Alfalfa is a plant commonly cultivated by farmers around the world for use as an animal feedstock. Known by its latin name, Medicago sativa, alfalfa is also a popular herb belonging to the legume family, closely related to beans and peas. Called the great healer by legions of natural herbalists, the health benefits attributed to alfalfa are broad, with attributes ranging from the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis to the ability to cure stomach disorders; from stimulating the appetite to being an effective curative for diabetes.
Alfalfa is also promoted as a detoxifier, able to cleanse the liver and bloodstream. Claims link alfalfa with enhanced pituitary functions, as well as treating high fevers, inflamed prostate, and alleviating allergic reactions related to plants and grasses.
While there are few if any valid scientific studies supporting these claims, alfalfa is generally recognized as a healthy and nutritious source of chlorophyll, beta carotene, calcium, and the vitamins D, E and K. Alfalfa leaves and sprouts are consumed around the world, and alfalfa tea is widely touted as a health tonic. Alfalfa in tablet and capsule forms are available at most health food stores.
Pertaining to the claims for alfalfas curative powers, researchers have found that the alfalfa root, a part of the plant not generally used, contains saponins, a family of chemicals that have been shown to lower cholesterol levels in monkeys. To date this research has not been repeated with human subjects. Other studies have found that alfalfa can inhibit the growth of some viruses such as herpes simplex, supporting the claims for its antibacterial and antiviral activity. This ability seems to be associated with a non-protein amino acid called L-canaverine, which is found in alfalfa leaves and roots. L-canaverine has also been shown to be effective in controlling leukemia and cancer cells in animal studies, again possibly accounting for some of alfalfa’s health claims.
Generally recognized as a safe, if somewhat undocumented health supplement, researchers have raised some specific health concerns relating to the excessive consumption of alfalfa or alfalfa containing products. Studies have noted an link between consumption of high doses of alfalfa with the onset or aggravation of existing Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE), a disease affecting connective tissues. The likely culprit is the previously mentioned amino acid L-canavanine. Since one may be predisposed to Lupus and not be aware of it, it would be prudent to limit one’s intake of alfalfa products. Those diagnosed with Lupus should avoid alfalfa products entirely.