If you're like many herb enthusiasts, you're always on the lookout for natural ways to support your health and wellness. That's why you may want to learn about Alfalfa (also known as Lucerne), a humble herb with many more benefits than being a cute little sprout on your sandwich.
Despite its impressive nutritional profile and potential health benefits, Alfalfa often gets overlooked in favor of more well-known supplements and herbs. In this article, we'll take a deep dive into Alfalfa's history, benefits, and potential side effects, so you can decide if you should incorporate this under-the-radar herb into your health routine.
Origins and History of Alfalfa
While the sprouted seed of Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) makes a good addition to modern-day salads and sandwiches for humans, the green flowering plant has been harvested as fodder for livestock, in both fresh and dried forms, since the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans. It is believed to have originated in ancient Iran but was first written about by Pliny the Elder in Rome during the first century AD.
This perennial green flowering plant belongs to the legume family and grows to about three feet high. Depending on climate and growing conditions, it can live from four to over 20 years. It has roots that reach hundreds of feet into the ground and has one of the highest mineral profiles of any land plant. Its root nodules contain bacteria with the ability to “fix” nitrogen, producing a high-protein feed regardless of available nitrogen in the soil.
In traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, the young leaves of the Alfalfa plant were used to treat digestive and water retention issues in both men and women and promote milk production in nursing mothers. The 19th century Eclectic physicians in the United States also used Alfalfa as a tonic for indigestion and loss of appetite.REF#1412
By the 16th century, the Spaniards brought it to the Americas to feed their horses. The plant didn’t grow well in the original colonies of North America, but by the 1850s, when seeds were imported to California from Chile, its production in the United States took off. Today, Alfalfa is grown around the world. It is known as Lucerne in the UK, France, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Today, the United States is its largest producer, with the largest crops in California, Idaho, and Montana.
Alfalfa is so rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that it is fed to horses and high-producing dairy cows that need nutritional support. Because of its high nutritional content, Alfalfa is gaining popularity as a dietary supplement for humans.
The Health Benefits of Alfalfa/Lucerne
Very few human studies have been done to support the use of Alfalfa as an herbal supplement. But given its impressive nutrient profile and significant anecdotal evidence, it has strong potential to support a range of health benefits, from women’s health to overall health and well-being.
To get the nutritional benefits of Alfalfa, it is best to consume it as a food since an alfalfa supplement would generally not be as rich in the minerals and vitamins found in fresh Alfalfa: :
- Soluble Fiber
- Vitamin B1
- Vitamin B2
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin K
If you're not eating a perfectly balanced plant-based diet that includes all these nutrients, Alfalfa may be great to add to your daily health routine.
Alfalfa May Support Women’s Health
Alfalfa has been used as a supplement to support women through different phases of life. It may:
- Support overall reproductive health: By providing essential vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, and vitamin K, Alfalfa may help strengthen bones and alleviate menstrual cramps.
- Help reduce symptoms of menopause: The plant contains weak-acting phytoestrogens (plant estrogens), which help to modulate the secretion of estrogen when there is too much or too little in the body. This may be particularly beneficial for women during menopause, when a decrease in estrogen levels can cause hot flashes, night sweats, and mood swings. A small Italian study showed a significant decrease in hot flashes and night sweats for a group of 30 women who took a combination of leaf extracts of Alfalfa and Sage.REF#1413
- Support healthy lactation: Due to its high nutrient profile and phytoestrogens, Alfalfa may help nursing mothers produce more milk. It’s been used in traditional medicine for this purpose, but there are no scientific studies to support it’s ability to promote lactation. While Alfalfa is considered to be a safe supplement with no major side effects, consuming too much could result in diarrhea in mother or baby. Additionally, mothers with excessive milk production should not take Alfalfa.
While valid clinical studies are still lacking, incorporating Alfalfa into a diet may be a natural and effective way to support women's health.
Alfalfa May Help Support Normal Cholesterol
Alfalfa is a great source of soluble fiber, which binds to cholesterol in the small intestine, preventing it from getting into the bloodstream and traveling throughout the body. Additionally, Alfalfa contains high levels of saponins, natural plant compounds that help protect plants from infections and pests. Several European studies suggest that saponins help humans too, by lowering the absorption of cholesterol in the intestines. One small human clinical study using alfalfa seeds showed a 26% decrease in total cholesterol and 30% decrease in LDL cholesterol during the trial. Cholesterol levels returned to pretreatment levels after the study was over.REF#1416
Reducing high total blood cholesterol levels and LDL “bad” cholesterol is known to lower the risk of heart disease and stroke. More research is needed to fully understand alfalfa’s potential cholesterol-lowering effects.
Alfalfa May Support Already Normal Blood Sugar Levels
Alfalfa is a nutrient-rich herb with saponins, alkaloids, and flavonoids that may support metabolic health . Studies have shown that Alfalfa may support healthy insulin sensitivity, regulate blood sugar levels, and reduce oxidative stress, all important factors in supporting overall metabolic health.
A 2019 study in the Polytechnic Journal found that when individuals were given Alfalfa leaf powder in their meal, their blood sugar levels declined significantly within two hours of eating. They had elevated serum insulin levels at 30 minutes following the meal and an even greater elevation after 120 minutes.REF#1417
An animal study found that rats’ metabolic health improved when they were given a defined dose of Alfalfa. Alfalfa significantly reduced their glucose, cholesterol, triglycerides, and low-density lipoprotein levels and enhanced high-density lipoprotein levels and liver enzyme levels.REF#1418 It’s important to note that the amount of alfalfa necessary to achieve these results is generally not found in dietary supplements.
More research is needed, but these studies suggest that Alfalfa may be a possible supplement to help support metabolic health.
Alfalfa May Help Reduce Cellular Damage from Oxidative Stress
Alfalfa is rich in antioxidants, including vitamin C, carotenoids, and flavonoids, that help protect cells from damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are byproducts of metabolism that create oxidative stress and damage your body’s cells at the cellular level.
Animal studies suggest that Alfalfa saponins may also help alleviate oxidative stress in the body and protect against cell death:REF#1419
While early findings are promising, more research is needed to fully understand the disease-fighting properties of Alfalfa and its potential use in disease prevention and treatment in humans.
How to Take Alfalfa
Alfalfa sprouts can be enjoyed fresh and added to salads or other sandwiches. But as a complement to food or as an added ingredient to a dietary supplement, it may be hard to consume enough to benefit from its nutritional value.
As a dietary supplement, Alfalfa is available in various forms, including capsules, tablets, extracts, and powders. You can also make tea from dried Alfalfa leaves.
Gaia Herbs has added Alfalfa to two of our herbal blends:
- Women’s Balance: a blend of Alfalfa, Vitex, Black Cohosh, St. John’s Wort, and Oats that supports a healthy female hormone balance
- Hair, Skin & Nail Support: a blend of Alfalfa, Horsetail, Burdock, Gotu Kola, and Nettle that helps you feel and look your best
When looking for Alfalfa, choose your supplement wisely. Alfalfa is a major agricultural crop that many farmers have modified to resist certain pesticides. Seeds from one modified crop can easily affect nearby crops. You want to make sure that the Alfalfa used is organic and grown by a reliable source.
Alfalfa Side Effects and Precautions
Alfalfa supplements are considered safe, with no significant recorded side effects. However, no studies have established a maximum safe dosage. And some people may have an allergic reaction to the herb, especially if they commonly have hayfever or pollen allergies.
Like any supplement, potential side effects and efficacy may vary depending on your health status and lifestyle.
If you have existing health conditions, Alfalfa may interact with certain medications, so it's important to talk to your healthcare provider before adding Alfalfa to your diet or supplement regimen, especially in the following situations:
- If you take blood thinners: Because of its vitamin K content, Alfalfa should be avoided if you’re taking blood thinning agents, such as Warfarin and Coumadin.
- If you take birth control: While there is no evidence that the phytoestrogens in Alfalfa influence the progestins in birth control pills or patches and reduce their effectiveness, it’s best not to take Alfalfa supplements without consulting your healthcare provider.
Always discuss the appropriate dosage for any supplement with your healthcare provider.
When you take the right herbs at the right dosage, you maximize your chance that it will meet your health needs and goals and contribute to a healthier and happier you.
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- 6. Yalei Cui et al, "Alfalfa saponins inhibit oxidative stress-induced cell apoptosis through the MAPK signaling pathway", PubMed, December 2022. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34931598/ 6 6. Yalei Cui et al, "Alfalfa saponins inhibit oxidative stress-induced cell apoptosis through the MAPK signaling pathway", PubMed, December 2022. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34931598/