Alfalfa sprouts have been used as an herbal medicine for around 1,500 years. Not surprisingly alfalfa is a great source of protein, calcium, vitamin B, vitamin C, vitamin E, and vitamin K. All of these nutrients provide an excellent resource for digestive and heart health.
Alfalfa should not be consumed during pregnancy and it must be avoided while taking azathioprine and cyclosporine. Alfalfa can be found in tablet, ointment and seed form.
The medicinal parts are the whole flowering plant or the germinating seeds.
Flower and Fruit
The cloverlike flowers can be yellow to violet-blue. They are 9 to 10 mm long and appear in oblong, many-blossomed racemes. The fruit is a spiraled pod with 2 or 3 twists; the center is hollow and not thorny.
Leaves, Stem, and Root
The annual, succulent plant grows from 45 to 100 cm high. The stems are erect, smooth, and sharply angled. The leaves are trifoliate, petiolate, and alternate. The leaflets are thorny-tipped, dentate toward the front, obovate, and villous beneath. The stipules are ovate, lanceolate, slightly dentate, and acuminate.
The taste is unpleasantly salty, bitter, and dry.
The plant is indigenous to the Mediterranean region and has been widely cultivated elsewhere for centuries.
Buffalo Herb, Lucerne, Purple Medic, Purple Medick, Purple Medicle
Actions & Pharmacology
Compounds: in the Foliage
Carotinoids: including among others, lutein
Triterpene saponins: sojasapogenols A-E aglycones medicagenic acid, hederagenin
Isoflavonoids: including among others, formononetin glycosides, genistein, daidzein
Coumestans: coumestrol, 3′-methoxy coumestrol, lucernol, sativol, trifoliol
Triterpenes: including among others, stigmasterol, spinasterol
Cyanogenic glycosides: corresponding to less than 80 mg HCN/100 g
Compounds in the Seeds
Betaine: stachydrine, homostachydrine
The saponin contents act on the cardiovascular, nervous, and digestive systems.
Antilipidemic Effects: Saponins and other components in alfalfa act synergistically to bind the bile acids required for cholesterol absorption from the gut. Saponins may also affect cholesterol metabolism indirectly, by interfering with the enterohepatic circulation of bile acids. Some saponins form large mixed micelles with bile acids. In humans, alfalfa has shown moderate ability to lower serum cholesterol concentrations, probably because of the saponins within it; if saponins are extracted, alfalfa loses its hypocholesterolemic effect (Molgaard et al, 1987).
Alfalfa exhibited hypoglycemic effects in mice rendered diabetic by administration of streptozotocin, which destroys pancreatic cells, while having no significant effect in nondiabetic mice (Gray & Flatt, 1997).
Antifungal Effects: Saponins have well-documented antifungal properties (Zehavi & Polacheck, 1996). When applied topically, a gluco derivative of medicagenic acid cured skin lesions of guinea pigs infected with the dermatophyte Trichophyton mentagrophytes and good skin tolerance was observed. Liposomes containing compound G2, the gluco derivative, were effective in a drug-delivery system to treat murine cryptococcosis and candidiasis (Zehavi & Polacheck, 1996).
Enzymatic Effects: In one investigation, alfalfa decreased trypsin and chymotrypsin activities (Dunaif & Schneeman, 1981), and lipase activities (Schneeman, 1978).
Prolactin-inhibiting Effects: A peptide with thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH) immunocharacteristics has been detected in alfalfa. Unlike TRH, which is a potent prolactin releaser, this peptide is a prolactin-inhibiting factor. Because TRH is highly resistant to degradation by gastrointestinal enzymes, this TRH-like peptide may be capable of producing systemic effects (Morley, 1982).
In a short-term study involving three normolipidemic individuals given alfalfa seeds (80-60 g daily), serum cholesterol concentrations were reported to be reduced (Molgaard et al, 1987). In another small study in which heat-treated alfalfa seeds (40 g three times daily for eight weeks) were taken by eight type IIA hyperlipoproteinemic patients and three type IIB patients, a significant decrease was noted in total serum cholesterol concentrations, LDL cholesterol, and apolipoprotein B. The LDL cholesterol concentration fell by less than 5% in two of the 11 patients (Molgaard et al, 1987).
Alfalfa seeds added to the diet of 15 patients with type II hyperlipoproteinemia (HLP) decreased total plasma cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and apolipoprotein B without changing the high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol concentrations. After treatment, patients with type II HLP manifested a maximal lowering of pretreatment median values of total plasma cholesterol from 9.58 to 8.00 mmol/L (p<0.001) and of LDL cholesterol from 7.69 to 6.33 mmol/L (p<0.01) which corresponds to 17% decreases of total plasma cholesterol and 18% decreases of LDL cholesterol. However, LDL cholesterol decreased less than 5% in 2 patients with hypercholesterolemia. In the same period apolipoprotein B decreased by 34% (p<0.05) in patients with type II HLP while apolipoprotein A-I did not change. After treatment ended, all lipoprotein concentrations returned to pretreatment levels (Molgaard et al, 1987).
Indications & Usage
In folk medicine, the drug is used in the treatment of diabetes and malfunctioning of the thyroid gland.
Alfalfa is contraindicated in patients with gout and systemic lupus erythematosus.
Not to be used during pregnancy.
Precautions & Adverse Reactions
In the United States and other countries, eating sprouts of alfalfa and other seeds has been associated with numerous culture-proven outbreaks of Escherichia coli, Bacillus cereus, and many serotypes of Salmonella. In addition, the sprouting process, which is characterized by high moisture and a temperature generally in the range of 21 to 25ºC, provides an outstanding environment for microorganism propagation. Treating seeds or sprouts with chlorinated water or other disinfectants, diminishes but does not eradicate the pathogens. Gamma irradiation, on the other hand, controls Salmonella and E coli O157:H7 on alfalfa sprouts at doses approved for irradiating meat (which are higher than the 1.0 kiloGray dose used for fruits and vegetables) without affecting germination of seeds and constitutes the best preventive measure now available for decontaminating sprouts and other agricultural products (Taormina et al, 1999; Stephenson, 1997). One case of human listeriosis has been linked to consumption of alfalfa tablets (Farber et al, 1990).
Hypokalemia has been reported, and gastrointestinal disorders are possible, including E. Coli, Salmonella, and listerosis infections (see Precautions).
Azathioprine and Cyclosporine: Concurrent use may result in reduced immunosuppressive drug effectiveness and acute transplant rejection. Clinical Management: Advise patients taking azathioprine or cyclosporine for transplant maintenance to avoid alfalfa, including herbal teas and combination supplement products containing alfalfa. If the patients are taking alfalfa and either azathioprine or cyclosporine, discontinue alfalfa and evaluate for signs and symptoms of transplant rejection.
Prednisone: Concurrent use may result in reduced prednisone effectiveness. Clinical Management: Patients with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) should be advised to avoid use of alfalfa until the nature of this phenomenon (i.e., SLE activation) is known. Consumption of 8 to 15 tablets (dosage unspecified) daily has been associated with SLE activation overcoming the effect of established prednisone therapy.
Anticoagulants: Concurrent use may result in reduced anticoagulant effectiveness. Clinical Management: The amount of alfalfa taken in supplements and/or in the diet should be kept as constant as possible. Monitor the INR and adjust the dose of anticoagulant as necessary.
How Supplied: Tablets, Ointment, Seeds, and Sprouted Seeds
Daily Dose: For hyperlipoproteinemia: 40 g of heat-prepared seeds 3 times a day at mealtimes.