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Astragalus and its Immuno-modulatory Effects

Astragalus also known as milk vetch  and Huang-qi has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries has been used as a tonic for all over health and immune booster.  This plant is a member of the legume family and it is the root that is used for medicinal purposes.  Astragalus contains powerful antioxidants that scavenge free-radicals to help prevent oxidative damage due to metabolism, radiation and toxins taken in the body.

Recent studies in the U.S. have demonstrated that Astragalus may be used on patients who have undergone chemotherapy or radiation treatments to reduce side effects and speed up recovery.  Astragalus also demonstrates great potential for individuals who have AIDS or other viral infections.

Astragalus not only boosts the immune system but optimizes adrenal gland function, promotes cardiovascular and brain health.  All of this is due to the powerful antioxidants such as astragalosides and saponins that it contains that boosts immune function by assisting in the proliferation of white blood cells.  It also protects mitochondrial membranes from oxidation thereby promoting the production of energy in the form of ATP.

The actual pathways are not fully understood at this time however a number of effects have been observed and assayed for.  There are some 20 or more molecules involved with antioxidant behaviors.  One group has the ability to enhance phagocytosis by macrophages by increasing production of interleukin-1 (a chemical messenger) that activates macrophages to phagocytose and it also increases the production of tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) by increasing TNF alpha messenger RNA expression.  TNF-alpha attacks abnormal cells and primes them for apoptosis (programmed cell death).  The oxidant t-butyl hydroperoxide (tBOOH) is inhibited as well and this prevents damage to mitochondrial membranes by a component of Astragalus allowing for optimal energy production.  The second messengers Inositol triphosphate (IP3) and diacylglycerol (DAG) production is enhanced and these are important for turning on intracellular molecular cascades.  In particular IP3 releases calcium stores into the intracellular space.

The production of interferon increases which is important for signaling neighbor cells that a local cell is infected.  This in turn activates genes in healthy cells to produce products that protect their cell surfaces from invasion. 

Furthermore, you have an increase in Dendritic cells (a special form of macrophages) and Natural Killer cell activities as well as T-Helper cells and T-lymphocytes.  There is also an increase in the secretion of immunoglobulins (antibodies).

The  Astragalus story is actually a two part system.  The immune system is strengthened and on guard while the invader is being marked for destruction.  This component is handled by Astraglan of which several varieties of this molecule have been identified so far that have the ability to specifically mark bad cells or invaders.  This allows T-lymphocytes and macrophages to find these bad entities quickly and remove them.

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