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Astragalus root

A medicinal plant whose use comes to us from Chinese medicine, its Latin name is Astragalus membranaceus and it is a member of the Fabaceae family, also known as the legume/pea family.  The root is the part that is used, and it is considered a quintessential immune tonic or immune modulator.  This means it can help with immune system weakness, when someone regularly gets sick with viral or bacterial infections or takes a long time to recover, or immune hyperactivity, when someone has an autoimmune illness such as rheumatoid arthritis.  In Chinese medicine, it is considered a tonic herb that can increase vitality and longevity.
Its primary actions that have been borne out in traditional use, clinical practice, and/or laboratory research are that astragalus is: immune modulating, adaptogenic, anti-tumor, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, cardiotonic, diuretic, hypotensive, antioxidant, hepatoprotective, cancer preventive, tissue regenerative, and protective against drops in white blood cell count during chemotherapy or radiation.

Based on the above actions, this herb is used in cases of immune weakness due to chronic stress, because it has a protective effect on the adrenal glands, heart, liver, and kidneys and can help decrease chances of immune weakness when under stress.  It can act as a prophylactic against the common cold, upper respiratory tract infections, and other viral infections.  It is also potentially protective against a compromised immune system during cancer treatment, and because of its antitumor, heart & liver protective effects, and its antioxidant properties, astragalus is often useful for someone diagnosed with or at risk for cancer, improving chances for recovery and longevity.  Astragalus may also be useful as a hypotensive, because of its heart tonic and diuretic actions.

Astragalus is used medicinally in a decoction, meaning that the root is cooked/simmered in water or broth for a certain length of time, usually a minimum of 20 minutes; as a tincture, or powdered in capsules.  Traditionally, the root slices were added to soups/stews in fall and winter and cooked in the broth, then removed and the soup and broth consumed.  This is a great way to get the health benefits of astragalus root into your diet.  At Herban Wellness, I sell astragalus root in small cut-root form for decoctions/teas and the root slices (they look like tongue depressors) for decocting or adding to soups/stews.  I also sell the powder that can be added to food.  Generally speaking, you need to consume this herb regularly for several weeks to help strengthen a weak or debilitated immune system.  The general dose for prevention is 1 Tbsp of herb/16 oz or so of water, simmer for 20-30 minutes, strain, and drink in a day.  Add 3-4 root slices to a pot of soup, beans, or rice, and pull out of the food before consuming. For healing and more acute situations, double or triple the dose, taking 3 Tbsp per day, simmered in 24 ounces of water.

Because this herb seems to strengthen and tonify the immune system over time, it is generally not taken or recommended for acute infections.  It is mostly used for chronic immune and adrenal weakness and to strengthen and protect organ systems over time.

The Kidneys – We have two of these important organs, sitting up just under the rib cage in the back. They filter the blood, inorganic salts, and toxic waste products of metabolism, maintain mineral and pH balance in the blood, and help control blood pressure by regulating the volume of water in the blood. They also release hormones to control blood pressure and control the production of red blood cells. Thus, these organs play an important role in detoxification of the body among other things. In addition, the important stress-response glands, our Adrenal Glands, sit atop the kidneys.

The Urinary Tract – this system consists of the kidneys, ureters (tubes that travel to the bladder), the bladder, and the urethra (tube that moves urine out of the bladder).

Tonic Herbs for this system, include herbs that over time support the health of the urinary tract, reducing inflammation, soothing, and even helping with regeneration of cells and healing tissue. Herbs such as Nettle (leaf and seed), Pellitory-of-the-Wall, Astragalus root, Milk thistle seed, Dan Shen (Red Sage or Salvia miltiorrhiza), Goldenrod, and Couchgrass are tonic, restorative herbs for the kidneys specifically, and the urinary tract generally.

Soothing herbs such as Corn silk, Couch grass, and Marshmallow root, can be used when there is any sort of irritation of the urinary system, and to help reduce inflammation in the case of urinary stones, infection, or chemical damage (certain pharmaceutical medications or heavy metals, for example). These herbs contain compounds that get excreted via the urinary tract, soothing and healing while passing through.

Herbs to help with water retention and flow through the kidneys and urinary system are known as diuretics. One of the strongest is Dandelion leaf, which is also naturally high in potassium, so can offset excess loss of potassium as some pharmaceutical diuretics can promote. Others include Goldenrod, Hibiscus, Cleavers, Buchu, Parsley leaf and root, Celery seed, and Uva ursi. These herbs can help with lowering pressure in the blood vessels so are often included in formulas for high blood pressure.

Other herbs can help treat and prevent kidney stones, such as Hydrangea root, Gravel root, and Chanca piedra (Phyllanthus spp.). The first step in preventing kidney stones is drinking enough water preventing dehydration, particularly in hot weather where there is increased sweating. The vast majority of kidney stones contain calcium – calcium oxalate and calcium phosphate, while sometimes uric acid stones can form. For calcium-based stones, people should avoid oxalate-rich foods such as spinach, rhubarb, beets, and chocolate. Magnesium can help keep calcium soluble in the urine so it doesn’t react with oxalic acids and form stones, so taking a Magnesium supplement can be helpful. For uric acid-based stones, alkalinizing water and foods such as green vegetables need to be increased and animal protein should be minimized since protein tends to increase levels of uric acid.

There are also some effective herbs to prevent infection by preventing bacteria from adhering to the mucosal lining, such as the well-known cranberry, uva ursi leaves (in the same family), and buchu. Other herbs are effective at inhibiting bacteria and fungus and can take care of an infection if caught early on. These herbs contains compounds that are highly antimicrobial that excrete through the urinary tract. Juniper berry is one of the best in this regard, as it is also diuretic and anti-inflammatory. Buchu, uva ursi, Echinacea, and Goldenseal are others that have antimicrobial properties specific to the urinary tract and support the immune system.

The Emotion: Fear & Element: Water associated with the kidneys and bladder from the Five Element Theory in Traditional Chinese Medicine. “The Kidney is the repository of energy for the body, supplying needed Qi to all the organs when necessary. Getting enough rest is essential for helping to maintain Kidney energy balance. The Five Element emotion associated with the Kidney is fear. Fear is a deep-seated emotion, central (realized or not) to much of existence as it is dictated through thought and action. Fear, when welcomed and addressed with discernment, can become a strength in the affairs of your daily life. Be aware. Be calm. Rest.” (from the Arizona School or Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine, ASAOM).

The Adrenal Glands and the Kidneys – How you care for yourself, and manage stress and fear, have an impact on both the kidneys (nourishment, water, rest) and your adrenal glands (the stress response, fight or flight). Some herbs and mushrooms support both, and the HPA Axis (Hypothalamus-Pituitary Gland-Adrenal Gland Axis), such as Astragalus root and Cordyceps mushroom. Other adaptogens (herbs that support the HPA Axis and adrenal glands) can be combined with kidney tonic herbs for helping the body respond differently to life and fear, including Codonopsis, American ginseng, and Eleuthero.

You want to know what I love and find unique about herbs and herbal medicine?

What I find unique about herbal medicine is that herbs can be used for both symptom management and for helping to restore the health of an organ or system. For example, milk thistle can be protective to liver cells and help restore and promote regeneration of healthy cells. Hawthorn can be strengthening to the heart and circulatory system and help prevent heart-related issues. Marshmallow root is healing and soothing to the mucosal lining of the gastrointestinal tract and can help with recovery after an inflammatory issue, such as heartburn, gastritis, or leaky gut. Ashwaganda can help us feel more calm and get more restful sleep. Cherry bark can calm a cough and thin mucus.

Within this topic, I also find it important for people to understand the difference between taking an herb for a certain symptom (or symptoms) and taking an herb to support the underlying system. For example, when someone is dealing with a viral infection, such as the flu, there are certainly herbs that might be able to make you more comfortable. Where herbs really stand out, however, is how they can help support your immune system in combating the virus. I think of it as the herbs mobilizing the immune system to keep fighting the invaders or infection. Many of the herbs commonly used to stimulate the immune system have been shown to help shorten the duration and severity of a cold or flu virus. Think: elderberry, olive leaf, oregano. This means you have to keep taking them, even once the symptoms are in full force, and they can really shorten how long you are sick.

Another thing people may not understand, is that you need to take these herbs in copious amounts, frequently, to really have a notable effect for an acute situation such as this. These same herbs are often very effective at keeping you from getting sick in the first place, if you take them frequently when you first feel any sign you might be getting something.

Then there are other immune support herbs that can help you from getting sick in the first place, by taking them on a daily basis or taking them several times a day when around people who are sick. Think: astragalus root, certain medicinal mushrooms such as reishi and shiitake, olive leaf, elderberry. These are used more as preventive medicine (notice there is some overlap) and can help someone get sick less frequently and recover more quickly when they do.

I view herbal medicine as a “tool in the toolkit” of health, and it exists best in a holistic lifestyle of health. This holistic lifestyle includes the things most of us know we “should” be doing, including beneficial nutrition/diet, pure water, sufficient sleep, and exercise, which are essential for care of the body. And yet, there is much more that contributes to a healthy life, including our mental and emotional health, our stress management techniques, the health and quality of our relationships, time in nature, and our general sense of our purpose and place in our communities and in the world. Then there are the various healing modalities we can choose from to help support our health, including massage, acupuncture, naturopathic medicine, nutrition consults, life coaching, therapy, energy work, chiropractic, etc.

Taking herbs alone is not going to solve all of our health problems. But, let me tell you, I am grateful for their many benefits and the healing they have supported in my body and in countless others I have had the pleasure of guiding in their selection and use of herbs for their own healing.

Immune Power Balls
Adapted from “Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health” by Rosemary Gladstar
Ingredients:
2 Tablespoons Astragalus root powder
1 Tablespoon Maca root powder
1 Tablespoon Reishi mushroom powder
½ Tablespoon Spirulina, Blue-Green Algae, or Chlorella powder (optional)
1 cup sesame butter (tahini) or peanut butter
½ cup honey (or more to taste)
½ cup crushed almonds
Your choice of shredded coconut, cocoa or carob powder, raisins or goji berries, chocolate or carob chips, and granola for flavor
Instructions:
Combine the powdered herbs and mix well.
Combine the sesame or peanut butter and honey, mixing to form a paste.
Add enough of the powdered herbs to thicken, and add the almonds and the other optional components to your liking.  Thicken to consistency with carob or cocoa powder.  Roll into walnut or teaspoon size balls and eat two per day.  Store in the refrigerator or in a sealed glass jar and eat within a week.
The herbs in this recipe:
Astragalus root is from the Chinese system of medicine, as a long-term, supportive immune system tonic, antioxidant, liver protectant, antitumor, and adaptogen (stress/adrenal support).
Maca root is from high in the Andes and is eaten as a food, as a nourishing root vegetable high in B vitamins, protein, and carbohydrates.  This food and herb has been used to support a healthy immune system, increase energy levels, and enhance libido.
Reishi mushroom is used as an immune tonic for strengthening the immune syste and supporting the body’s ability to fight viral infections.
Spirulina/Chlorella/Blue-green algae are superfoods, high in chlorophyll, beta-carotene, and many trace minerals, and are detoxifying.