by Rev. Dr. Lisa Waltz, ND, DD
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That lovely green plant that smells so very good when freshly cut is good for most people, too. Alfalfa has been a cultivated plant for centuries. Originating somewhere in the Persian (Iran-Iraq-Saudi) region, its reputation as a nutritious animal fodder spread far and wide. There are wild relatives that are found around the world, such as Medicago polymorpha and others, but it is M. sativa that is most known, especially for medicinal use, so we will focus on that particular plant in this article. Other names for this plant and its close relatives are Spanish Clover, California Clover, and Lucerne.
Romans wrote of its use as early as 490 B.C. Medicago sativa was brought to North America by colonists in the 1700's. It is grown just about all over the world. It is prized for its high content of nutrients, protein, and especially trace minerals. The extraordinarily tough and long taproot of this plant makes it able to survive drought as well as utilize minerals and vitamins deep in the soil. It is rich in the vitamins A, D, and K, and contains a high percentage of protein. A member of the legume family, it is an herbaceous perennial, grows about 2 to 3 feet tall depending on soil and conditions, and has bright purple or blue flowers (although many cultivars and related species may have yellow or whitish blooms). The seed pods corkscrew for an interesting addition to flower arrangements. It is grown also for its uses in controlling erosion and water runoff. Because of its ability to fix nitrogen into the soil, it is a valuable cover crop, and increases the vigor and yields of succeeding crops.
Medicinal Uses of Alfalfa
Alfalfa eliminates retained water, relieves urinary and bowel problems, and helps in treating those recovering from narcotic and alcohol addiction. It is also useful for rebuilding the body after serious or prolonged illness or weakness, stimulates milk production, eases morning sickness (by helping to balance the hormones), for cleansing the blood, and to lower cholesterol levels. Alfalfa is used in treating anemia, gout, arthritis, fatigue, insomnia, kidneys, peptic ulcers, pituitary problems, stimulating the appetite, regulating diabetes, and for building general health. The Chinese have used alfalfa to treat kidney stones for centuries. Alfalfa sprouts contain more protein than corn and wheat, and is one of the richest sources of vitamins and trace minerals, such as the necessary selenium, being high in vitamins A, D, E, and K.
Alfalfa in all of its forms can trigger attacks in those who suffer from lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, so it is best to avoid this herb if you have either of these ailments. The cause is apparently one of the active constituents, an alkaloid known as conavanine, in conjunction with the amino acid L-canavanine, present in greatest concentration as the alfalfa is in the sprout stage, and lessens as the alfalfa matures. I would certainly advise anyone with lupus or other immune-deficient diseases to avoid alfalfa sprouts, and to use the mature form only as a mild infusion, discontinuing immediately if there is any sort of reaction. Lupus is a disease that acts differently within each person who contracts it, so to err on the side of caution is the safest route. There are other sprouts that are just as healthy for those of you who suffer from these illnesses that do not contain this constituent.
There are four isoflavones in alfalfa that produce an estrogen response in animals and humans, which can disrupt reproductive cycles when ingested in high amounts, especially when the whole fresh plant is consumed (as with livestock feeding). These responses do make this plant a possible choice for helping with the problems of premenstrual syndrome and menopause.
Studies have shown that this plant contains constituents that may trigger a destruction of carcinogens built up in the liver during the digestive process. It aids in removing toxins from the body as well as neutralizing acids, which of course makes it an aid to digestion.
Properties and/or actions generally attributed to Alfalfa are: tonic, anti-fungal, laxative, diuretic, detoxifier, anti-inflammatory, febrifuge, hepato-protective, digestive, nutritive, anodyne, anti-arthritic, coagulant, cleansing, stomachic, antipyretic, alterative, and lactagogue. The seeds are considered emmenagogue and lactogenic. The parts generally used in medicinal treatments are the leaves and the flowers, although occasionally the seeds may be used.
After the alfalfa plant was introduced into North America, it was adapted for use by the Natives of the land. Costanoan Indians in California used the heated leaves of this plant for treating earaches. Navajos cultivated and harvested this legume to feed their livestock over winter. It was also used in beds, in mattresses and bedding, to keep bed bugs and fleas away.
Religious Uses of Alfalfa
Alfalfa is believed to be a sign or bringer of prosperity. Placed in a small jar and kept in a pantry or cabinet, dried alfalfa protects the home and all who dwell within from hunger, poverty, and unhappiness. Burn alfalfa and scatter the ashes around the property, garage, and any outbuildings to protect them. Arabs held this plant sacred, and believed that it imparted the attributes of the gods (wisdom, swiftness, stamina, etc.) to their beloved horses as they ate it.
The Herbal Encyclopedia - A Practical Guide to the Many Uses of Herbs by Rev. Dr. Lisa Waltz, ND; 1999-2000. Unpublished in traditional form, available as an electronic book (ebook) from earthnow.org.
James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. Unpublished
Duke, J.A. 1981a. Handbook of legumes of world economic importance. Plenum Press. NewYork.
Encyclopedia of Magickal Herbs - Scott Cunningham. 1995 Llewellyn Publications.
The Encyclopedia of Plants - Andrew Chevalier 1996 DK Publishing, London.
Hanson, A.A., D.K. Barnes, and R.R. Hill (eds.). 1988. Alfalfa and Alfalfa Improvement. American Society of Agronomy Monograph. 1084 pp.
Holland, Clive, Pioneer Hi-Bred. Alfalfa Management/Diagnostics Guide 1989. 43 p. Des Moines, Iowa.
Prescription for Nutritional Healing, James F. Balch, M.D., Phyllis A. Balch, C.N.C., Avery Publishing Group, 1990
The Complete Medicinal Herbal, Penelope Ody, Dorling Kindersley, Inc., 1993
The New Holistic Herbal, David Hoffman, Element, Inc. 1991
The Healing Power of Herbs, Michael T. Murray, N.D. Prima Publishing, 1992, 1995
About Rev. Dr. Waltz
I am a nationally certified Naturopathic Doctor, certified by the American Naturopathic Medical Certification & Accreditation Board of Washington, DC., and a member of the ANMA (American Naturopathic Medical Association). I work towards teaching people preventative natural medicine and proper nutrition, while treating what ails them - an ounce of prevention truly is worth a pound of cure, especially in today's world. I have been working with medicinal herbs for over 16 years. I own and operate the Natural Wellness Center, a clinic for everyone, free of discrimination.