“Astragalus membranaceus is a fantastic herb,” says Kevin Spelman, herbalist and molecular biologist based in Ashland, Oregon. According to the American Herbal Pharmacopeia, astragalus’s original Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) name is Huang Qi, which translates as “yellow leader.” The moniker refers not only to its yellowish-white color but also to its use as a tonic herb and potential adaptogen that fortifies immune health.
What it is: The astragalus plant belongs to the legume family and it’s been used for thousands of years by the TCM system. It’s considered an antioxidant and contains active compounds like polysaccharides, flavonoids, amino acids, and trace minerals. “It grows like a taproot and looks akin to a long, thin carrot,” says Bill Chioffi, an herbalist and sourcing expert based in Asheville, North Carolina. “They can get to be up to an inch or so in diameter.”
How it’s sourced: Astragalus species are indigenous to northeast China, central Mongolia, Korea, and Siberia with cultivation mainly in China and Korea, according to Chioffi. The astragalus used by Mab & Stoke was grown on an organic farm in Inner Mongolia.
It can, however, adapt to different areas. “It grew really well in Western North Carolina on an organic farm,” Chioffi adds. “But it’s a temperate plant so it may not do well in tropical climates.” Wherever it’s grown, it can take between three to seven years to go from seed to plant to harvest. That’s a fact Chioffi checks when he’s working to source quality astragalus.
How it’s processed: After the root is harvested, it should be washed first, but how thoroughly is actually up for debate. Research done by Keely Puchalski, ND, at Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Arizona looked at how endophytes (microorganisms that live on the roots of plants) may affect astragalus’s immune-supporting functions. “What Keely and the researchers found was that when the roots were scrubbed really thoroughly and they had almost no endophytic activity, the immune-modulating activity also went down,” says Chioffi. “Its ability to act as an anti-inflammatory was reduced by over-washing the roots.”
After the astragalus roots are harvested and dried, it can then be prepared in either cut slices or rolled out flat and sliced into what look like flat tongue depressors or popsicle sticks. Materials sold in TCM dispensaries often appear like this. Astragalus can also be processed into an extract to be used in a supplement form through extraction with water and a small amount of ethanol.
The benefits: In modern pharmacology, we know astragalus for boosting immune health. “If we break it down on a molecular level, it is really good at encouraging the release of certain compounds called cytokines that are immune-enhancing,” says Spelman*. In this way, you can think of astragalus as “feeding” and nourishing your immune health over time.*
With Astragalus, it is believed that it influences the activity of the bone marrow, stimulating good immune cell production, says Spelman.* Research published in International Immunopharmacology backs this up. Separate research published in 2020 even suggests the root has potential antitumor properties.*
How to use it:
Add it to rice.
Put dried astragalus root (in that popsicle stick form) in boiling water for rice, says Spelman. Once the rice is cooked, remove the root.
Make chicken soup.
“One of my favorite ways to use astragalus root is to put it in chicken soup because that’s your mom’s original immune tonic and astragalus has a nice neutral to sweet flavor,” says Chioffi.
Take a supplement.
In TCM, rarely are plants ever used by themselves and astragalus is no exception, says Chioffi.
For example, the root can act synergistically with elderberry to provide antioxidant support and with ashwagandha to help with stress relief. Find all three of these herbs combined in Immune Mab Tabs.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. Any products or information provided are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.