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Alfalfa is a livestock crop that is traditionally well known for its healing qualities. It belongs to the family Fabaceae along with lima beans and acacia and like all legumes, is rich in proteins.

Although there isn’t much scientific research on this grass, it still remains a herb of interest for scientists all over the globe; mainly due to its high nutrient content that makes it the perfect health supplement for human consumption. Being a commercially profitable crop, it is famously known as “Green gold” in the USA. A close watch is kept on its growth patterns and harvesting times to improve the quality and yield of alfalfa.

Interestingly, there is no clear record of the history of this crop and it is believed to have been growing in the wild even before the dawn of civilisation. However, there are some claims that designate the origins of alfalfa to eastern or central Asia, particularly Persia (now Iran), Kashmir, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Baluchistan. In fact, the name alfalfa comes from a Persian word which means “the best forage”. Today, this herb is found growing all over the world.

Alfalfa is a perennial plant that grows up to a height of 3 feet. It has deep roots and woody base with an upright stem. Alfalfa leaves are oval and trifoliate (three leaves grow together) and they are hairy on the underside. It bears purple coloured flowers in the month of May to July that grow in clusters and the seed pods are spiral, bearing 2 to 5 yellow to green kidney-shaped seeds.

Apart from being an excellent nutritional supplement, alfalfa has a number of healing benefits. In ayurveda, alfalfa sprouts are considered good for liver health and blood cleansing apart from being an efficient anti-arthritic and anti-obesity agent. It is most commonly studied for its hypolipidemic (Reduces fat) and anti-diabetic properties. Research is still going on to confirm the traditional claims and reap maximum benefits from this herb.

Some basic facts about alfalfa:

  • Botanical name: Medicago sativa
  • Family: Fabaceae
  • Common name: Alfalfa, Lucerne,  Bastard medic, Buffal herb, hay
  • Sanskrit name: Ashvbala
  • Parts used: Leaves, seeds
  • Native region and geographical distribution: Native to Southeast Asia, alfalfa is grown in China, Australia, New Zealand,  Africa and North and South America.
  • Energetics: Cooling
  1. Alfalfa nutrition facts
  2. Alfalfa health benefits
  3. Alfalfa use
  4. Alfalfa dosage
  5. Alfalfa side effects

Alfalfa is a storehouse of proteins which make up 20% of its dry weight. It also hosts a wide range of vitamins including vitamin A, B, and E. Additionally, it also contains certain digestive enzymes like invertase and amylase.

As per the USDA Nutrient Database, 100g of raw, sprouted alfalfa seeds contain the following values:

Nutrients Value per 100 g
Energy 23 Kcal
Protein 3.99 g
Water 93 g
Fibre 1.9 g
Fat 0.69 g
Carbohydrates 2 g

 

Minerals Value per 100 g
Calcium 32 mg
Magnesium 27 mg
Phosphorus 70 mg
Iron 0.96 mg
Potassium 79 mg

 

Vitamins Value per 100 g
Vitamin  A 8 micro g
Vitamin C 8.2 micro g
Vitamin K 30.5 micro g
Vitamin E 0.02 micro g

 

Fats/Fatty acids Value per 100 g
Saturated 0.07 g
Polyunsaturated 0.41 g
Monounsaturated 0.056 g

Alfalfa may be known more as a fodder crop, but it has numerous health building and healing benefits. Western herbalism considers alfalfa as an excellent tonic. Also, it is widely used as a remedy for improving appetite and kidney stone problems. Let us explore some of the scientifically proven health benefits of alfalfa.

  1. Alfalfa for diabetes
  2. Alfalfa for high cholesterol
  3. Alfalfa benefits in menopause
  4. Alfalfa for improving digestion
  5. Alfalfa for weight gain
  6. Alfalfa benefits for kidneys
  7. Alfalfa for arthritis
  8. Alfalfa as an antioxidant
  9. Alfalfa as antimicrobial
  10. Alfalfa for reducing excess hair growth in women
  11. Alfalfa for bone health
  12. Alfalfa for cancer

Alfalfa for diabetes

Diabetes is an endocrine disorder marked by abnormally high blood glucose levels due to dysfunctions in body’s sugar metabolism. Alfalfa is a well-known hypoglycemic (seduces blood sugar) agent in traditional medicine and homoeopathic medicine used alfalfa tonic for the treatment of diabetes. Preclinical studies confirm traditional claims by comparing it with juniper berry and eucalyptus.

In two different animal-based studies, regular administration of 250-500 ml of alfalfa extract was found to be effective in reducing blood sugar levels and improving insulin function.

However, there are no clinical studies to prove its anti-diabetic effects in humans.

Alfalfa for high cholesterol

High cholesterol refers to a condition characterized by abnormally high levels of fatty acids in the body. Hyperlipidemia, in turn, increases the risk of several problems including high blood pressure, atherosclerosis and heart diseases. Extensive research has been done on the hypocholesterolemic (Reducing cholesterol) benefits of alfalfa plant. Preclinical studies demonstrate that alfalfa saponin extracts can bring down cholesterol levels by interfering with the expression of certain cholesterol metabolising genes in liver and by increasing the expulsion of cholesterol from body.

In an earlier clinical study, 15 people suffering from hyperlipidemia were given 40 g of alfalfa seeds thrice a day for a period of eight weeks. The study concluded that alfalfa can be used for maintaining cholesterol levels.

Read more: High cholesterol treatment

Alfalfa benefits in menopause

Menopause is an important milestone in a woman’s life, which marks the end of reproductive phases. It is usually characterized by a decrease in estrogen levels, leading to symptoms like hot flashes, night sweats, nausea and anxiety. Alfalfa is traditionally used for relieving menopause symptoms. Studies hint that alfalfa mediates an estrogen-like effect on the body. Being a herb, it may be used as a natural estrogen supplement for menopausal women.

In a clinical study, alfalfa leaves, when given along with sage leaves have been found to reduce night sweats and hot flashes.

Alfalfa for improving digestion

Being a good source of digestive enzymes, alfalfa may be helpful in assisting the process of digestion. In fact, it is regarded as an excellent digestive aid in ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine regards it for its appetite building properties. Alfalfa tea is widely used as a digestive tonic.

Additionally, it also contains a significant amount of fibre, which may help in relieving constipation and improving gut microflora. Thus aiding in proper digestion of food.

Unfortunately, no scientific research is available to back these traditional uses.

(Read more: How to improve digestion)

Alfalfa for weight gain

If you are looking forward to gaining some extra kilos then alfalfa may just be the right choice for you. This health supplement is not only nutritious but it is also low on fat and has a good fibre content. It will aid you in gaining weight without increasing fat deposits in your tissues.

In an in vivo (animal-based) study, 300 mg/ kg of alfalfa flavonoids were found to be helpful in increasing body weight without any side effects. 

Also, alfalfa is known to improve appetite and aid in digestion, ensuring that all its health-building compounds are properly assimilated in your body. And all this while increasing the high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or good cholesterol and maintaining blood sugar levels. What else do you need in a weight gain supplement?

(Read more: Diet chart for weight gain)

Alfalfa benefits for kidneys

Traditionally, alfalfa decoction is used for the treatment of kidney stones. Although, research evidence is highly contradictory. A review article published in the International Journal of Research in Ayurveda and Pharmacy indicates that alfalfa is the best herb to support and improve kidney functions. However, according to the National Kidney Foundation, Hawaii, alfalfa is harmful to kidney patients. This may be because it is rich in potassium and studies suggest that excess of potassium may cause chronic kidney disease.

So, if you are suffering from any such problem, it is best that you refer to a doctor before adding alfalfa to your diet.

Alfalfa for arthritis

Arthritis is a disease characterized by inflamed and swollen joints. It is usually caused by an increase in inflammatory compounds in body. Studies suggest that methanol extracts of alfalfa can prevent arthritis by downregulating the genes that are responsible for the production of inflammatory cytokines. In vivo (animal-based) studies also demonstrate a reduction in inflammation after administration of ethyl acetate extracts of alfalfa.

A recent study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that a type of pectin, known as rhamnogalacturonan I, is responsible for the anti-inflammatory properties of alfalfa.

Alfalfa as an antioxidant

Free radicals are singlet oxygen molecules produced by the normal metabolism of our body. However, over-accumulation of these molecules increases the risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and coronary artery disease. Antioxidants are the best defence against these reactive oxygen species and alfalfa is known to be an excellent source of natural antioxidants.

Animal-based studies also indicate that alfalfa is an efficient antioxidant and can reduce liver damage caused by oxidative stress. However, an earlier study demonstrated a reduction in antioxidant capacity with an increase in the growth of alfalfa sprouts.

(Read more: Antioxidant-rich foods)

Alfalfa as antimicrobial

Several studies suggest the antibacterial potential of alfalfa. According to a study published in the International Journal of Current Research and Academic Review, alfalfa extracts possess potent antimicrobial action against a wide range of bacteria (both gram positive and gram negative). However, an earlier study observed a much higher inhibition in the growth of gram-positive bacteria as compared to gram-negative bacteria.

A recent laboratory-based study found that alfalfa extracts have a strong inhibitory action on the growth of Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae, both of which are responsible for causing sinusitis.

Alfalfa for reducing excess hair growth in women

Women generally don’t like to have excess hair growth on their body. Various procedures are followed to remove excess hair growth. But most of the hair removal procedures aren’t as comfortable and cost a lot. Why spend unnecessarily when you have a natural treatment for this?

Excess hair growth may happen due to hormonal disorder, culture, ethnic background, hereditary factor, etc. It was claimed in a study that alfalfa extracts have the ability to reduce hair growth and treating hirsutism. Hirsutism is a condition in women which causes hair growth in excess just like in male.

A clinical study done on people between the age of 18 to 24 years suggested that extract from alfalfa indeed helped in reducing hair growth. This may be due to high estrogenic compounds present in it.

Alfalfa for bone health

Vitamin K is a very important nutrient required for bone health. It helps in building bones and in preventing and may also facilitate the treatment of osteoporosis. Alfalfa is undoubtedly a miraculous plant because it is enriched with the vitamin K. Vitamin K uses the calcium in the body effectively and improves bone health.

A study was undertaken on 24 menopausal women and 71 postmenopausal women. The study suggested that Vitamin K got from alfalfa may help in preventing postmenopausal bone loss.

Alfalfa for cancer

A tumour is an abnormal proliferation of body cells, which when malignant (is highly invasive in nature) is termed as cancer. Hundreds of people from all over the world are being affected by this dreadful disease. One may prevent the risk of cancer by including alfalfa in their diet.

It was observed in a study that the extracts from the leaves of alfalfa may possess cancer prevention ability and can be used effectively for relieving chemotherapy symptoms. Another study claimed that alfalfa seeds contain amino acids which help in preventing the growth of tumour cells.

An animal study reported that breast cancer can be reduced to some extent with the use of alfalfa because of the level of estradiol present in it. However, it is not conclusive and further tests on humans need to be undertaken.

The juice of barley leaves and alfalfa, when consumed regularly along with a high intake of fruits and vegetables in the diet, has been found to possess cancer-preventing abilities.

  1. One of the best ways to add alfalfa to your diet is by taking alfalfa sprouts regularly. You can buy intact alfalfa seeds and soak them overnight to make sprouts.
  2. A decoction and a tea can also be made from alfalfa leaves. Furthermore, it can also be taken with salads, soups, smoothies and sandwiches.
  3. Alfalfa is also commercially available in the form of alfalfa tablets, capsules and tonic in the market.

Being a herb, alfalfa has no specific dosage. The correct dosage would depend on physical and physiological factors along with individual symptoms for which the herb is prescribed. So, it is best to consult with a doctor before adding alfalfa supplements to your diet.

The possible side effects of alfalfa have been described below.

  • Alfalfa is a proven hypoglycemic agent. So, if you have naturally low blood glucose levels or if you are a diabetic person on medication, it is best that you refer to a doctor before taking alfalfa.
  • In a single case, packed alfalfa sprouts were found to be infected by Salmonella. While buying commercially packed alfalfa sprouts, you should check the label properly and always buy good quality products.
  • Being rich in potassium, it should be consumed in moderation as an imbalance in potassium can do more harm than good.
  • Consumption of alfalfa is known to increase menstruation and cause miscarriage. So, pregnant women are strongly recommended to avoid this herb.
  • Alfalfa is a good source of vitamin K which is known to be an anticoagulant. If you are taking a blood-thinning medicine, it is advisable that you do not add this herb to your diet. For the same reason, it should not be taken before or after a surgery.
  • Alfalfa is known to stimulate the immune system. So if you are suffering from an autoimmune disorder, it is better to avoid it.
  • If you are on any kind of estrogen supplement or a prescribed medicine, it is recommended that you consult your doctor before adding alfalfa to your diet.
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References

  1. Rachel A. Surls. Alfalfa-"Green Gold" in LA County's High Desert. Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of California.
  2. American society of Agronomy. The historical diffusion of alfalfa. [Internet]
  3. United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service. Basic Report: 11001, Alfalfa seeds, sprouted, raw. National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Legacy Release [Internet]
  4. Swanston-Flatt SK, Day C, Bailey CJ, Flatt PR. Traditional plant treatments for diabetes. Studies in normal and streptozotocin diabetic mice. Diabetologia. 1990 Aug;33(8):462-4.
  5. Esmaiel Amraie et al. The effects of aqueous extract of alfalfa on blood glucose and lipids in alloxan-induced diabetic rats Interv Med Appl Sci. 2015 Sep; 7(3): 124–128. PMID: 26525173
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  8. Mahmoud Bahmani et al. Identification of medicinal plants for the treatment of kidney and urinary stones . J Renal Inj Prev. 2016; 5(3): 129–133. PMID: 27689108
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  10. Choi KC et al. Chloroform extract of alfalfa (Medicago sativa) inhibits lipopolysaccharide-induced inflammation by downregulating ERK/NF-κB signaling and cytokine production. J Med Food. 2013 May;16(5):410-20. PMID: 23631491
  11. Yong-Han Hong et al. Ethyl acetate extracts of alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) sprouts inhibit lipopolysaccharide-induced inflammation in vitro and in vivo . J Biomed Sci. 2009; 16(1): 64. PMID: 19594948
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