Alfalfa is an herb whose leaves, sprouts and seeds may be used to treat various ailments, says the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). Whether in the form of an alfalfa tonic, an alfalfa syrup or a tea, alfalfa offers potential medicinal uses and a rich source of vitamins.
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While there may be alfalfa benefits, it's important to understand how alfalfa may interact with medications or affect certain conditions, according to the NLM. Before taking alfalfa tonic, alfalfa syrup or any other type of alfalfa treatment, check with your doctor.
Alfalfa tonic and other types of alfalfa remedies have been suggested to treat a variety of conditions. Work with your doctor to avoid any potential side effects due to drug interactions or other health conditions.
Uses for Alfalfa
In addition to being a perennial plant grown worldwide, alfalfa is also used as feedstock for cattle, notes the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC). It may grow up to 3 feet tall and blooms in the summer with purple or blue flowers.
Once harvested, alfalfa is mowed, field dried and baled as hay to feed to cattle, says URMC. Alfalfa seeds may be sprouted and used as a garnish in culinary dishes.
USDA nutrition data includes a long list of nutrients for raw alfalfa sprouts. They're high in calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, folate, beta carotene, vitamin K and many other key nutrients.
As for its medicinal use, alfalfa began gaining popularity as an herbal remedy during the 19th century, according to Kaiser Permanente (KP). U.S. physicians who promoted the use of herbal therapies suggested alfalfa tonic for indigestion, dyspepsia, anemia, loss of appetite and poor assimilation of nutrients. They also used the seeds to make a poultice for the treatment of boils and insect bites.
Today, says KP, medicinal alfalfa benefits are poorly understood. Some herbalists recommend taking 500 to 1,000 milligrams of dried alfalfa leaf per day, or 1 to 2 milliliters of alfalfa tonic or tincture three times daily. However, there is no agreed-upon therapeutic dosage recommended for human consumption.
Possible Alfalfa Benefits
The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database rates the effectiveness of various remedies based on scientific evidence using a scale — ranging from "effective" to "insufficient evidence to rate," says the NLM.
According to this database (and the NLM's data), there is insufficient evidence to rate the effectiveness of alfalfa for certain conditions. More evidence is needed to rate alfalfa for the following uses:
- High cholesterol, though taking alfalfa seeds seems to lower total cholesterol and "bad" low-density lipoprotein cholesterol in people with high cholesterol levels
- Kidney problems
- Bladder problems
- Prostate problems
- Upset stomach
- Other conditions
The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) concurs that there's some evidence that alfalfa supplements may lower cholesterol. Alfalfa contains fiber and a compound called saponins, which may bind with cholesterol to reduce cholesterol levels. However, larger, controlled trials are needed to confirm the cholesterol benefits of alfalfa, adds MSK.
If you're concerned about high cholesterol, ask your doctor if alfalfa tonic or supplements may work for you. According to the NLM, a typical recommended dose for high cholesterol is 5 to 10 grams of the alfalfa herb, or as a steeped strained tea, three times a day. With liquid extract, 5 to 10 milliliters of a liquid extract, three times a day, may be advised.
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Warnings for Alfalfa Use
Under certain circumstances, alfalfa use is ill advised, warns the NLM. Be aware of the potential side effects:
- Do not take alfalfa in combination with blood thinning medications. Alfalfa's high content of vitamin K, which the body uses to help blood clot, may decrease the effectiveness of such medications.
- Because alfalfa lowers blood sugar, taking alfalfa in combination with diabetes medications may cause blood sugar to dip too low.
- Some medications may increase sensitivity to light, and large doses of alfalfa can have a similar effect. Taking such medication along with alfalfa may increase your light sensitivity even more and make you more susceptible to sun damage.
- Alfalfa may lower the absorption of dietary iron in the body.
- Alfalfa may increase the immune system and thereby decrease the effectiveness of medications that decrease the immune response.
Due to its estrogenic activity, alfalfa may also decrease the effectiveness of oral contraceptives, which also contain estrogen, says the NLM. MSK also advises avoiding alfalfa if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or have a hormone-sensitive cancer such as breast or prostate, due to alfalfa's hormonal effects.
MSK adds that alfalfa seeds contain a toxic amino acid, L-canavanine, which may cause a relapse of lupus symptoms in patients who are in remission from the disease. A February 2019 study in Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine also points to studies indicating alfalfa sprouts induced lupus-like symptoms in otherwise healthy individuals.
In addition, MSK recommends avoiding alfalfa if you have gout due to its high purine content.
A Word About Dietary Supplements
In addition to the safety concerns mentioned above, it's wise to be aware of potential safety concerns for alfalfa — and for any type of supplement you wish to take.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) notes that the information available on dietary supplements varies widely. Some studies may suggest benefits of supplements for certain conditions, while others may show little or no benefit for others.
In addition, some products purported to aid with weight loss, sexual enhancement, bodybuilding and other uses may contain ingredients not listed on the label — such as prescription drugs not allowed in dietary supplements. Some of these ingredients may be unsafe or untested for safety, says the NCCIH.
Federal regulations require companies to have evidence that their supplements are safe and their labels are accurate and truthful, according to the NCCIH. However, the rules for manufacturing and distributing dietary supplements are not as strict as they are for prescription or over-the-counter drugs.
The FDA requires companies to submit safety data about any new ingredient not sold in the United States in a dietary supplement prior to 1994, explains the NCCIH. Outside of those circumstances, the FDA is not authorized to review dietary supplements for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed.
The dangers of taking dietary supplements without a health professional's guidance are real. An estimated 23,000 emergency room visits a year can be attributed to adverse events associated with dietary supplements, according to an October 2015 study in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).
Adverse events included adverse reactions, allergic reactions, excess doses, unsupervised ingestion by children or, among people 65 and older, swallowing problems like choking on pills, says NEJM.
To enjoy alfalfa benefits and avoid adverse events, check with your health care provider before consuming alfalfa tonic, alfalfa syrup or any other dietary supplement. With your doctor's OK, you may be able to add alfalfa to your diet without any negative side effects.
- Kaiser Permanente: "Alfalfa"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Alfalfa"
- USDA FoodData Central: "Alfalfa Sprouts, Raw"
- University of Rochester Medical Center: "Alfalfa"
- Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database: "Consumer Version"
- Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: "Alfalfa"
- Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine: "Significance and Impact of Dietary Factors on Systemic Lupus Erythematosus Pathogenesis"
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: "Using Dietary Supplements Wisely"
- New England Journal of Medicine: "Emergency Department Visits for Adverse Events Related to Dietary Supplements"