Alfalfa: Sprouting with Possibilities
When most people think of alfalfa health benefits (Medicago sativa Linn.), they likely recall a time when alfalfa sprouts were all the rage and piled high on sandwiches and salads throughout the 1980s and 1990s. But there is so much more to alfalfa than just the sprouts.
Alfalfa is an ancient perennial plant that likely originated in Asia. Technically a legume, alfalfa has been cultivated for hundreds of years throughout the world as a crop cover and fodder plant. While much of its use today is dedicated to animal feed, alfalfa, also referred to as the “father of all foods,” has a rich history of medicinal use in cultures throughout the world.
Potential Alfalfa Health Benefits
Traditional uses of alfalfa as a medicinal plant have included remedies for anemia, diabetes, endometriosis, peptic ulcers, stomach ulcer, osteoporosis, menopausal symptoms, breast and prostate cancers, and low bone density. More recent studies have found that alfalfa may offer unique health benefits to both the cardiovascular system and neurological health.
Alfalfa for Cardiovascular Health
Alfalfa stems and leaves have been found to reduce cholesterol in two ways: by reducing cholesterol absorption in the digestive tract and by enhancing cholesterol via bile acid excretion. This cholesterol-lowering effect has been attributed to saponins, reported to decrease total cholesterol, without affecting high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, “good” cholesterol. In small human studies, heat-treated alfalfa seed supplementation was found to decrease total cholesterol in participants with normal and high total cholesterol.
Alfalfa for Neurological Health
In animal studies, alfalfa extract was observed to mitigate the effects of neurological injury. Researchers observed improved glutathione and superoxide dismutase levels, significant antioxidant effects, and minimized negative effects to short-term memory and motor coordination after a brain injury.
Key Nutrients in Alfalfa
Alfalfa is the most widely grown legume crop in the world due to its high amino acid, vitamin, mineral, and phytonutrient content. Various parts of the plant can be consumed to add important nutrients to the diet, including seeds, sprouts, and leaves, and the upper parts of the alfalfa plant can be juiced to create a nutrient-rich supplement. Alfalfa is also highly digestible and contains digestive enzymes to improve nutrient absorption.
Chlorophyll, the green pigment in plants, has a wide range of health benefits, and alfalfa greens and juice are particularly high in this beneficial phytonutrient. Chlorophyll is a potent antioxidant and free radical scavenger, may have cancer-protective properties, may improve wound healing, and may support proper red blood cell activities and hemoglobin levels.
Alfalfa is also a rich source of vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin K, vitamin C, copper, manganese, carotenoids, vitamin A, folate, and other B-vitamins. Since it is technically a legume, it is also a good source of protein and amino acids. These nutrients together are supportive of inflammatory balance, methylation, and immune function.
Other key phytonutrients found in alfalfa include:
- Flavonoids, including quercetin, myricetin, and luteolin: antioxidants associated with reduced risk for cancer, heart disease, stroke, and asthma.
- Polyphenols, including caffeic acid, hesperetin, naringenin, and tannic acid: a category of antioxidants linked with improved lipids, endothelial function, and glucose metabolism. Diets high in polyphenols may support healthy blood pressure, inflammatory balance, and blood vessel function. Alfalfa has higher phenolic content than dark chocolate.
- Phytoestrogens and isoflavones, including genistein, daidzein, and coumestrol: Isoflavones have been associated with lower risk of hormone-dependent cancers, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and hot flashes. Phytoestrogens have been found to slow skin aging in post-menopausal women.
- Phytosterols, like beta-sitosterol, found to lower cholesterol and may reduce the risk for certain cancers.
- Saponins, which may support the immune system, protect against cancer, inhibit platelet aggregation, reduce blood lipids, and support healthy glucose response.
Caveats and Contraindications for Alfalfa
Despite alfalfa’s wide range of potential benefit and centuries of medicinal use, there are a few notes of caution and contraindications of which to be aware.
- Alfalfa sprouts, if not grown carefully, may be contaminated with salmonella.
- Alfalfa seeds may not be suitable for those with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), because they contain a non-protein amino acid component called L-cavanine. In high amounts, L-cavanine may have an undesirable effect on the immune system, and so people with SLE are often cautioned against consuming alfalfa. It is important to note, however, that only alfalfa seeds are high in this compound. The leaf and stem portion of alfalfa contain very little L-cavanine, so there is little concern with using the plant portion of alfalfa in high amounts.
The humble alfalfa has proven itself to be an important edible plant with a wide range of potential health benefits and traditional uses. By contributing a wide range of vitamins, minerals, and bioactive phytonutrients to the diet, alfalfa remains an important nutrient-dense food as well as a useful medicinal plant.
Download the alfalfa pamphlet from the Color of Food series.
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- Solymosi, K., & Mysliwa-Kurdziel, B. (2017). Chlorophylls and their derivatives used in food industry and medicine. Mini Rev Med Chem, 17(13):1194-1222. doi:10.2174/1389557516666161004161411
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. (n.d). Beta-Sitosterol, CID=222284, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/beta-Sitosterol.
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