Drugs A - Z
Alfalfa (Medicago sativa)
Generic Name: Alfalfa
CategoryHerbs & Supplements
Al-fac-facah, alfalfa weevil, arc, buffalo herb, California clover, Chilean clover, Fabaceae (family), feuille de luzerne (French), isoflavone, jatt, kaba yonca, Leguminosae (family), lucerne, medicago, mielga, mu su, phytoestrogen, purple medic, purple medick, purple medicle, sai pi li ka, saranac, Spanish clover, team, weevelchek, yonja.
Alfalfa is a legume that has a long history of dietary and medicinal uses. A small number of animal and preliminary human studies report that alfalfa supplements may lower blood levels of cholesterol and glucose. However, most research has not been well-designed. Therefore, there is not enough reliable evidence available to form clear conclusions in these areas.
Alfalfa supplements taken by mouth appear to be generally well tolerated. However, ingestion of alfalfa tablets has been associated with reports of a lupus-like syndrome or lupus flares. These reactions may be due to the amino acid L-canavanine, which appears to be present in alfalfa seeds and sprouts, but not in the leaves. There are also rare cases of pancytopenia (low blood counts), dermatitis (skin inflammation), and gastrointestinal upset.
EvidenceDISCLAIMER: These uses have been tested in humans or animals. Safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider.
Atherosclerosis (cholesterol plaques in heart arteries):
Several studies in animals report reductions in cholesterol plaques of the arteries after use of alfalfa. Well-designed research in humans is necessary before a firm conclusion can be drawn.
A small number of animal studies report reductions in blood sugar levels following ingestion of alfalfa. Human data are limited, and it remains unclear if alfalfa can aid in the control of sugars in patients with diabetes or hyperglycemia.
Reductions in blood levels of total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein ("bad cholesterol") have been reported in animal studies and in a small number of human cases. High-density lipoprotein ("good cholesterol") has not been altered in these cases. Although this evidence is promising, better research is needed before a firm conclusion can be reached.
TraditionWARNING: DISCLAIMER: The below uses are based on tradition, scientific theories, or limited research. They often have not been thoroughly tested in humans, and safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider. There may be other proposed uses that are not listed below.
Allergies, antifungal, antimicrobial, antioxidant, appetite stimulant, asthma, bladder disorders, blood clotting disorders, boils, breast cancer, cervical cancer, cough, diuresis (increased urination), estrogen replacement, gastrointestinal tract disorders, gum healing after dental procedures, increasing breast milk, indigestion, inflammation, insect bites, jaundice, kidney disorders, menopausal symptoms, nutritional support, peptic ulcer disease, prostate disorders, radiotherapy induced skin damage, rheumatoid arthritis, scurvy, skin damage from radiation, stomach ulcers, thrombocytopenic purpura, uterine stimulant, vitamin supplementation (vitamins A,C,E,K), wound healing.
Adults (18 years and older)
A dose of 5-10 grams of dried herb three times daily has been taken by mouth.
Two tablets (1 gram each) of Cholestaid® (esterin processed alfalfa) taken by mouth three times daily for up to two months, then 1 tablet three times daily, has been recommended by the manufacturer.
A dose of 5 to 10 milliliters (one to two teaspoonfuls) of a 1:1 solution in 25% alcohol three times daily has been taken by mouth.
For treating high cholesterol, 40 grams of heated seeds prepared three times daily with food has been taken by mouth.
Children (younger than 18 years)
Alfalfa supplements in children are not recommended due to potential side effects.
SafetyDISCLAIMER: Many complementary techniques are practiced by healthcare professionals with formal training, in accordance with the standards of national organizations. However, this is not universally the case, and adverse effects are possible. Due to limited research, in some cases only limited safety information is available.
Side Effects and Warnings
Alfalfa appears to be well tolerated by most individuals, although rare serious adverse effects have been reported.
Mild gastrointestinal symptoms may occur, such as stomach discomfort, diarrhea, gas, or larger/more frequent stools. Dermatitis (skin inflammation/redness) has been reported and may be due to alfalfa allergy.
Blood sugar levels may be reduced. Caution is advised in patients with diabetes or hypoglycemia, and in those taking drugs, herbs, or supplements that affect blood sugar. Serum glucose levels may need to be monitored by a healthcare provider, and medication adjustments may be necessary.
Lupus-like effects have been associated with alfalfa use, including antinuclear antibodies in the blood, muscle pains, fatigue, abnormal immune system function, and kidney abnormalities. Therefore, people with a history of lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus) or a family history of lupus should avoid alfalfa supplements.
Other rarely reported adverse effects include abnormal blood cell counts (pancytopenia) and lowered potassium levels (hypokalemia). In theory, thyroid hormone levels may be increased, gout flares may be stimulated, and estrogen-like effects may occur.
Contamination of alfalfa products with potentially dangerous bacteria (including Escherichia coli 0157:H7, Salmonella, and Listeria monocytogenes) has been reported. In one case report, vomiting occurring after the consumption of seaweed and organic alfalfa was attributed to contamination of the capsules with high amounts of entospore forming and streptomyces-like bacteria. Copper, arsenic, and antimony have been found in alfalfa plants.
Many tinctures/liquid extracts contain high levels of alcohol and should be avoided when driving or operating heavy machinery.
Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
Alfalfa supplements are not recommended during pregnancy and breastfeeding due to insufficient evidence and a theoretical risk of birth defects or spontaneous abortion. Amounts found in food are generally believed to be safe. Traditionally, alfalfa is believed to stimulate breast milk production, although this has not been well studied.
Tinctures/liquid extracts may contain high levels of alcohol and should be avoided during pregnancy.
Interactions with Drugs
Blood sugar levels may be reduced. Caution is advised when using medications that may also lower blood sugar. Patients taking drugs for diabetes by mouth or insulin should be monitored closely by a qualified healthcare provider. Medication adjustments may be necessary.
Alfalfa contains vitamin K, and therefore may reduce the "blood thinning" effects of the drug warfarin (Coumadin®). Alfalfa may add to the effects of cholesterol-lowering medications such as atorvastatin (Lipitor®) or simvastatin (Zocor®).
Alfalfa may increase the risk of severe sunburns when used with drugs that increase sun sensitivity, such as chlorpromazine (Thorazine®). Due to estrogen-like chemicals in alfalfa, the side effects of drugs that contain estrogens may be increased (such as birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy). In theory, alfalfa may increase thyroid hormone levels and may alter the effects of thyroid drugs such as thyroxine (Synthroid®, Levoxyl®).
Alfalfa may also interact with drugs that alter the immune system.
Interactions with Herbs and Dietary Supplements
Blood sugar levels may be reduced. Caution is advised when using herbs or supplements that may also lower blood sugar such as aloe or bitter melon. Blood glucose levels may require monitoring, and doses may need adjustment.
Alfalfa has been reported to contain vitamin K, and therefore may reduce the effects of herbs and supplements that have blood-thinning effects that rely on depletion of vitamin K.
Because alfalfa contains estrogen-like chemicals, the effects of other agents believed to have estrogen-like properties, such as black cohosh, may be altered. Alfalfa may also alter thyroid levels in herbs such as bladderwrack.
Alfalfa may alter potassium and calcium levels. It may also interact with iron, vitamin E, and vitamin K.
Alfalfa may interact with therapies that alter the immune system or cause sun sensitivity.
This information is based on a professional level monograph edited and peer-reviewed by contributors to the Natural Standard Research Collaboration (www.naturalstandard.com): Ethan Basch, MD (Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center); Dawn Costa, BA, BS (Natural Standard Research Collaboration); Cathi Dennehy, PharmD (University of California, San Francisco); Nicole Giese, MS (Natural Standard Research Collaboration); Mary Giles, PharmD (University of Rhode Island); Michael Goble, BS, PharmD (Massachusetts College of Pharmacy); Michelle Harrison, PharmD (New England Medical Center); David Kroll, PhD (Duke University); Richard Liebowitz, MD (Duke University); Erica Seamon, PharmD (Natural Standard Research Collaboration); Michael Smith, MRPharmS, ND (Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine); David Sollars, MAc, HMC (New England School of Acupuncture); Philippe Szapary, MD (University of Pennsylvania); Shaina Tanguay-Colucci, BS (Natural Standard Research Collaboration); Catherine Ulbricht, PharmD (Massachusetts General Hospital); Mamta Vora, PharmD (Northeastern University); Wendy Weissner, BA (Natural Standard Research Collaboration); Jen Woods, BS (Natural Standard Research Collaboration).
BibliographyDISCLAIMER: Natural Standard developed the above evidence-based information based on a thorough systematic review of the available scientific articles. For comprehensive information about alternative and complementary therapies on the professional level, go to www.naturalstandard.com. Selected references are listed below.
Anon. From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Outbreaks of Escherichia coli O157:H7 infection associated with eating alfalfa sprouts--Michigan and Virginia, June-July 1997. JAMA 9-10-1997;278(10):809-810.
Bengtsson AA, Rylander L, Hagmar L, et al. Risk factors for developing systemic lupus erythematosus: a case-control study in southern Sweden. Rheumatology (Oxford) 2002;41(5):563-571.
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Hwang J, Hodis HN, Sevanian A. Soy and alfalfa phytoestrogen extracts become potent low-density lipoprotein antioxidants in the presence of acerola cherry extract. J Agric Food Chem 2001;49(1):308-314.
Lanza A, Tava A, Catalano M, et al. Effects of the Medicago scutellata trypsin inhibitor (MsTI) on cisplatin-induced cytotoxicity in human breast and cervical cancer cells. Anticancer Res 2004;24(1):227-233.
Malinow MR, McLaughlin P, Naito HK, et al. Regression of atherosclerosis during cholesterol feeding in Macaca fascicularis. Am J Cardiol 1978;41:396.
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