Qi is the energetic force that underlies our life force and vitality – allowing for mental clarity, physical endurance, immunity, and recovery from fatigue and exhaustion. Qi tonics are a class of herbs that provide energy to the body (as well as many specific organs) and help increase blood flow throughout the body. For centuries, Astragalus – or Huang Qi as it is called in Chinese medicine – has been recognized as one of the world’s greatest immune-boosting, fatigue-fighting herbs. Considered one of the most potent Qi tonics available, it’s energy-enhancing benefits can help to heal fatigue, chronic physical weakness, poor digestion and low immunity.
Not actually an herb, Astragalus is the woody root of the Astragalus membranaceus species that is highly respected and sought-after for its renowned energy building properties. Specifically, Astragalus powerfully tonifies both the Spleen and Lung, the two major organ systems within the body that transform food and air into Qi, or our life energy.
Astragalus is a remarkable root that supports and modulates immune system function – helping to prevent upper respiratory viruses that produce colds and the flu. By stimulating the growth of hunter T-cells, leukocytes and interferon within the blood, Astragalus helps to inhibit foreign pathogens and disease. Astragalus is also commonly used to treat immune system dysfunction associated with HIV and cancer. Research has shown that patients who take Astragalus either post-surgery or after chemotherapy and radiation treatments tend to recover more quickly from the ill effects of these interventions.
Astragalus also supports a healthy metabolism, reduces inflammation and strengthens the musculature. A tea or “decoction” that includes Astragalus will also help to improve the functioning of the gastrointestinal tract, strengthening digestion, the adrenal glands and overall energy levels. Like many other Chinese herbal tonics and medicinal mushrooms, Astragalus is a deeply nourishing “food” that can nutritionally support a busy and active lifestyle. As with all tonic herbs, Astragalus benefits are cumulative over time and build up with routine use.
Because Astragalus is both a Spleen and Lung Qi tonic, it is often used to target deficiencies in either of these organ systems. Note, the Spleen (capital “C”) in Chinese medicine isn’t literally the spleen (lower case “c”) of western anatomy. Rather, it is more closely associated with the pancreas in that it is strongly tied to digestive function. In TCM, the Spleen is responsible for transforming food and drink into Qi and Blood. If someone is lacking energy or has a weak digestive system, we look for dysfunction or deficiency in the Spleen first and foremost. When Spleen Qi is deficient, a person may experience fatigue and sluggishness, loose stools and diarrhea, poor appetite, phlegm and dampness, weak arms and legs and/or prolapsed organs (such as hemorrhoids). As a Spleen Qi tonic, Astragalus boosts energy, improves digestion and elimination, and can even help to lift prolapsed organs.
As a Lung Qi tonic, Astragalus helps maintain and enhance Wei Qi – the protective energy that acts like a shield circulating along the outmost layer of our body to defend against invading bacterial and viral pathogens. If either Lung Qi or Wei Qi is deficient, we become more prone to illness and may experience difficulty breathing. As a Lung Qi tonic, Astragalus benefits those who frequently come down with colds, experience asthma, or suffer with unusual sweating (either too much or too little). Because it vitalizes our non-specific immune defense and wards off infection, Astragalus is the premier herb in the Chinese material medica to strengthen immunity.
Astragalus is also well known for its effects promoting strong muscle development, physical endurance and general strength / fitness in our extremities. It is particularly helpful for those participating in athletic training or strenuous workouts that require significant energy output and put great demand on the muscles. It is often combined with Ginseng (Ren Shen) in herbal formulas for those involved in competitive sports. Astragalus can also be used with other so-called “super foods” such as Cordyceps (Dong Chong Xia Cao) to increase stamina and concentrated energy reservoirs needed for heightened athletic performance. Decocting the root pieces with Schizandra berries (Wu Wei Zi) also helps to enhance endurance during physical exercise.
Some of the most famous formulas in Chinese Medicine contain Astragalus, including Bu Zhong Yi Qi Tang, Yu Ping Feng San, Shi Quan Da Bu Tang and Gui Pi Tang. While it has similar Qi-strengthening properties to Ginseng, Astragalus is less heat-inducing and stimulating. It is often said that those in younger years will benefit from Astragalus while those who are more seasoned may find Ginseng more beneficial.
Astragalus has been studied extensively here in the west (as well as in China) for its applications against cancer, heart disease, blood sugar imbalances and even longevity. It has been shown to reduce the occurrence of common respiratory illnesses and boost immune system response. Studies among cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy found it significantly alleviated the side effects often associated with this difficult treatment. Astragalus root has been clinically shown to decrease the replication of the Hepatitis B virus, as well as prevent damage to the kidneys and liver caused by medications or viral infection.
Finally, Astragalus may even be able to slow the rate of aging and promote longevity. Recent research indicates that in concentrated doses, Astragalus has been shown to increase the production of telomerase, the enzyme responsible for preserving and lengthening telomeres. A telomere is a structure found at the end of a chromosome (like the clear plastic wrap at the end of a shoe lace). It is the job of a telomere to prevent the deterioration of our chromosomes. Telomeres naturally shorten as we grow older and are one of the primary factors involved in the aging process. Lengthening telomeres is currently being researched as away to potentially help increase our biological life span. Current research shows a significant correlation between certain age-related diseases like heart disease, diabetes and cancer, and the length of ones telomeres.
If all this weren’t enough, Astragalus is also an adaptogen. This means it can help build and restore general health to the body while also enhancing energy. Adaptogens help normalize the functioning of various body systems by affecting the action of hormones. It is often used for those with adrenal fatigue, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, in addition to weak digestion and poor immunity. Taken as a tonic, Astragalus helps build stamina and vitality. Indeed, I often use it, combined with Ashwaganda root, for patients who feel run down and suffer with frequent colds and flu. Because Astragalus is also an immune-modulator, I find it helps people with seasonal allergies to strengthen their immune system as well as lessen the frequency and severity of allergies. I frequently combine Astragalus with Reishi mushrooms to improve immunity and instruct patients who get sick easily or often to drink a daily dose of the two throughout the fall and winter. Astragalus slices are convenient to add to soups, stews or cooked grains. Eaten on a weekly basis, Astragalus can help the whole family stay healthy throughout the winter. Chicken soup with Astragalus tastes delicious and is probably the best way to boost your immune system at the change of the season.
Dried Astragalus root is available raw, sliced into long wood-like strips that look like flat tongue depressors. High quality dried Astragalus should be off-white or yellowish in color with some flexibility. The raw root needs to be decocted or simmered in water for between 30 minutes and 4 hours, as is the case with most Chinese tonics. Because it is a food-like herb, it can be taken daily over extended periods of time. I recommend the standard dose of 10 – 30 grams (recent research suggests that a 20 – 30 gram dose is most effective to achieve the desired effects of its know active components). Remember, when using the root in food, you must always remove the root before consuming your soup or stew since Astragalus is too fibrous to eat.
Astragalus is a particularly important herb in today’s fast paced world as it provides the necessary restorative support the body needs to help guard against adrenal burnout and fatigue that often results from highly active lifestyles and extreme levels of daily stress. If you’re often fatigued and feel run down, suffer with poor digestion or metabolism, or seem to catch every cold that’s going around, Astragalus may be the perfect herbal supplement to help you boost your immunity and vitality.