Astragalus (huang qi) is a perennial plant native to China, Mongolia, and Korea, and is one of Chinese medicine’s 50 fundamental herbs. It is considered a strong, qi strengthening remedy, and one of its compounds might even be used to treat HIV in the near future. Though it saw a boost in popularity with the publication of the Taiping Huimin Hejiju Fang in 1100 CE, practitioners of Chinese medicine have been using huang qi to combat stress and strengthen the immune system for thousands of years.
How is astragalus used in Chinese medicine?
Practitioners use the dried root of the plant. Huang qi can be boiled to make medicinal tea, but it is more frequently ground with other herbs in traditional formulas like bu zhong yi qi tang and yu ping feng san. Huang qi is considered a tonic for both the digestive and immune systems: the herb’s sweet, warming properties treat the spleen and lung, while raising stomach and spleen qi.
Huang qi is often administered to treat or prevent colds, upper respiratory infections, allergies, and chronic fatigue syndrome. It is also used to increase the production of blood cells, particularly in individuals with chronic degenerative diseases or who are undergoing invasive cancer treatments, like radiation and chemotherapy. Because of its antibacterial and antiviral qualities, huang qi acts as a liver protectant, anti-inflammatory, diuretic, and vasodilator. This means it is recommended for those with liver, heart, and blood vessel diseases.
Huang qi is an enduringly popular herb because it is as effective for everyday complaints as it is for uncommon disease patterns that are difficult to alleviate. Practitioners use it for skin wounds and mild colds as well as for severe heart disease and liver damage.
What does the research say about astragalus?
Because of its potential to ease serious, incurable illnesses, medical institutions in the U.S. and China are highly invested in studying the medicinal effects of astragalus. We now have considerable insight into the mechanisms of this versatile herb, and its use by Chinese medical practitioners is well supported. Major American medical schools, including the University of Maryland Medical Center and USC’s Keck School of Medicine, recommend astragalus as a complementary treatment for:
- Diabetes and related complications
- Seasonal allergies
- Chronic stress
- Liver disease
- High cholesterol
- Colds and flu
- Heart disease
Research suggests that astragalus is excellent for heart health because it is very high in antioxidants. As this property eases blood vessel constriction and lowers cholesterol, it may prevent heart disease from taking root in the first place.
Another exciting avenue of astragalus research is cancer treatment. We know that astragalus, like many other traditional Chinese herbs, can combat the fatigue, nausea, appetite loss, and weakened immune systems people endure when they undergo chemotherapy or radiation for cancer. But, astragalus may also have anti-tumor effects. It is possible that this herb can be used to reverse various forms of cancer, particularly if they are caught early.
Astragalus is exceedingly versatile and well tolerated by most of my patients. Both Chinese and Western medical providers acknowledge that astragalus has few side effects, but its use should be closely monitored in combination with other herbs or medications (especially lithium and immunosuppressants). Always consult an experienced practitioner of Chinese medicine before trying a traditional remedy, as it may not be appropriate for your constitution or the unique pattern of your condition.
Updated April 11, 2017