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Chinese immune system booster, heals burns and abscesses, offsets adverse effects of cancer therapy, protects the heart against viral damage

Astragalus, used as a tonic in traditional Chinese medicine since antiquity, is now finding its way to the shelves of American health food stores. Also called milk vetch, astragalus is a member of the legume, or bean, family. The sweet-tasting roots, which are the parts used medicinally, are black with a pale yellow core. In Chinese, the herb is called Huang-qi, or "yellow leader." Researchers in both the United States and China have found clues that it may well live up to its 2,000-year-old reputation as an immune system booster. "Astragalus is one of the most commonly used herbs in all of Chinese medicine," according to Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Traditional Medicine in Portland, Oregon. Chinese herbalists prescribe it to build up the vital energy, or qi (pronounced key), of a weakened person, he explains, and include it in many combination remedies to promote the action of other herbs. It's used to promote urination, speed healing of burns and abscesses and generally bolster the body's resistance to disease.

Chinese healers also use astragalus to treat the common cold, arthritis, weakness, diarrhea, asthma and nervousness. Sometimes they pan-roast the roots in honey or use them as an ingredient in soup.

Cancer therapy helper

In Chinese hospitals, astragalus is used to help people with cancer recover from the immune system wipeout caused by chemotherapy.

In research conducted at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, a team of Chinese and American scientists studied the effects of compounds taken from astragalus roots on immune system cells taken from people with cancer and AIDS. The results: The researchers noted an increase in the functioning of T-cells, which are key fighters in the body's immune defense network. These were test-tube studies, though, and there's no proof yet that people with cancer who take astragalus preparations will benefit. Cancer isn't the only ill for which astragalus may hold promise. In Shanghai, doctors have shown that compounds from the root can protect heart cells from damage caused by the Coxsackie B virus, which can scar the hearts of both adults and infants. In one experiment, people suffering from this viral infection not only improved but showed enhanced resistance to the common cold.

Putting the herb to work

Astragalus preparations are available at many health food stores in the form of capsules, teas and tinctures. To prepare them, simply follow the directions on the package. The herb has not been reported to cause dangerous side effects, according to Dr. Dharmananda, but some people report loose stools or abdominal bloating. If you experience any unpleasant symptoms, cut back your dose or discontinue use.

An important note: There are many flowering plants in the astragalus family, including native American species that are toxic when eaten by cattle. (Ranchers call the plant locoweed because of its effect on their herds' behavior.) The particular herb known as astragalus in Chinese medicine is a species called Astragalus membranaceus.

For the maximum benefit from astragalus, Dr. Dharmananda recommends consulting a Chinese herbalist or other practitioner trained in traditional Chinese medicine. Like other Chinese herbs, "yellow leader" is often prescribed with a complex blend of other herbs and foods for maximum effect.

Astragalus itself is not a cancer cure; as with any traditional therapy, don't add it to a treatment regimen without discussing it with your doctor.

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