1. What is it and where does it come from?
Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is an herb that originated near Iran and was first discovered by the Arabs. They dubbed the plant the "Father of All Foods", but it has also been known as the "Queen of Forages". They fed alfalfa to their horses claiming it made them swift and strong. It grows to about 3 feet and has blue-violet flowers that bloom from July to September. Related forms and species are found in the wild scattered all over central Asia and into Siberia. As early as 490 B.C. Roman writers described Alfalfa as feed for horses and other animals. It wasn't introduced into the eastern United States until 1736 by colonists.
Alfalfa is one of the most palatable and nutritious cultivated forage crops in the US, and is also the oldest. It has a very high yield potential compared to other forage crops. With it's ability to fix nitrogen levels, improve soil structure and tilth, and control weeds in subsequent crops, alfalfa is an integral component of many crop rotations.
Used primarily as a hay crop, it has the highest feeding value of all commonly grown hay crops when harvested at late bud or early flower stage of maturity. It is low in fiber and high in energy when cut prior to early bloom, and is also an excellent source of protein, vitamins, and minerals. Because of this it is prized as a primary component in dairy cattle rations and important feed for horses, beef cattle, sheep, and milking goats. Out of every livestock feed, alfalfa produces the greatest amount of protein per acre.
In an attempt to take advantage of the protein and energy in alfalfa and corn silage, they are often combined and used in livestock rations. Alfalfa itself can be made into silage, pellets, meal, or cubes. It can also be used successfully as a pasture crop, with careful management.
2. What does it do and what scientific studies give evidence to support this?
As stated above, Alfalfa is rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals. Let's break it down and list out its nutritional content. The leaves contain protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, and the coagulant, vitamin K. They also contain trace minerals such as calcium, potassium, iron, zinc, magnesium, and carotene.
Some food makers use alfalfa extract as a source of chlorophyll and carotene, both have valid health claims. The leaves also contain flavones, isoflavones, sterols, and coumarin derivatives. Animal studies have shown that the isoflavones are thought to be responsible for estrogen-like effects. Alfalfa also contains vitamin B1, vitamin B6, and the anti-oxidant tricin.
Alfalfa is absent from many classic textbooks on herbal medicine, but it does appear in the texts of the Eclectic physicians (19th-century physicians in the United States who used therapies) as a tonic for indigestion, loss of appetite, and poor assimilation of nutrients. They also recommended the alfalfa plant to stimulate lactation in nursing mothers, and the seeds were made into a poultice for the treatment of insect bites.
Now days alfalfa tea is commonly used as a beverage, but is also used medicinally. Nutritious fresh or dried leaf alfalfa tea was traditionally used to promote appetite, weight gain, diuretics, and stopping bleeding. It is also used to aid in the assimilation of proteins, iron, calcium, and other trace minerals. It can help to build and revitalize the body.
3. Who needs it and what are some symptoms of deficiency?
Many people can benefit from supplementing alfalfa, but one should consult their herbalist or health care professional before using it. Alfalfa is not an essential nutrient; therefore, one cannot be "deficient."
4. How much should be taken? Are there any side effects?
Alfalfa is available in tablet, capsule, and liquid extracts. There has been no therapeutic amount that has been established for humans. Some herbalists recommend using 500-1,000 mg of dried leaf per day or 1-2 ml of tincture (an alcohol solution of a nonvolatile medicine) three times per day.
Check with a practitioner before ingesting this herb if you are pregnant. Alfalfa seeds contain stachydrine and homostachydrine, which promote menstruation and in some cases can lead to miscarriage. People should avoid eating alfalfa seeds because they contain relatively high levels of the toxic amino acid canavanine. Ingesting large quantities of seeds over a long period of time may lead to pancytopenia, a blood disorder that causes the deterioration of both platelets, responsible for blood clotting, and white blood cells.
Alfalfa also contains saponins. Studies indicate that some dietary saponins may reduce iron absorption and hence have an adverse effect on iron status in humans and simple-stomached animals. It is also thought that saponins destroy red blood cells. Anyone suffering from anemia should not use alfalfa without the supervision or direction of an herbalist or licensed health care professional.
Alfalfa sprouts can induce systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) in monkeys. It has also been known to aggravate lupus and other auto immune disorders. It is believed that the canavanine in alfalfa reactivates this disease in some people who are in remission. If you have an auto immune problem, avoid using this herb. Alfalfa may also cause an upset stomach and diarrhea. If the upset stomach and diarrhea do not go away, discontinue use and inform your physician. As of now there are no well-known drug interactions with alfalfa.
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