Astragalus  (Astragalus membranaceus)

Family: Fabaceae (legume family)

Part used: root The roots are harvested from three- or four-year-old plants for maximum potency and sliced thinly. Once dry, they look like cream-colored tongue depressors. Also available in powder, glycerite and alcohol tinctures

Constituents: Flavonoids, saponin glycosides (astragalosides), polysaccharides, amino acids, essential fatty acids and trace minerals

Actions: Immunomodulator, antiviral, cardioprotective, hypotensive/diuretic, hepatoprotective, adaptogen

 Astragalus has been used for at least 2,000 years in Traditional Chinese Medicine, in which it is considered one of the 50 fundamental herbs and is an important tonic herb for maintaining vitality (qi) and strengthening resistance (immunity).  From a Western perspective, astragalus is useful with a wide range of conditions, both preventively and as a treatment. While we often think of it as an immune system modulator,  useful with many forms of cancer and especially to help support the body through chemotherapy, it has many other applications for human, and as we will see canine health as well.

Indications (human): Poor immune function, viral infection, HIV, hepatitis, cancer, early and mid stage CHF, peripheral neuropathy (diabetic) tonic (especially geriatric)

Astragalus is considered to be cardioprotective and is used with both mild and advanced congestive heart failure and angina. Astragalus is also used to regulate blood pressure in humans.

Astragalus is an adaptogen, which means very loosely it helps the body to cope with stress. More on this term here:

Astragalus is hepatoprotective, meaning that it protects liver against toxic substances and viruses to prevents liver damage. Astragalus  can be useful with  a range of chronic liver disease, resulting in improved liver function, protection from liver damage, and stimulation of liver cell regeneration

Astragalus is a powerful immune supporter, but not stimulating in the same sense echinacea is. While we use it extensively with cancer, both to maintain immune system health and to support the body across multiple systems during chemotherapy, we can also think of astragalus as a tonic for general health, during cold months or whenever stress has taken a toll on the body. With cancer or HIV, we’d look at capsules, tincture or strong decoction (I like a combination depending on the case) When a gentle tonic is called for, astragalus can be cooked into food, included in broths and added to chai, for a gentler but still beneficial boost.

Small wonder, astragalus is a revered herb in Chinese medicine, and one associated with longevity.

Image result for astragalus

Canine Applications all of the above are relevant to dogs as well. My own use of astragalus includes cardiovascular support,  I use it in all stages of CHF and with all underlying causes; astragalus is important in many, not all cancers but especially nourishing and important when the dog is undergoing chemotherapy; very useful with lingering infections, especially respiratory and UTI in dogs; in any long recovery after surgery or injury; with rescue dogs or dogs who have been overworked or abused; I include astragalus in most senior dog tonic formulas, and with Lyme and other tickborne diseases, with lupus and a number of liver disorders. Astragalus is well known to reduce the toxicity of a wide range of therapeutic drugs and diminish side effects, so it has indirect use with epilepsy, a use I have not seen discussed as much as I fell it’s merited.

Contraindications Here we do have a few things to consider – Susan Wynn, DVM  (in Veterinary herbal Medicine) says “None”…I feel that there are a few scenarios where we might not want to use astragalus. First – in Chinese herbalism, astragalus is not recommended with heat signs; it’s said in Western herbal medicine too, that astragalus should not be administered with fever (in humans). I have never felt a need to use astragalus with any animal who was running a temperature, and my personal feeling is “better safe than sorry”.

As far as energetics go, the Western view differs significantly from Eastern, and I do, often, use astragalus in cases where some systems are “hot” and, in formulation to keep it balanced, in dogs who are constitutionally warm. In these cases, the benefits I see outweigh any downside. But I don’t use it in feverish animals, or as much in very warm weather or with a very “hot” individual.

Additionally, I avoid astragalus whenever an immunosuppressive drug is in use, such as cyclosporine or azathioprine.

Lastly, we have to think about legumes. Recent news about the possibility of compounds in legumes, possibly lectins, interfering with the synthesis and/or absorption of taurine in dogs fed them regularly (and potentially leading to heart disease) does cast a small shadow on the prolonged or high dose/form of astragalus used.My two seniors, who are both in the 90 pound range, get 1/2 tsp each and both eat a diet 2-3 times the RA for protein and abundant in both the non-essential amino acid taurine and it’s precursors, methionine and cystine. ( One has an unrelated heart disease which developed before I began the astragalus). For me, whether to use astragalus is the same as any herb – weigh the pros and cons, consider the amount we will need for efficacy, and how to administer. The small amount used to bolster immunity/as a general tonic is nowhere near the large amount of legume used in processed kibble, and if I am using higher doses I check that the dog has good digestion, ample protein and no legumes elsewhere in the diet. Although some herbalists use astragalus in alcohol tincture with humans, I have not seen the best results with dogs.

Some dosing guidelines: Wynn/Fougeres give “50 – 400 mgs per kg, of the dried herb (powder)”. This makes good sense to me, with smaller doses used in formulations and the higher end with more serious illness or on its own.But how does this dose translate to what you actually give? We can get into the math, and I will in the summer course for those who like to learn about making medicines – but for a safe herb like astragalus, I suggest
using a capsule from a good company, one that tells you how many mgs are in each capsule. A capsule that provides 500 mgs astragalus will be easy to use, so you can figure out your dose; A 10 kgs dog’s range is 500 – 4000 mgs (preferably the higher end in divided dose) or, between 1 and 8 capsules daily. I would rarely use the high end; if a dog needs that much support, you’d be better off working with a trained herbalist who can formulate, dose and guide for you. If using powder, you might think about 1/4 – 1/2 tsp in a smaller dog’s diet (20 lbs and under) 1/2 – 1 full tsp for a mid sized dog ( 20 – 50 lbs) 1-2 tsps for a large breed ( 50 – 100 lbs) and up to a Tbsp daily for a giant (over 100 lbs) These are conservative, support -only type doses and very general! But at these levels, astragalus is safe, as well as beneficial in multiple ways.

Next up: a few recipes, to work astragalus into your dog’s diet.
Learn more about this and many other herbs, in the course.