Astragalus is an herb from the northern part of china and Mongolia.
It’s also called Huang qui, milk vetch, pak kie, and yellow leader. It’s been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine to help support and protect the body against disease. It is what is known as an adaptogen – something that can assist the body stand up to stressors. Although the term adaptogen is not a scientifically recognized term by allopathic standards adaptogens are recognized in Chinese medicine and in other natural medicines.
Astragalus is of interest in alternative cancer therapies because it can help to build your immune system up. When chemo drugs are used to get rid of cancer they unfortunately are not selective and a lot of damage is done to your immune system. This is pretty much just where we are in our orthodox cancer treatments – it’s like the lesser of two evils. If you want the benefits of chemo drugs then you have to take the nasty stuff as well. Anything we can do to mitigate the effects of that would be a very welcome addition and this is where Astragalus might help.
Before I continue on in this article I want to state what the Natural Standards Data Base reports that there is not enough evidence to recommend the use of it for the many conditions it is said to support. And not enough evidence means only that. It doesn’t mean that it absolutely doesn’t work, but that we need more evidence to say that it absolutely does. Why isn’t there enough evidence? Well, we don’t have enough studies that fit the criteria of being high level studies to determine this. There’s a whole lot more money being put into orthodox cancer treatments and into pharmaceutical drugs than there is for natural alternatives – and also what works for one person may not necessarily work for another due to genetic differences between people especially in regard to foods, supplements and herbs.
But let’s talk for a bit about the studies that do provide some evidence for Astragalus and the way that Astragalus is thought to offer its protective benefits. Chemo drugs have the effect for inhibiting the ability of the body to produce red blood cells and cause anemia. To inhibit the production of white blood cells and cause leucopenia, or neutropenia, meaning that you are much more vulnerable to infections; and chemo also reduces platelet forming ability causing thrombocytopenia which means there is less ability for the blood to clot. These are some pretty nasty and scary necessary evils to chemo treatment.
But Astragalus may enhance the function of the immune system by increasing the activity of white blood cells. It can help to produce antibodies, increase production of natural killer cells; and increase production of the antiviral and anti tumor agent interferon.
Astragalus also assists reverse the damage that chemo drugs inevitably cause. Clycophosphamade also called cytoxin is a chemo drug that slows cancer cell growth by affecting them at the DNA level – messing them up. Unfortunately it affects normal healthy cells too. But I’m really happy that there is some evidence that Astragalus can ameliorate this to some degree. In a study by Chu, cited below, it was found to increase white blood cell counts and help to produce them in the spleen and the bone marrow.
When Astragalus was used in combination with Angelica root it increased erythropoietin- a hormone that controls red blood cell formation, red blood cells, and platelets. It increased all the markers of anemia – hemoglobin, hematorcrit, iron, Total Iron Binding Capacity, and Vitamin B12. And, body weight in the hapless rats that had anemia induced in them.
When mice were given Astragalus for 6 days it increased the production of stromal cells and fibroblasts, which are precursors to bone marrow and connective tissue. It also increased substances that promote the growth of white blood cells.
I’m not in favor of animal research but this is unfortunately where most of our research comes from.
Astragalus may help with is the nausea associated with chemo. A recent review of 4 studies showed a reduction of nausea for patients with colon cancer when they were given Astragalus.
Do not use Astragalus if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. And if you are considering taking it, as posted at the beginning of this series please see your primary health carer. If you have cancer, let your oncologist know you are taking it too. Please look here for the recommendations. You’ll need to scroll to the bottom of the page.
Taixiang W, Munro A J Guanjian L Chinese medical herbs for chemotherapy side effects in colorectal cancer patients. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2005 Jan 25;(1):CD004540.
Zhu XL, Zhu BD. Mechanisms by which Astragalus membranaceus injection regulates hematopoiesis in myelosuppressed mice. Phytother Res. 2007 Jul;21(7):663-7.
Astragalus saponins modulate mTOR and ERK signaling to promote apoptosis through the extrinsic pathway in HT-29 colon cancer cells. Int J Mol Med. 2010 Sep;26(3):341-9.
Chang MD et al. Treatment with Astragali radix and Angelicae radix enhances erythropoietin gene expression in the cyclophosphamide-induced anemic rat. J Med Food. 2009Jun;12(3):673-42