Written by Klara Rombauts and the CAM-Cancer Consortium.
Updated April 29, 2016

Milk vetch (Astragalus mongholicus)

What is it?

Description

This review is limited to different preparations of Astragalus mongholicus root, the most commonly used Astragalus species in Chinese medicine. Other Astragalus species which are being investigated for their anti-cancer properties are the Turkish species, and include Astragalus brachypterus, Astragalus cephalotes, Astragalus microcephalus and Astragalus trojanus.

Scientific name/Common name/Brand name

Radix Astragali is the whole dried root of Astragalus mongholicus Bunge var. Dahuricus (DC.) Podlech and var. Mongholicus, common name: milk vetch, family Leguminosae. In the literature it is often named Astragalus membranaceus. The German common name is Tragant. The dried root of Astragalus mongholicus is called ‘Huangqi.1-3

Other preparations of Astragalus used in cancer therapy are tragacanth, the gummy sap of milk vetch root, and swainsonine, a water-soluble indole alkaloid produced by several plants known as locoweeds, including milk vetch.4

Ingredients

Polysaccharides, saponins, isoflavonoids, and flavonoids are the main constituents of milk vetch.5 The polysaccharides originating from Astragalus are called astragalans. The saponins (or triterpene glycosides, here called astragalosides), isoflavonoids, and flavonoids consist of aglycons or glycosides.

The amounts of astragalosides, trigonosides, and flavonoid constituents of dried root depend on the age, size and growing conditions of the root.

Although several parts of the plant seem to contain active constituents, it is especially the root that is (often) used in herbal formulas. Saponins are the most active components.

Application and dosage

Milk vetch is generally administered in combination with other Chinese herbs. The combination depends on the diagnosis.1 A common herbal formula containing milk vetch root is called “Juzentaihoto”, which means Ten Significant Tonic Decoctions.

The recommended oral dose for decoction is 3-6g of Huangqi (dried root) per 350ml water.1

Milk vetch can be bought as dried slices, shavings, powder, shredded root, whole root, capsules and liquid extracts. TCM practitioners often administer it as a tea infusion or shredded in soup.

History/providers

Milk vetch has been used for many centuries in TCM to correct ‘spleen deficiency’, which has been associated with cellular immune dysfunction.3 It originates from Shanxi Province, China, but now grows in several provinces in northern China.4 Some Astragalus-species also grow in the East Mediterranean area. In the 1980s, milk vetch was popularized as an immunostimulant in the United States by the media.6

Claims of efficacy

Internet sources claim that milk vetch can be used for the prevention and treatment of viral infections, ranging from colds to swine flu, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Milk vetch is particularly promoted for its immunostimulating properties. It is also claimed to be a natural remedy in the treatment of cancer.

Mechanism of action

The anticancer and immunostimulating properties of milk vetch are reduced by multiple action modalities.

Milk vetch saponins, extracted from the root, have been shown to induce apoptosis in human hepatocellular carcinoma cells, colon cancer cells, and human erythroleukaemia cells.7

NAG-1 (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID)-activated gene) is proposed as a molecular target of milk vetch saponins in its antitumorigenic and proapoptotic actions.8 The induction of apoptosis by milk vetch saponins was confirmed in studies on colon cancer cells and human erythroleukaemia cells.9,10

Milk vetch saponins have been shown to inhibit cell proliferation through the accumulation in S phase and G2/M arrest in HT-29 human colon cancer cells and mice xenografts. Milk vetch saponins also caused suppression of p21 expression and inhibition of cyclin-dependant kinase activity. The results were comparable with those produced by 5-fluorouracil, but without its side effects.11

It has also been demonstrated that the anti-tumour activity of milk vetch is caused by abolition of tumor-induced macrophage suppression.12 Macrophages can infiltrate the tumour site to participate in inflammatory reactions leading to destruction of neoplasms.13 ,14

Astragali polysaccharides (APS) stimulate all types of immunocytes, including T cells, B cells, and NK cells.15

Alleged indications

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), Astragalus is believed to have a “Qi tonifying” effect (Qi is thought to be a vital energy, a concept closely linked to immunity). In TCM, milk vetch is used to treat symptoms allegedly caused by affections of the spleen, which are claimed to be diarrhoea, fatigue, spontaneous sweating, and lack of appetite. According to TCM beliefs, it could also be used to treat colds and shortness of breath because it tonifies the lungs. Besides cancer, other possible indications are wasting disorders, night sweats, chronic ulcerations and sores, numbness and paralyses of the limbs, and oedema.1

Legal issues

Jinfukang, a liquid formulation extracted from 12 botanicals is approved by the State Drug Administration (SDA), the Chinese equivalent of the FDA in the US, for its use in the treatment of non-small-cell lung cancer.

Outside Asia, milk vetch is sold as a dietary supplement. This does not require any approval by the FDA or EMA (European Medicines Agency), but no medicinal claims associated with milk vetch can be made.

Costs and expenditures

On the Internet, prices for milk vetch capsules or extracts vary from US$2.79 for 60 capsules to $23 for 30ml of the extract. According to internet reviews, a monthly supply (3 capsules twice a day 470mg) costs about US$.4,7-9

Citation

Klara Rombauts, CAM-Cancer Consortium. Milk vetch (Astragalus mongholicus) [online document]. http://cam-cancer.org/The-Summaries/Herbal-products/Milk-vetch-Astragalus-mongholicus. April 29, 2016.

Document history

Assessed as up to date in April 2016 by Barbara Wider.
Assessed as up to date in September 2013 by Barbara Wider.
Most recent update and revision in September 2012 by Klara Rombauts.
Summary first published in April 2011, authored by Klara Rombauts.

References

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  4. Sun Y, Hersh E, Talpaz M, Lee SL, Wong W, Loo T et al. Immune restoration and/or augmentation of local graft versus host reaction by traditional Chinese medicinal herbs. Cancer. 1983;52(1):70-3.
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