Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is a perennial plant belonging to the Fabaceae family that has long been used in traditional medicine to treat a variety of health conditions. It has a sweet, bitter, grassy flavor when consumed fresh in the form of sprouts. When taken as a supplement, alfalfa is thought to be beneficial in treating diabetes, high cholesterol, arthritis, urinary tract infections, menstrual problems, and an array of other disorders.
Mu Xu (the name used in traditional Chinese medicine)
What Is Alfalfa Used For?
Alfalfa is a low-calorie, nutrient-dense food. According to the USDA Nutrient Database, one cup of alfalfa sprouts has only 8 calories but delivers 0.2 grams fat, 0.7 grams carbohydrate, 0.6 grams fiber, and 1.3 grams protein.2 Alfalfa’s rich soluble fiber content may help reduce cholesterol and aid in weight loss by increasing satiety (a feeling of fullness).
Beyond its dietary benefits, alfalfa is often used in alternative therapies to treat medical conditions and metabolic disorders. For the most part, the scientific evidence to support these claims is weak.
Alfalfa contains saponins, a substance thought to bind cholesterol to bile salts and reduce serum cholesterol levels. Animal studies have shown a direct association between increasing doses of alfalfa saponin extract and decreasing blood cholesterol levels in rats.
Whether the same effect can be achieved in humans is uncertain. Alfalfa has been understudied as a potential treatment of hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol), and it is unclear if the same relative dose in rats can be used safely in humans. Further research is needed.
Fiber-rich foods like alfalfa may help control blood sugar by slowing the absorption of glucose in the intestines. As such, alfalfa may aid in the treatment of diabetes or prediabetes. There has been some evidence of this, albeit scant, in animal studies.
Urinary Tract Disorders
Alternative healthcare providers believe alfalfa acts as a natural diuretic (“water pill”) and can be used to treat urinary tract disorders, including renal calculi (kidney stones) and urinary tract infections (UTIs).
Alfalfa contains phytoestrogens, plant-based hormones that mimic the action of the female hormone estrogen. Herbalists contend alfalfa can be an effective remedy for menstrual disorders such as premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
There is little evidence the estrogenic effect is robust enough to be of any benefit. There is even less evidence to support claims that alfalfa can prevent or treat menopause symptoms, osteoporosis in postmenopausal women, or breast cancer as some alternative healthcare providers claim.
Breast Milk Production
Alfalfa is regarded as a plant-based galactagogue, meaning it can stimulate breast milk production. Alfalfa is, in fact, one of the most popular traditional medicines used as a galactagogue alongside black seed (Nigella sativa) and fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum).
A 2014 review in the journal Procedia suggests that Medicago sativa tablets can be used safely for this purpose but provides little evidence as to how effective the treatment may be or what dose is needed.8
A number of test-tube studies have reported that alfalfa exerts potent anti-inflammatory effects by suppressing the production of inflammatory compounds known as cytokines.
Some alternative healthcare providers believe this effect can reduce pain and inflammation associated with osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis. Alfalfa is, in fact, one of the more popular ingredients used in herbal arthritis remedies.
To date, these benefits remain largely unproven. With rheumatoid arthritis particularly, the underlying cause of inflammation is autoimmune (meaning the body’s own immune cells attack healthy joints). Alfalfa in no way alters this action. In fact, there is evidence that alfalfa can trigger acute symptoms of certain autoimmune diseases.
As for osteoarthritis, there has yet to be any clear evidence that alfalfa in any form can help relieve joint pain or inflammation.
Possible Side Effects
Alfalfa sprouts are considered safe and nutritious but may cause side effects in some people. Due to its high fiber content, consuming raw alfalfa can cause gas, abdominal discomfort, and diarrhea.
Arguably, the greater (and more common) concern is the contamination of alfalfa sprouts by bacterial pathogens such as Salmonella or E. coli.