- Alfalfa, also known as lucerne or Medicago sativa, is a plant that has been grown as feed for livestock for hundreds of years.
- It was long prized for its superior content of vitamins, minerals, and protein, compared to other feed sources.
- Alfalfa is a part of the legume family, but it’s also considered to be an herb.
- It seems to have originally come from South and Central Asia, but it has since been grown around the world for centuries.
- In addition to being used as feed, it also has a long history of use as a medicinal herb for humans.
- Its seeds or dried leaves can be taken as a supplement, or the seeds can be sprouted and eaten in the form of alfalfa sprouts.
Nutrient Content of Alfalfa
Alfalfa is typically consumed by humans as an herbal supplement or in the form of alfalfa sprouts.
Because the leaves or seeds are sold as herbal supplements and not foods, there is no standard nutrition information available.
However, they are typically high in vitamin K and also contain many other nutrients, including vitamin C, copper, manganese, and folate.
Alfalfa sprouts contain the same nutrients and are also very low in calories.
For example, 1 cup (33 grams) of alfalfa sprouts contains a mere 8 calories. It also contains the following :
- Vitamin K: 13% of the RDI.
- Vitamin C: 5% of the RDI.
- Copper: 3% of the RDI.
- Manganese: 3% of the RDI.
- Folate: 3% of the RDI.
- Thiamin: 2% of the RDI.
- Riboflavin: 2% of the RDI.
- Magnesium: 2% of the RDI.
- Iron: 2% of the RDI.
A cup also contains 1 gram of protein and 1 gram of carbs, which comes from fiber.
Alfalfa also has a high content of bioactive plant compounds. They include saponins, coumarins, flavonoids, phytosterols, phytoestrogens, and alkaloids.
Alfalfa May Help Lower Cholesterol
Alfalfa’s cholesterol-lowering ability is its best-studied health benefit to date.
Numerous studies in monkeys, rabbits, and rats have shown that it can lower blood cholesterol levels.
A few small studies have also confirmed this effect in humans.
One study of 15 people found that on average, eating 40 grams of alfalfa seeds 3 times per day decreased total cholesterol by 17% and “bad” LDL cholesterol by 18% after 8 weeks.
Another small study of only 3 volunteers also found that 160 grams of alfalfa seeds per day could decrease total blood cholesterol levels.
This effect is attributed to its high content of saponins, which are plant compounds known to lower cholesterol levels.
They do this by decreasing the absorption of cholesterol in the gut and increasing the excretion of compounds used to create new cholesterol.
The human studies done so far are too small to be conclusive, but they show promise for alfalfa as a treatment for high cholesterol.
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.
Alfalfa also contains a number of important vitamins and minerals, including:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin K3
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.
A 2015 study published in Interventional Medicine and Applied Science reported that rats with chemically-induced diabetes experienced a reduction in blood glucose, cholesterol, triglycerides, and “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol after receiving an alfalfa extract for 21 days. There was also a significant increase in the level of “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.
At present, there is little evidence the same benefits can be achieved in humans. Further research is again needed.
Urinary Tract Disorders
Alternative practitioners 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).
Despite claims to the contrary, there is little evidence that alfalfa can help prevent or clear kidney stones, much less treat an acute urinary tract infection.
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 practitioners 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.
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 practitioners 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.
Safety and Side Effects
Although alfalfa is probably safe for most people, it may cause harmful side effects for some individuals.
If You Are Pregnant
Alfalfa may cause uterine stimulation or contractions. Therefore, it should be avoided during pregnancy.
If You Take Blood Thinners
Alfalfa and alfalfa sprouts are high in vitamin K. Although this benefits most people, it can be dangerous for others.
High doses of vitamin K can cause blood-thinning medications, such as warfarin, to be less effective. Therefore, it’s important for people taking these medications to avoid big changes in their vitamin K intake.
If You Have an Autoimmune Disorder
There have been reported cases of alfalfa supplements causing the reactivation of lupus in some people.
And in one monkey study, alfalfa supplements caused lupus-like symptoms.
This effect is believed to be due to possible immune-stimulating effects of the amino acid l-canavanine, which is found in alfalfa.
Therefore, those who have lupus or some other autoimmune disorders are advised to avoid it.
If You Have a Compromised Immune System
The moist conditions required to sprout alfalfa seeds are ideal for bacterial growth.
Consequently, sprouts sold in stores are sometimes contaminated by bacteria, and multiple bacterial outbreaks have been linked to alfalfa sprouts in the past (21Trusted Source).
Eating contaminated sprouts can potentially make anyone sick, but most healthy adults will recover without long-term consequences. Yet, for people with a compromised immune system, an infection like this can be very serious.
Therefore, the FDA advisesTrusted Source children, pregnant women, the elderly, or anyone else with a compromised immune system to avoid alfalfa sprouts.
What to Look For
There are a number of things to consider when eating fresh alfalfa or taking alfalfa in supplement form.
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