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Herbs & Botanicals

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Alfalfa (medicago sativa)

What is alfalfa? Why do we need it?

Also known as lucerne, alfalfa is a type of plant that belongs to the pea family, and is found throughout western Asia and eastern Europe. It can reach a height of approximately three feet, with smooth, sharply angled stems and clover-like flowers that can range in color from yellow to violet.

The sprouts of the alfalfa plant are a popular food, and are often used with salads and other meals. In herbal remedies, the plant's leaves and seeds are often employed. They are removed from the plant and dried before being added to herbal preparations.

As a type of folk medicine, alfalfa has been used to treat conditions such as diabetes and malfunction of the thyroid gland, and to help with blood clotting. In traditional Chinese medicine, alfalfa leaves have been used to treat digestive disorders and to help retain water. Alfalfa seeds are sometimes ground into a poultice and applied to the skin to treat rashes and insect bites.

Alfalfa leaves contain a variety of chemical compounds, including flavones, isoflavones, sterols, and derivatives of coumarin. Because of their high isoflavone levels, alfalfa is sometimes used to treat the symptoms of menopause.

How much alfalfa should I take?

The amount of alfalfa to be taken depends on the condition being treated. Bulk amounts of alfalfa sprouts are often used in salads and sandwiches, and as a garnish for other meals. Some herbalists recommend between 500 and 1,000 milligrams of powdered alfalfa leaf, or 1-2 milliliters of an alfalfa tincture.

What forms of alfalfa are available?

Alfalfa is available in a wide variety of forms. Alfalfa sprouts can be found at most supermarkets and herbal shops. Alfalfa supplements are available as pills, powders, extracts and tinctures.

What can happen if I take too much alfalfa? Are there any interactions I should be aware of? What precautions should I take?

Alfalfa is generally considered safe; the American Herbal Products Association has given it a class 1 rating, meaning that it can be safely consumed when used appropriately. Some patients have reported allergic reactions to alfalfa; in these instances, use of alfalfa products should be discontinued immediately. Ingestion of extremely large amounts of alfalfa for extended periods of time has been linked to the onset of lupus in animal studies, but these results have not been duplicated in humans.

As of this writing, there are no known drug interactions associated with alfalfa. As always, make sure to consult with a licensed health care provider before taking alfalfa or any other dietary supplement or herbal remedy.

References

  • Briggs C. Alfalfa. Canadian Pharm J March 1994;84-5, 115.
  • Foster S. Herbs for Your Health. Loveland, CO: Interweave Press, 1996, pp. 2-3.
  • Foster S, Tyler VE. Tyler's Honest Herbal. New York: Haworth Press, 1999, pp. 23-25.
  • Leung AY, Foster S. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics, second edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1996, pp. 13-15.
  • McGuffin M, Hobbs C, Upton R, et al. (eds.) American Herbal Products Association's Botanical Safety Handbook. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1997, p. 74.

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