What is it? Overview Usage Side Effects and Warnings

What is Alfalfa?

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Alfalfa is one of the earliest cultivated plants, used for centuries for feeding livestock. This probably is true in part because it is easy to grow, thrives in many varied climates throughout the world, and provides an excellent protein-rich food source for cattle, horses, sheep, and other animals. The name alfalfa comes from the Arabian al-fac-facah, for "father of all foods." 1 Its high protein content and abundant stores of vitamins make it a good nutritional source for humans, too. Historic (but undocumented) medicinal uses of alfalfa include treatment of stomach upset, arthritis, bladder and kidney problems, boils, and irregular menstruation.

Alfalfa is high in vitamin content—providing beta-carotene ; various B-vitamins ; and vitamins C , E , and K —and can be used as a nutritional supplement. 2 However, keep in mind that high doses of alfalfa may present some health risks. (See Safety Issues below.)

Numerous animal studies 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 and preliminary human trials 14 indicate that extracts from alfalfa seeds, leaves, and roots might be helpful for lowering cholesterol levels. However, there have not been any well-designed, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials demonstrating alfalfa useful for this (or any other) purpose. (For information on why double-blind studies are so important, see Why Does This Database Rely on Double-Blind Studies?...

Safety Issues

Alfalfa, in its various forms, may present some health risks. Powdered alfalfa herb, alfalfa sprouts, and alfalfa seeds all contain L-cavanine, a substance that may cause abnormal blood cell counts, spleen enlargement, or recurrence of lupus in patients with controlled disease. However, heating alfalfa may correct this problem.

Researchers investigating alfalfa seeds' ability to lower cholesterol levels discovered that it had another effect on the lab animals used for testing. In some of the monkeys, it caused a disease very similar to lupus. 15 Further research on this effect revealed that monkeys that had abnormal blood cell counts when eating either alfalfa seeds or sprouts, and then recovered when alfalfa was no longer part of their diet, developed the symptoms...