Saturday, February 18, 2012

Astragalus: The Immune System Herb

Astragalus, called "huang qi"[pronounced hwang-chee] in Chinese, is a wonderful herb for strengthening the Lung and the immune system.

In the traditional Chinese herbal pharmacopoiea, it falls under the category of digestive tonic. (Remember that digestion and respiration are closely intertwined according to traditional Chinese physiology. For more details, please see my article on the physiology of the Lung in Chinese medicine.)

Western herbalists have categorized this herb as a powerful adaptogen (a restorative tonic increasing the body's resistance to trauma, stress, anxiety and fatigue). In Chinese medicine, we say thathuang qi builds the body's qi and blood, i.e. improves the physiological function of the body, particularly in terms of digestive and respiratory health.

Huang qi strengthens the Lung and treats frequent colds, asthma, allergies and other problems related to ineffecient or suboptimal Lung function.

In an elegantly complex way,huang qi regulates underactivity or overactivity of the immune system, making it useful in preventing colds, flus and allergies. It regulates the skin pores, so that the body's exterior is less vulnerable to outside pathogens, while simultaneouly releasing pathogens through an appropriate amount of sweating. (In Chinese medicine, the first way of treating a new cold virus is to open the pores to produce a mild sweat.)

Other powers of huang qi:
  • It has a raising quality, and is used to treat prolapse and excessive uterine bleeding.
  • It is used in cases of severe trauma or in postpartum to counteract severe blood loss and quickly rebuild energy.
  • It has a mild diuretic effect and reduces edema.
  • It can help chronic sores and ulcers heal and regenerate healthy flesh.

Some cautionary notes:
Do NOT use huang qi when you already have a cold. Its tonic nature will strengthen that power of the cold, making you feel worse. Rather, you should treat colds with pathogen-releasing, circulating and antimicrobial herbal formulas. I'll discuss some of these in my next newsletter issue. Consult your herbalist for the right combination of herbs for your condition.

Because this herb is strongly tonifying and elevating, we use it cautiously in conditions like hypertension, headaches, stroke risk, etc.

In TCM, single herbs are rarely used alone in treating patients. Rather they are incorporated into formulas where they balance and work synergistically with other herbs. Your Chinese herbalist might likely incorporate huang qi in your herbal formula this autumn.

Here are some additional references to the immune-enhancing affect of huang qi:

Astragalus alone is effective in preventing depletion of white blood cells during chemotherapy. A clinical study involving 115 patients receiving various forms of chemotherapy found that 83 percent had higher white blood cell counts when given astragalus. Common cold - Chinese studies have shown that using astragalus during cold season reduces the number of colds caught and shortens the duration of those that are caught. If you tend to get colds and flu often, astragalus can help you build up a natural resistance.
-Prescription for Herbal Healing: An Easy-to-Use A-Z Reference to Hundreds of Common Disorders and Their Herbal Remedies by Phyllis A. Balch, CNC

In a study of 28 people, astragalus given orally over a 2-month period significantly increased the production and secretion of interferon compared with controls. Remarkably, the levels of interferon remained high for 2 months after astragalus treatment ended. These results have been duplicated in laboratory studies. Astragalus also increases levels of natural killer (NK) cells, which roam the body via blood and lymph fluid, destroying a wide variety of invaders, including cancer cells and virus-infected body cells.
-The Encyclopedia of Popular Herbs by Robert S. McCaleb, Evelyn Leigh, and Krista Morien