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ALFALFA (medicago sativa)

 

Common names:

Buffalo herb, lucerne, purple medic

 

Medicinal part:

Leaves

 

Description:

A perennial plant, alfalfa is widely cultivated and can be found wild in fields and low valleys. An erect, smooth stem grows to a height of 12 to 18 inches, producing trifoliate leaves and blue or purple flowers that grow in racemes from June to August. The seeds are in spirally coiled pods.

Most often considered merely as fodder for cattle, this useful plant with an ancient history as a healing herb fell from public favor after the Civil War only to return to our attention in the 1970s in the form of its sprouts, as a popular salad ingredient. However, alfalfa has a long history as an adjunct to human health. Originally discovered by the Arabs, who called alfalfa "the father of all foods," its leaves -- which contain its real healing properties -- are rich in minerals and other nutrients, including calcium, magnesium, potassium, and beta carotene (recently touted by Dr. Andrew Weil as a powerful antioxidant against "free radicals" that roam the body as toxins). There are indications that alfalfa may reduce "bad" cholesterol, thus helping to prevent heart disease and some types of strokes.

Noticing that their cattle consumed alfalfa eagerly, ancient Chinese farmers began cooking the herb's tender young leaves as a vegetable and discovered that it was an effective appetite stimulant and also that it was useful for digestive disorders. Alfalfa has been used to treat ulcers.

The Spanish conquistadors introduced alfalfa to the New World as a forage crop for their horses, especially in the Great Plains area, where the American pioneers took it up as a crop. Our pioneering ancestors used alfalfa to treat a multitude of ailments including arthritis, boils, scurvy (a condition brought on by a lack of vitamin C), and urinary and bowel difficulties. Our foremothers used alfalfa to bring on menstruation.

Today, in applications never before considered, alfalfa has come to the attention of modern-day scientists who have discovered that it can be an agent in the treatment of heart disease, stroke, and cancer-the top three causes of death in the United States. However, despite its reputation as a treatment for ulcers, no scientific evidence supports this traditional use. The use of alfalfa leaves has not been proven to promote menstruation, but it may well have been the seeds (which contain two chemicals, stachydrine and homostachydrine that can bring on menstruation and/or cause miscarriage) that pioneer women used, possibly to end an unwanted pregnancy. Alfalfa seeds are to be avoided entirely, especially by anyone with an autoimmune problem.

Alfalfa leaf is on the FDA's list of herbs generally regarded as safe, but it should be used in medicinal amounts only with your doctor's approval. If the condition for which you are using the herb does not improve significantly within two weeks, or if you experience any side effects -- such as upset stomach or diarrhea-stop use.

Dosage 

Capsules or tablets: Take three to six daily, or follow the manufacturer's instructions on the label.

Bulk dried leaves: Steep 1 tablespoon in 8 ounces of hot water for 5 to 15 minutes. Drink 1 to 3 cups of the tea daily.

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