Parts Used & Where Grown
Alfalfa, also known as lucerne, is a member of the pea family and is native to western Asia and the eastern Mediterranean region. Alfalfa sprouts have become a popular food. Alfalfa herbal supplements primarily use the dried leaves of the plant. The heat-treated seeds of the plant have also been used.
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This supplement has been used in connection with the following health conditions:
|4 to 6 grams daily of dried herb or equivalent||Supplementing with sage leaf and alfalfa extract completely eliminated hot flushes and night sweats in 20 of 30 women in one study.|
4 to 6 grams daily of dried herb or equivalent
Sage may reduce excessive perspiration due to menopausal hot flashes during the day or at night.3 It is believed this is because sage directly decreases production of sweat. In a preliminary study, supplementation with a product containing extracts of the leaves of sage and alfalfa resulted in complete elimination of hot flushes and night sweats in 20 of 30 women, with varying degrees of improvement in the other ten cases.4
|Refer to label instructions||Saponins in alfalfa seeds may block cholesterol absorption and prevent the formation of atherosclerotic plaques.|
Animal studies indicate that saponins in alfalfa seeds may block absorption of cholesterol and prevent the formation of atherosclerotic plaques.5 However, consuming the large amounts of alfalfa seeds (80 to 120 grams per day) needed to supply high doses of these saponins may potentially cause damage to red blood cells in the body.6
|Refer to label instructions||Alfalfa, an herb with weak estrogen-like actions similar to the effects of soy, has traditionally been used for women with menopausal symptoms.|
A variety of herbs with weak estrogen-like actions similar to the effects of soy have traditionally been used for women with menopausal symptoms.7 These herbs include licorice, alfalfa, and red clover. In a double-blind trial, a formula containing tinctures of licorice, burdock, dong quai, wild yam, and motherwort (30 drops three times daily) was found to reduce symptoms of menopause.8 No effects on hormone levels were detected in this study. In a separate double-blind trial, supplementation with dong quai (4.5 grams three times daily in capsules) had no effect on menopausal symptoms or hormone levels.9 A double-blind trial using a standardized extract of subterranean clover (Trifolium subterraneum), a relative of red clover, containing 40 mg isoflavones per tablet did not impact symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes, though it did improve function of the arteries.10 An extract of red clover, providing 82 mg of isoflavones per day, also was ineffective in a 12-week double-blind study.11 In another double-blind study, however, administration of 80 mg of isoflavones per day from red clover reduced the frequency of hot flashes in postmenopausal women. The benefit was noticeable after 4 weeks of treatment and became more pronounced after a total of 12 weeks.12
Traditional Use (May Not Be Supported by Scientific Studies)
Many years ago, traditional Chinese physicians used young alfalfa leaves to treat disorders of the digestive tract.1 Similarly, the Ayurvedic physicians of India prescribed the leaves and flowering tops for poor digestion. Alfalfa was also considered therapeutic for water retention and arthritis. North American Indians recommended alfalfa to treat jaundice and to encourage blood clotting.
Although conspicuously absent from many classic textbooks on herbal medicine, alfalfa did find a home in the texts of the Eclectic physicians (19th-century physicians in the United States who used herbal therapies) as a tonic for indigestion, dyspepsia, anemia, loss of appetite, and poor assimilation of nutrients.2 These physicians also recommended the alfalfa plant to stimulate lactation in nursing mothers, and the seeds were made into a poultice for the treatment of boils and insect bites.
How It Works
How It Works
While the medicinal benefits of alfalfa are poorly understood, the constituents in alfalfa have been extensively studied. The leaves contain approximately 2–3% saponins.13 Animal studies suggest that these constituents block absorption of cholesterol and prevent the formation of atherosclerotic plaques.14 One small human trial found that 120 grams per day of heat-treated alfalfa seeds for eight weeks led to a modest reduction in cholesterol.15 However, consuming the large amounts of alfalfa seeds (80–120 grams per day) needed to supply high amounts of these saponins may potentially cause damage to red blood cells in the body.16 Herbalists also claim that alfalfa may be helpful for people with diabetes. But while high amounts of a water extract of the leaves led to increased insulin release in animal studies, there is no evidence that alfalfa would be useful for the treatment of diabetes in humans.17
Alfalfa leaves also contain flavones, isoflavones, sterols, and coumarin derivatives. The isoflavones are thought to be responsible for the estrogen-like effects seen in animal studies.18 Although this has not been confirmed with human trials, alfalfa is sometimes used to treat menopause symptoms.
How to Use It
Dried alfalfa leaf is available as a bulk herb, and in tablets or capsules. It is also available in liquid extracts. No therapeutic amount of alfalfa has been established for humans. Some herbalists recommend 500–1,000 mg of the dried leaf per day or 1–2 ml of tincture three times per day.19
Interactions with Supplements, Foods, & Other Compounds
Interactions with Medicines
Use of the dried leaves of alfalfa in recommended amounts is usually safe. There have been isolated reports of people who are allergic to alfalfa. Ingestion of very large amounts (the equivalent of several servings) of the seed and/or sprouts has been linked to the onset of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) in animal studies.20 It has also been linked to the reactivation of SLE in people consuming alfalfa tablets.21 SLE is an autoimmune illness characterized by inflamed joints and a high risk of damage to kidneys and other organs. The chemical responsible for this effect is believed to be canavanine.
1. Briggs C. Alfalfa. Canadian Pharm J 1994;Mar:84–5, 115.
2. Castleman M. The Healing Herbs. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1991, 37–9.
3. Duke JA. CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1985, 420–1 [review].
4. De Leo V, Lanzetta D, Cazzavacca R, Morgante G. [Treatment of neurovegetative menopausal symptoms with a phytotherapeutic agent] [Article in Italian] Minerva Ginecol 1998;50:207–11.
5. Story JA. Alfalfa saponins and cholesterol interactions. Am J Clin Nutr 1984;39:917–29. One preliminary human trial found that 120 grams per day of heat-treated alfalfa seeds for eight weeks led to a modest reduction in cholesterol.
6. Malinow MR, Bardana EJ, Goodnight SH. Pancytopenia during ingestion of alfalfa seeds. Lancet 1981;i:615.
7. Crawford AM. The Herbal Menopause Book. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1996.
8. Hudson TS, Standish L, Breed C, et al. Clinical and endocrinological effects of a menopausal botanical formula. J Naturopathic Med 1997;7(1):73–7.
9. Hirata JD, Swiersz LM, Zell B, et al. Does dong quai have estrogenic effects in postmenopausal women? A double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Fertil Steril 1997;68:981–6.
10. Nestel PJ, Pomeroy S, Kay S, et al. Isoflavones from red clover improve systemic arterial compliance but not plasma lipids in menopausal women. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 1999;84:895–8.
11. Tice JA, Ettinger B, Ensrud K, et al. Phytoestrogen supplements for the treatment of hot flashes: the Isoflavone Clover Extract (ICE) Study: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA 2003;290:207–14.
12. van de Weijer PHM, Barentsen R. Isoflavones from red clover (Promensil®) significantly reduce menopausal hot flush symptoms compared with placebo. Maturitas 2002;42:187–93.
13. Leung AY, Foster S. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics, 2d ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1996, 13–5.
14. Story JA. Alfalfa saponins and cholesterol interactions. Am J Clin Nutr 1984;39:917–29.
15. Molgaard J, von Schenck H, Olsson AG. Alfalfa seeds lower low density lipoprotein cholesterol and apolipoprotein B concentrations in patients with type II hyperlipoproteinemia. Atherosclerosis 1987;65:173–9.
16. Malinow MR, Bardana EJ, Goodnight SH. Pancytopenia during ingestion of alfalfa seeds. Lancet 1981;1(8220 Pt 1):615.
17. Foster S, Tyler VE. Tyler’s Honest Herbal. New York: Haworth Press, 1999, 23–5.
18. Shemesh M, Lindrer HR, Ayalon N. Affinity of rabbit uterine oestradiol receptor for phyto-oestragens and its use in competitive protein-binding radioassay for plasma coumestrol. J Reprod Fertil 1972;29:1–9.
19. Foster S. Herbs for Your Health. Loveland, CO: Interweave Press, 1996, 2–3.
20. Malinow MR, Bardana EJ, Profsky B, et al. Systemic lupus erythematosus-like syndrome in monkeys fed alfalfa sprouts: Role of a nonprotein amino acid. Science 1982;216:415–7.
21. Roberts JL, Hayashi JA. Exacerbation of SLE associated with alfalfa ingestion. New Engl J Med 1983;308:1361.
Last Review: 08-17-2011
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