Alfalfa

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Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is native to Iran and was likely domesticated during the Bronze Age to feed horses arriving from Central Asia. It was later used in Greece around 490 B.C. as horse feed for the Persian army. The name alfalfa comes from the Arabian al-fac-facah, for “father of all foods”. A perennial herb, alfalfa was and is easy to grow, thriving in many varied climates throughout the world, and provides an excellent protein-rich food source for cattle, horses, sheep and other animals.

Alfalfa grows to approximately 3 feet and has blue-violet flowers that bloom from July to September. The parts of the plant typically used are flowers, leaves and sprouts. Principle known active constituents include chlorophyll, carotene, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin K, folic acid, calcium, copper, phosphorus, manganese, iron, zinc, fluorine, electrolytes, isoflavones, coumarins, betaine, alkaloids, phytoestrogens and the antioxidant tricin. In addition to its high nutritional value, alfalfa has a fairly high protein content (18.9%), containing eight essential amino acids.

Properties and/or actions generally attributed to alfalfa include anti-arthritic, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, anodyne (meaning relieves pain), antipyretic (meaning reduces fever), coagulant, detoxifier, diuretic, laxative, nutritive, phytoestrogenic (meaning chemicals produced by plants that act like estrogens in animal cells and bodies), digestive and tonic. The seeds are considered emmenagogic (meaning promotes menstruation) and lactogenic (meaning stimulates lactation). The parts generally used in medicinal treatments are the leaves and the flowers, although occasionally the seeds may be used.

Although clinical studies are lacking, alfalfa has been marketed as a nutritional supplement and has been used to treat fatigue, insomnia and thyroid conditions. It purportedly relieves arthritis pain and stiffness (due to its anti-inflammatory properties), increases energy levels and detoxifies the body (due to it’s alkalizing nature in the small intestine), especially the liver. Only alfalfa’s stimulating effect on appetite has been clinically verified. A source of phytoestrogens, alfalfa may also be helpful is easing morning sickness as well as with reducing hot flashes during menopause [1]. Since the sixth century, the Chinese have used alfalfa to treat kidney stones and to relieve fluid retention and swelling. Alfalfa has laxative and diuretic qualities and is useful in the treatment of urinary tract infections and kidney, bladder and prostate disorders.

In addition to removing toxins and neutralizing acids, the leaves of alfalfa contain several essential digestive enzymes, including lipase (breaks down fats), amylase (breaks down starch), protease (digests proteins), coagulase (coagulates milk and clots blood), emulsin and invertase (act upon sugar), peroxidase (has an oxidizing effect on the blood), pectinase (breaks down the cell walls of plants) and cellulase (breaks down plant fiber). Thus, alfalfa aids in digestion and may relieve reflux and indigestion.

The results of a number of animal and human studies [2-5] suggest that alfalfa may be helpful for lowering cholesterol levels, which can benefit heart health. Alfalfa may additionally help reduce blood sugar levels. Studies investigating the treatment of diabetes in mice found that alfalfa supplementation improved some symptoms [6-7].

Although alfalfa is generally recognized as a safe health supplement, researchers have raised some specific health concerns regarding excessive consumption of alfalfa. Studies have noted a link between consumption of high doses of alfalfa with the onset or aggravation of existing Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE), a disease affecting connective tissues [8-9]. An amino acid, L-canavanine, is found in alfalfa sprouts and can activate the immune system and increase inflammation in lupus patients. Additional side effects include a potential blood-thinning effect. If you are taking warfarin (Coumadin), the high vitamin K content of alfalfa might make it less effective.

When choosing alfalfa supplements, there are four quality controls to look for:

  1. It must be raw processed so it contains active enzymes.
  2. It must be made from the leaves only, not the stems and stalk.
  3. It must be organically grown to avoid ingesting residues of chemical sprays, herbicides and pesticides.
  4. It is much more valuable nutritionally if the tablets have been made from a mature alfalfa plant.

References

  1. De Leo et al. Treatment of neurovegetative menopausal symptoms with a phytotherapeutic agent. Minerva Ginecol. 1998 May;50(5):207-11.
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  2. Malinow et al. Prevention of elevated cholesterolemia in monkeys. Steroids. 1977 Jan;29(1):105-10.
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  3. Malinow et al. Effect of alfalfa saponins on intestinal cholesterol absorption in rats. Am J Clin Nutr. 1977 Dec;30(12):2061-7.
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  4. Malinow et al. Alfalfa seeds: effects on cholesterol metabolism. Experientia. 1980 May 15;36(5):562-4.
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  5. Molgaard et al. Alfalfa seeds lower low density lipoprotein cholesterol and apolipoprotein B concentrations in patients with type II hyperlipoproteinemia. Atherosclerosis. 1987 May;65(1-2):173-9.
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  6. Swanston-Flatt et al. Traditional plant treatments for diabetes. Studies in normal and streptozotocin diabetic mice. Diabetologia. 1990 Aug;33(8):462-4.
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  7. Gray and Flatt. Pancreatic and extra-pancreatic effects of the traditional anti-diabetic plant, Medicago sativa (lucerne). Br J Nutr. 1997 Aug;78(2):325-34.
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  8. Roberts and Hayashi JA. Exacerbation of SLE associated with alfalfa ingestion. N Engl J Med. 1983 Jun 2;308(22):1361.
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  9. Malinow et al. Systemic lupus erythematosus-like syndrome in monkeys fed alfalfa sprouts: role of a nonprotein amino acid. Science. 1982 Apr 23;216(4544):415-7.
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About the Author

Walter Jessen is a senior writer for Highlight HEALTH Media.