~ written by Katolen Yardley, MNIMH, Medical Herbalist
Alfalfa leaves, the latin name being Medicago sativa, is a plant origionally native to asia, but now is found growing abundantly throughout the world. Alfalfa is rich in isoflavone properties, coumarins, sterols, rich in enzymes including amylase, lipase and protase, containing Vitamin A, C, D, B6, and vitamin K and is said to contain 10 times more mineral value than the average grain.
Used traditionally as a tonic herb, meaning an herb which can be used long term to help build and strengthen the whole body and has often been used for conditions of wasting (anorexia)and a lack of vitality. Known as a support for both mental and physical wellbeing.
Traditionally used as a tea to promote strong bones and help rebuild decaying teeth. Rich in chlorophyll, alfalfa can be combined with the herbs: horsetail, nettle leaf and red clover for connective tissue support and is often used in conditions of arthritis.
Traditionally known as a galactagogue, Alfalfa was often drunk as a tea to help increase the flow of breast milk in new mothers.
Therapeutically, a study was conducted on 15 humans for 8 weeks using alfalfa seeds in their diet to help normalise serum cholesterol. Animal studies have also confirmed that alfalfa aerial parts and tops can reduce serum cholesterol without signs of recorded toxicity. Reference: Herbal Medicines: A Guide for Health Care Professionals, Carol Newall, Linda Anderson, David Phillipson, 1996.
Alfalfa, like many herbs, contain a chemical called coumarin. This chemical constituent has been the subject to many debates and confusing conversations – and on first glance is often and mistakenly associated with Warfarin, a coumadin compound linked with blood thinning properties (notice the difference subtle spelling difference of this chemical?).
The debate continues – older research states that excessive dosing may interfere with anticoagulant therapy. While current research confirms that coumarin contains no blood thinning activity in humans, it is important to understand that some plant chemicals transform when they dry or if they go moldy. There have been reported risks of cattle consuming moldy hay and developing health issues. Alfalfa – needs to be used fresh or very carefully dried prior to use to ensure no moisture or mold on the final product. This is to prevent the chemical conversion of coumarin into a more active chemical dicoumarol. Reference: Herbal Constituents: Foundations of Phytochemistry 2009 by Lisa Ganora.
In the book, Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy (First Edition), 2000 by Simon Mills and Kerry Bone, page 51 mentions “all of the common plant coumarins are not substituted at this position (being hydroxylated in position 4 such as in dicoumarol) and therefore lack significant clinical anticoagulant activity, although may do possess measurable activity when given to animals in high dosages.” David Hoffman in his book, Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine also states that “Coumarin is devoid of anticoagulant effects in humans because of a structurally essential characteristic for the anticoagulant potential of coumarin derivatives is absent.”
When we think about alfalfa, we may also associate it with alfalfa sprouts. While sprouting seeds are a fabulous way of increasing their nutrition. It is important to rinse and wash the sprouts well and frequently to prevent the very rare risk of a bacterial contamination when sprouting alfalfa seeds. “Alfalfa seeds and fresh sprouts can be contaminated with bacteria such as S. enterica and E. coli.” Reference sourced online: https://www.drugs.com/npc/alfalfa.html
When not to Use
Animal studies are showing a correlation to monkeys who ingest alfalfa seeds containing a particular amino acid called canavanine, and the development of lupus like symptoms. Reference: Petri M. Diet and systemic lupus erythematosus: from mouse and monkey to woman? November 1, 2001 http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/096120330101001102 There have also been other reports linking large doses of alfalfa seeds, when used for extended periods of time, to pancytopenia and systemic lupus. Alfalfa seeds contain canavanine, which is known to be toxic, in large amounts, to many animal species due to its structural similarity to arginine. The alfalfa herb however, tops and leaves are reported to contain very low levels of canavanine and free from any lupus inducing substances. Reference: Herbal Medicines: A Guide for Health Care Professionals, Carol Newall, Linda Anderson, David Phillipson, 1996.
Thus until we understand more about this possible link and its mechanisms – it it advisable to avoid ingestion of large amounts of alfalfa seeds and herb in individuals who are dealing with Lupus. Alfalfa herb is however an excellent source of vitamins and minerals and an ideal addition to an herbal vinegar. If preparing the sprouted seeds for a tasty snack – always take extra time to rinse the seeds well during their sprouting and prior to ingestion.