For those well-versed in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it can be quite frustrating to hear astragalus root being described as a one of the more beneficial Chinese herbs to be recently rediscovered. After all, practitioners of TCM and others who rely on Chinese herbal medicine have long known about the many benefits of astragalus root, or Huang Qi.
Learn Your Chinese Herbs
As one expert wrote, “There are more than 2,000 species of Astragalus. But only two of them are used medicinally.” This tells us that it is a plant that has long been studied and tested, and now it is the roots of the two most effective varieties that are primarily being used in Chinese herbal medicine. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine describe it as entering via the spleen and lung channels and as having sweet and slightly warm properties. If you are not familiar with Chinese herbal medicine, though, you may not immediately recognize what such behaviors or properties mean, nor how the herb might be used.
Modern medical experts are also looking at Astragalus in many ways. They see it as boosting immune system function and helping to counteract the worst side effects of certain kinds of chemotherapy. It is also seen as helping the kidneys, offsetting symptoms of diabetes (such as eye damage), and working as an antiviral agent. It is also been studied for fighting tumor growth. This can be a lot to take in, and if you are eager to learn about Chinese herbs, it is important to first understand the main difference between the TCM and western allopathic methods and terminologies.
TCM vs. Western Medicine Approach
Traditional Chinese Medicine looks at herbal ingredients differently than western medicine does. In TCM, the herbs are known by the organ channels they affect, the physical properties of the herbs themselves, and how each herb works within the body to support optimal health. Furthermore, TCM rarely emphasizes the use of a single herb to address a single symptom. This is primarily because TCM does not treat single symptoms, but works to restore health and balance to the entire body. However, it is a very common contemporary western approach to medicine to prescribe a single remedy or ingredient in order to address a single symptom – i.e. an OTC pain reliever with one major active ingredient prescribed for the pain of a sprained ankle.
When the OTC pain reliever temporarily relieves the pain symptom, the western allopathic model considers this a successful treatment as the single ingredient counteracted the single symptom. The TCM model prefers to address the body’s signals (symptoms) more holistically. Using the same example of the sprained ankle, the TCM model would want to address more than just the pain, and therefore, would create a more complex remedy from a group of herbs (rather than a single ingredient) to address the body’s various needs for healing the ankle. A good formula would include herbs to invigorate blood circulation, to strengthen connective tissue, to relieve pain and inflammation, to provide increased nutrition to the cells that need to do the repair work and more.
While the TCM model aims to support and enhance the body’s natural healing abilities, much of western medicine focuses on subverting or bypassing the body’s natural responses. There are some specific positive uses for this kind of western intervention, especially for severe trauma and disease situations, but for most every day injuries and even for many cases of chronic pain caused by overuse injuries, etc., the mechanics of most western OTC pain relievers can actually counteract the body’s natural abilities to heal. Nearly all western pain relief medications work by disrupting the body’s natural pain signaling responses, so that drugs like aspirin and even prescription pain pills tell your brain “everything is fine…nothing to see here.” In doing so, these drugs prevent the natural production of healing enzymes and compounds and prevent them from reaching the area of injury or irritation.
Temporarily treating the symptoms of pain by circumventing the body’s natural healing responses can allow for the root cause of the pain to worsen over time, thus causing the effectiveness of the single drug approach to decrease, and too often, leaving you with the same or worse pain, discomfort and health problems you began with.
Traditional Chinese Medicine does not work that way. It never ignores root causes by focusing on relief of symptoms. Instead, Chinese herbs and Chinese herbal medicine have centuries of knowledge to share, and even more importantly, a holistic approach that aims to relieve symptoms by supporting and strengthening the body’s natural ability to heal itself from the original cause of the symptoms. (Plum Dragon’s best-selling topical pain relief products can be found, here).
Looking at the whole person enables practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine to find far more effective solutions. They turn to herbal remedies like astragalus root because they understand the pathways it follows in the body, the properties it brings to specific organ systems, and the ways it interacts with the whole of the body system.
Supporting Health with Astragalus Root
How do TCM practitioners use Astragalus root for supporting a healthy body?
As we learned, the dominant channels that Astragalus root works on in the body are the spleen and liver channels. We also discovered that the herb is slightly warm and sweet. What does that tell us? Balance is the key, and experts in TCM would use remedies with properties that could provide a counterbalance to the symptoms. Thus, a slightly warm remedy is meant to balance a cooler condition. The flavor corresponds with an organ and phase, with flavor being used to work therapeutically. A sweet flavor would moisten, supplement and harmonize.
Such descriptions can be difficult for someone untrained in Chinese herbal medicine to understand. Essentially, the properties given to the remedy explain what properties you can expect it to deliver to the body, and which channels or pathways it will follow to do so. We know that astragalus is good for the immune system. That means it would have to work with the filter systems in the body, such as the liver or spleen; which it does. We know it brings its slight warmth, thus “colds” and infections that de-energize, i.e. cool the body, are treated with it.
This is a major oversimplification, but it is useful to consider that this is one way to view astragalus and how it works in the world of TCM as a very reliable remedy to immune problems, kidney issues and more.
Chinese Herbs and Adaptogens
It is also helpful to understand that Astragalus is one of nature’s adaptogenic herbs, meaning that it is a botanical ingredient that improves your body’s ability to adapt to stressors. In other words, it doesn’t alter anything about your mood or attitude necessarily, but simply boosts or strengthens your body’s physical ability to handle the internal, bodily effects of both brief and prolonged periods of stress. Adaptogens, like Astragalus, are given this name because of their superior ability to support your body’s and mind’s abilities to quickly adapt to stress without becoming imbalanced.
Astragalus is recognized by both western medical practitioners as well as experts in TCM for its ability to support the immune system even under times of great stress. As one report indicates, Astragalus “is one of the best-researched immune system stimulants now available. It …increase [s] the number and activity of immune cells. However, astragalus concentrates on building the immune system…”
Astragalus can be used alone, but, in line with TCM principles, it is often combined in formulas with other immune strengthening Chinese herbs such as ginseng.
Modern science has identified that Astragalus contains high amounts of two very potent constituents – saponins and polysaccharides – that are claimed to be the source of the herbs powerful immune-enhancing properties. Yet, while it’s true these natural chemicals provide amazing immune system support, it is also important to remember that “traditional herbalists believe there likely dozens of other active, synergistic, or supportive components” in the plant. Astragalus has been shown to “heighten the efficiency of virtually every component of the immune system.”
So, we can see that Astragalus is an energizing herb that improves health through immune support. Is that the only reason so many practitioners rely on it? No, it is also commonly used for those suffering with kidney disease. Many studies and reports have looked at the effects of Astragalus on kidney health and found that it “may help to decrease the Serum Creatinine, reduce the amount of protein lost in the urine and diminish the effects of some complications, such as anemia and malnutrition…”
Offering tremendous support to the body’s natural defenses, from immune function to supporting the health of your kidneys, and also working as an adaptogen to help during times of stress, Astragalus root is a remarkable herb. Generally considered safe for adults to use on a daily basis, it can be a perfect ongoing supplement for those with concerns about the impact of daily stressors on their health and well-being.
Plum Dragon has Huang Qi available, and the roots are taken from four-year-old (or older) plants that are robust in health. They also carry Reishi and Astragalus Chai Training Tea, which can deliver more of a holistic benefit from the combination of several herbs in the formula. The tea is designed to boost your energy and immunity, support healthy adrenal function and blood sugar levels, and flood your body with an army of anti-oxidants, vitamins and minerals it needs to repair the daily damage being done by strenuous athletic activity.
If you are eager to balance out your immune function, support your kidney health or to reduce the effects of stress (from everything from your job to chemotherapy treatments) on your body, it is a wise idea to consider this herb. Proven through centuries of use, and now modern science, Astragalus is an immune system and kidney health support remedy.