices, and, of course, for putting into supplement capsules.
More recently, manufacturers have developed a process in which astragalosides can be extracted from the root, in order to make concentrates.
Astragalus supports the body’s defences in fighting external attacks, a benefit believed to be linked to its high polysaccharide content (3). Between 2012 and 2016, a large-scale study was funded by the European Union to examine the impact of these non-digestible fibres on the immune system. Scientists discovered that polysaccharides were able to act on the genes linked to immunity and on intestinal immune cellules (4).
Many people therefore choose to take an astragalus supplement to support their immune system (such as the product Astragalus extract, a liquid supplement standardised to 16% polysaccharides). Others take one to boost their defences against allergens (with a synergistic formulation such as Aller Fight, which contains astragalus, pine maritime, spirulina ...)
Astragalus is also rich in the powerful polyphenols called flavonoids. In vitro studies have demonstrated astragalus’ ability to inhibit lipid peroxidation in the myocardium by 40% (5).
Its high polysaccharide content also means it has an effect on insulin receptors, potentially helping to reduce levels of blood sugar, triglycerides and lipoproteins (6).
In this way, astragalus can help to protect cardiac function and maintain normal blood pressure.
Astragalus has powerful antioxidant properties and is recognised for playing an active role in rejuvenating the skin and helping to maintain its suppleness and elasticity (7).
Certain studies have focused on the ability of one of astragalus’ compounds, astragaloside IV, to act on telomerase, the telomere-shortening process that contributes to cellular ageing (8).
That’s why some individuals keen to delay the effects of ageing supplement with astragaloside IV (by taking the product Astragaloside IV 98%, standardised to 98% astragaloside IV). A very popular variant is cycloastragenol, another astragalus molecule with a similar structure to that of astragaloside IV (see the supplement Cycloastragenol).
Astragalus is more generally a tonic which supports physical and mental well-being. It is also classified as an adaptogen (in other words, it increases the body’s resistance to stress). Indeed, astragalus has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine primarily for its adaptogen benefits (9).
To enhance these adaptogenic effects, astragalus can be taken in synergy with other similar compounds, such as Rhodiola rosea, ginseng or ashwagandha (a combination offered, for example, in the supplement Adaptix).
There are no real contraindications associated with astragalus, other than the possibility, at very high doses (more than 28 grams a day!), of a paradoxical immunosuppressant effect..
As astragalus taken at reasonable doses actually acts as an immunostimulant, it could potentially have an adverse effect on those either suffering from auto-immune diseases or who have recently undergone a transplant.
Because of a lack of relevant data, astragalus is not recommended for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Apart from in these specific instances, astragalus supplementation poses no risk to health. It’s important, however, to follow the dose recommended by the manufacturer, which relates to the strength of their particular product.
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