Astragalus: Traditional and Modern Research

By Dr. Abrahamson on

One of the most popular herbs in the USA is astragalus (huang qi). In the clinic, I have used astragalus formulas widely in chronic conditions such as cancer, immunological conditions, allergic rhinitis, kidney disease, and respiratory conditions.  

 Astragalus is considered a spleen qi tonic in traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that builds “defensive energy” (wei qi). Astragalus is a versatile herb and should be combined with other herbs depending upon indications (it’s intended use). For example, astragalus works synergistically with Tang Kuei (dang gui) to improve blood counts. In addition, research has shown that it works with Ligustrum (nu zhen zi) to improve immune performance.

Therefore, astragalus is used in herbal formulas to treat anemia, poor appetite, fatigue, and diarrhea, respiratory disorders, allergic rhinitis, viral infections, hepatitis, fibromyalgia, side effects of chemo and radiation therapy, diabetes, kidney disease, and cardiovascular conditions. In China, astragalus is also used in formulas to improve lung function, and in formulas for impotence and poor sperm motility.

 Astragalus has antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and diuretic properties. 

 In modern research, astragalus is concerned an immune modulator. It has been researched since the 1970s for reducing the side effects of conventional cancer drugs including chemotherapy, radiation therapy and biological drugs. The immune modulating effects of astragalus are thought to be associated with polysaccharide fractions. 

 Astragalus enhances NK cells, induces IL 2 and interferon production. Supplementing astragalus during chemotherapy decreases the toxic effects of chemotherapy, elevates immune function, enhances antitumor effects and improves quality of life. In a review of 34 randomized studies representing 2815 patients receiving astragalus based formulas, thirty studies showed improved tumor response and twelve studies reported reduced risk of death at twelve months.[1]

 An astragalus based herbal formula has been found to help n-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, patients in terms of improving blood flow and reduction of chemotherapy side effects.[2] In colon cancer cells, astragalus down-regulated mTOR signaling and COX-2, which together reduce faxular endothelial  growth factor levels in tumor cells that could potentially suppress cancer angiogenesis.[3] 

Lung cancer. Analyses of results from preliminary clinical research in China suggest that taking astragalus-containing herbal products might increase the effectiveness of platinum-based chemotherapy or radiotherapy for advanced non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Taking astragalus-containing herbal products appears to reduce the risk of death at one year by 33%, at two years by 33%, and at three years by 24% compared to control. [1, 4]

 Astragalus herbal formulas are useful to combat fatigue in cancer and other conditions. One preliminary clinical study shows that taking a decoction containing astragalus grams and other herbs in two divided doses daily for 3 months improves fatigue symptoms compared to baseline in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome.[5]

 Recently, it has been found that astragalus may have a protective effect on myocardial injury. In laboratory experiments, astragalus improves insulin sensitivity, glucose uptake and alleviates glucose toxicity by increasing liver glycogen synthesis and skeletal muscle glucose translocation.[6]

 Preliminary clinical research shows that taking astragalus root extract standardized to contain 40% polysaccharides, 160 mg. orally twice daily for 3-6 weeks improves symptoms such as rhinorrhea, sneezing, and itching compared to placebo in adults with seasonal allergic rhinitis.[7] Research indicates that astragalus formulas may also be useful for patients with cardiac and kidney failure.

1.     McCulloch M, See C, Shu XJ, et al. Astragalus-based Chinese herbs and platinum-based chemotherapy for advanced non-small-cell cancer: meta-analysis of randomized trials. J Clin Oncol2006;24:419-30.

2.     X. M. Guo, J. X. Li, and X.F. Yang. “Clinical observation on 112 cases with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma treated by Chinese herbs in combination with chemotherapy,” Zhongguo Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Za Zhi17(6)(1997):325-27.

3.     P. C. Law, K. K. Auyeung, L. Y. Chan, and J. K. Ko, “Astragalus saponins downregulate vascular endothelial growth factor under cobalt chloride-stimulated hypoxia in colon cancer cells,” BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 12(2012):160.

4.     He H, Zhou X, Wang Q, Zhao Y. Does the couse of astragalus-containing Chinese herbal prescriptions and radiotherapy benefit to non-small-cell lung cancer treatment: a meta-analysis of randomized trials. EvidBased Compliment Alternat Med. 2013;2013:426207.

5.     Zhang, Z. X., Wu, L. L., and Chen, M. Effect of lixi jieyu recipe in treating 75 patients with chronic fatigue syndrome. Zhongguo Zhong Xi Uo Jie He Za Zhi. 2009;29(6):501-505

6.     F. Zou, X. Q. Mao, N. Wang, et al., “Astragalus polysaccharides alleviate glucose toxicity and restore glucose homeostasis in diabetic states via activation of AMPK,” Acta Pharmacologica Sinica 30(12)(2009): 1607-15.

 7.     Maltkovic Z, Zivkovic V, Korica M, et al. Efficacy and safety of Astragalus in the treatment of patients with seasonal allergic rhinitis. Phytother Res2010;24:175-81

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