Alfalfa - It's Not Just For Horses

Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) was only familiar to me as a type of horse hay. In fact, it was general knowledge at the barns I frequented that Alfalfa hay was to be used sparingly because it was a protein-rich legume hay that effected a horse’s system. Horses that ate alfalfa were typically athletic horses that needed that extra energy that Alfalfa could provide. I really had no idea that Alfalfa was used for centuries in the healing of humans. Sure, every now and then, I would buy alfalfa sprouts at the grocery to add to my salads, but besides that, I didn’t have much use for the plant.

Alfalfa was well known in Ancient Greece and Rome – especially as horse feed. According to Francis P. Griffiths in the article “Production and Utilization of Alfalfa,” the word “alfalfa” is derived from an old Iranian word meaning “Horse Fodder.” It wasn’t until later, when the plant was introduced in Greece that it was called “Medic.”

The plant’s pharmacological actions are varied and many; and there is some indication that the ancient users of Medicago sativa knew it. It can used as a: diuretic, antispasmodic, hypoglycemic, anti-inflammatory, blood purifier, hypocholesterolemic, and of course, a nutrient. According to the American Botanical Council, ancient Arabs, “used alfalfa medicinally in the belief that the leaves possessed a diuretic effect that was useful in the treatment of kidney, bladder, and prostate disorders.” In fact, Medicago sativa is used for different uses all over the world:

In India, the seeds of alfalfa have been used historically in a cooling poultice for boils. The mucilaginous (moist and slimy) fruits are utilized for coughs in Colombia. The seeds contain alkaloids that are believed to stimulate menstrual flow and lactation (Herbalgram.org).

The most common ways to administer alfalfa is internally through capsules or tea. Carol Pearson of Mother Earth News suggests that alfalfa tea is mixed with mint to diminish its grassy tisane flavor. I have tried the tea and I liked the grassy taste; it reminded me a bit of wheat grass juice. Of course, it’s quite easy to find alfalfa tablets at the nearest health food store. Anyone buying alfalfa (even those new to herbal supplements) probably would not take it every day for an unlimited amount of time. Most people, in my opinion, would seek it out for help with a condition and stop taking it at an appropriate time. It’s not the sort of herb one would naturally overuse or become dependent on.

Although there are interactions with blood thinners that should be considered with Medicago sativa, most sources of natural medicine find it safe. However, I found sources in medical journals that write of concerns with the herb for cancer patients. For instance, Muriel J. Montbriand, in her article “Herbs or Natural Products that Increase Cancer Growth or Recurrence,” states that Alfalfa has “estrogenic properties that can interfere with Hormone-sensitive cancers.” She also claims that there is a concern with photosensitivity with Alfalfa use.

I was intrigued by this claim and decided to do some more searching for adverse effects of Alfalfa. In my own library of herbal medicine, I found very little that indicated any concerns with alfalfa beyond the initial concerns regarding excessive amounts of Vitamin K. (I usually consult Professor S. Talalaj and Dr. A.S. Szechowicz’s book, Herbal Remedies: Harmful and Beneficial Effects for concerns.) Curiously, I found in Prescription for Dietary Wellness that Alfalfa, “contains estrogenlike compounds that can reduce the risk of breast cancer” (179-80).

Like most herbs, common sense and good education should be enough to help anyone decide whether or not (and in what level) it should be used. We have to weigh the evidence and make our own decisions about our health. And like in horses, Alfalfa can have quite an amazing effect – when used in moderation.

Sources

American Botanical Council. “Alfalfa.” Herbalgram.org. Web.

Balch, Phyllis A. CNC, Prescription for Dietary Wellness. Avery: New York, 2003.

Francis P. Griffiths. “Production and Utilization of Alfalfa.” Economic Botany , Vol. 3, No. 2 (Apr. - Jun., 1949), pp. 170-183. Web.

Montbriand, MJ. "Herbs Or Natural Products That Increase Cancer Growth Or Recurrence: Part Two Of A Four-Part Series [Corrected] [Published Erratum Appears In ONCOL NURS FORUM 2006 Jul;33(4):684]." Oncology Nursing Forum 31.5 (2004): E99-115. CINAHL with Full Text. Web. 5 Mar. 2012.

Pearson, Carol. "First-Aid Teas." Mother Earth News 140 (1993): 30. Academic Search Premier. Web. 5 Mar. 2012.

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