How astragalus benefits people with cancer and low immunity
Astragalus grows wild in Korea, Mongolia, Japan, Taiwan and northern China. Known in Chinese as Huang Qi, it has been used medicinally for over 1,000 years. In his classical treatise, Shen Nung Pen Tsao Ching (circa 100 AD), Shen Nung, founder of Chinese herbal medicine, classified Huang Qi as a superior herb. And one of its best health benefits is its ability to boost immunity.
Cancer patients who undergo chemotherapy not only experience side effects such as nausea and hair loss but also suffer a breakdown in immunity. Some of such patients who choose to continue chemotherapy wonder what they can do to protect and boost their immune systems. It is imperative to prevent white blood cell counts from falling too low; otherwise, patients could succumb to serious secondary infections which can sometimes be fatal.
When asked for suggestions, Mark Stengler, ND, would recommend astragalus root. According to him, this Chinese herb is “one of the best long-term immune tonics.” In China, Japan and even some North American hospitals, astragalus is used to protect patients from chemotherapy’s side effects.
How astragalus enhances immunity
Similar to Echinacea, astragalus boosts immunity by increasing the levels of certain types of immune cells that fight pathogenic invaders. These include macrophages and natural killer cells; the former goes around “consuming” microbial enemies, while the latter attacks and destroys viruses and cancer cells.
Astragalus also increases the body’s levels of antibodies; these compounds bind to foreign intruders, and the immune system takes over to destroy them.
Further, astragalus stimulates the production of interferon, a potent antiviral compound which stops virus replication. One study found that interferon levels remained elevated two months after astragalus consumption was ceased.
Astragalus even supports the bone marrow, the site of maturation of white blood cells. Research carried out on animals found that astragalus expanded their white blood cell army. One study conducted at the University of Texas Medical Center in Houston revealed that Huang Qi restored or improved the function of white blood cells extracted from cancer sufferers. Remarkably, some of the damaged white blood cells actually became more active than normal ones taken from cancer-free persons.
Some preliminary studies in China have suggested that astragalus not only improved immune function but also enhanced survival of some cancer sufferers.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), astragalus is used to help prevent colds and upper respiratory infections. Chinese clinical studies revealed that astragalus was effective at preventing common colds. One particular study in China covering 1,000 subjects with inhbited immunity found that those who consumed astragalus (tablets or nasal sprays) experienced fewer cold outbreaks and less severe symptoms.
In TCM, this herb is used for night sweats, chi deficiency (characterized by fatigue, weakness and poor appetite/digestion) and diarrhea. It also helps persons who are susceptible to asthma and people with diabetes. Huang Qi is typically used in herbal formulas comprising also of other herbs, and it’s also added to rice and soups.
Astragalus root is typically used in various forms, including dried root, tinctures, fluid extracts, tea bags, dry powdered root, capsules and tablets.
Since astragalus stimulates immunity, it can interfere with drugs that are deliberately used to suppress the immune system, as in the cases of persons who have received organ transplants.
Generally speaking, astragalus is a relatively safe herb which can be used for long-term immune support. However, persons with fever or autoimmune diseases should exercise caution. It should also be noted that astragalus should be used as part of a comprehensive healing regime and not as a standalone “cure” for any disease.
Sources for this article include:
Stengler, Mark, ND. The Natural Physician’s Healing Therapies: Proven Remedies Medical Doctors Don’t Know. New York, NY: Prentice Hall Press, 2010. Print.
Murray, Michael, ND. The Pill Book Guide to Natural Medicines: Vitamins, Minerals, Nutritional Supplements, Herbs, And Other Natural Products. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 2002. Print.
Gaby, Alan R., MD. The Natural Pharmacy: Complete A-Z Reference to Natural Treatments for Common Health Conditions. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 2006. Print.
Balch, James F., MD, and Stengler, Mark, ND. Prescription for Natural Cures: A Self-Care Guide for Treating Health Problems with Natural Remedies Including Diet and Nutrition, Nutritional Supplements, Bodywork, and More. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2004. Print.