Since ancient times, people have been growing the plant known as alfalfa, also called lucerne or Medicago sativa, specifically to provide feed for animals. Although it is classified as a legume, alfalfa is botanically classified as a herb.
It is believed to have originated in South and Central Asia but has been cultivated across the globe for hundreds of years. In addition to being utilized in the production of feed for animals, it has a long history of application in the medical treatment of humans.
You can use the seeds of the dried leaves of this plant as a dietary supplement, you can also grow the seeds into alfalfa sprouts for human consumption.
Most people take alfalfa as a herbal supplement, while others consume it in the form of alfalfa sprouts.
Because of its higher vitamin, mineral, and protein content in comparison to other sources of animal feed, it has been highly valued for a long time .
No standard nutrition data is available since the leaves and seeds are sold as herbal supplements rather than as foods. In most cases, these foods are also an excellent source of vitamin K, in addition to folate, manganese, copper, and vitamin C.
The same vitamins and minerals you can find in alfalfa sprouts, which also have exceptionally low-calorie content. For example, there are only eight calories in one cup (33 grams) of alfalfa sprouts. In addition to that, the following is also included :
- Riboflavin: 3% of the Daily Value (DV)
- Thiamine: 2% of the DV
- Folate: 3% of the DV
- Vitamin C: 3% of the DV
- Vitamin K: 8% of the DV
- Copper: 6% of the DV
- Iron: 2% of the DV
- Magnesium: 2% of the DV
A cup also contains 1 gram of protein and 1 gram of fiber-derived carbohydrates.
Alfalfa is also rich in bioactive plant compounds, such as alkaloids, phytoestrogens, phytosterols, flavonoids, coumarins, and saponins .
Alfalfa May Help Lower Cholesterol
Alfalfa’s ability to lower cholesterol is its most thoroughly researched health benefit to date.
Numerous animal studies have demonstrated that it can decrease total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and triglyceride levels while increasing HDL (good) cholesterol, which may reduce the risk of heart disease [3,4,5].
The cholesterol-lowering effect of alfalfa is because of its high concentration of saponins, which is good to reduce cholesterol levels. They accomplish this by decreasing cholesterol absorption in the gastrointestinal tract and increasing the excretion of compounds used to produce new cholesterol .
However, recent research on alfalfa and cholesterol in humans is lacking. Current studies indicate that alfalfa is potentially a cholesterol-lowering agent, though more research on humans is necessary.
Other Alfalfa Health Benefits
There is a very long list of ways alfalfa has been used historically in medicine.
These benefits include the reduction of blood pressure, the promotion of increased breast milk production, the alleviation of arthritis symptoms, and the dissolution of kidney stones.
Researchers have not yet looked into most of these purported positive effects on health. However, only a select few of them have been subjected to in-depth research.
In Ayurvedic medicine, alfalfa has a long history of use to treat conditions caused by inflammation and oxidative damage.
Animal studies have demonstrated that alfalfa has potent antioxidant properties, as it prevents oxidative stress-induced free radical damage .
Specifically, alfalfa can reduce free radical-induced cell death and DNA damage. This is accomplished by reducing the production of free radicals and enhancing the body’s ability to combat them.
However, these outcomes have been observed in rat test-tube cell studies or in live rats, mice, and chickens. Additional research is required to determine whether alfalfa would have the same effects on human participants [8,9,10].
Menopause Symptom Relief
Alfalfa contains a high concentration of phytoestrogens chemically similar to estrogen.
This indicates that they can produce similar effects in the body as estrogen .
Controversial phytoestrogens may have several benefits, including alleviating menopausal symptoms caused by decreased estrogen levels. There has not been extensive research on the effects of alfalfa on menopausal symptoms, but some evidence supports its use in reducing hot flashes.
Nonetheless, there are potential risks. If you are considering using it to treat those symptoms, you must consult a healthcare professional .
Improved Metabolic Health
One traditional use of alfalfa is as an antidiabetic or agent that reduces blood sugar levels.
Several animal studies suggest that alfalfa improves cardiometabolic health by reducing blood fat and blood sugar levels [13,14].
However, while these results are encouraging, additional research is required to determine whether alfalfa has the same effects on humans.
Safety and Side Effects
Although alfalfa is likely safe for the vast majority of people, some individuals may experience adverse effects from consuming it.
If your immune system is compromised
The conditions required for alfalfa seeds to sprout are optimal for bacterial growth.
Therefore, sprouts sold in stores are sometimes contaminated with bacteria, and alfalfa sprouts have been linked to multiple bacterial outbreaks in the past .
Consuming contaminated sprouts has the potential to make anyone ill, but the majority of healthy adults will recover with no lasting effects. However, this infection can be fatal for those with compromised immune systems.
Therefore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises immune-compromised individuals to avoid alfalfa sprouts and dietary supplements derived from alfalfa seeds .
If you are suffering from an autoimmune disorder
There have been reports of alfalfa supplements reactivating lupus in certain individuals.
This effect is attributed to the amino acid L-canavanine found in alfalfa, which may have immune-stimulating properties .
Those with lupus or other autoimmune disorders are therefore advised to avoid it.
If you are on blood thinners
Alfalfa and alfalfa sprouts contain a high amount of vitamin K. Although this is advantageous for most people, it can be hazardous for others.
Vitamin K can reduce the effectiveness of blood-thinning medications, such as warfarin. Therefore, it is essential for individuals taking these medications to maintain a consistent vitamin K intake .
Pregnant women should avoid raw alfalfa sprouts and supplement products derived from alfalfa seeds due to potential food safety risks (such as serving as a reservoir for foodborne pathogens such as E. coli, salmonella, and listeria) .
Ways to Add Alfalfa to Your Diet
You can take alfalfa supplements in powdered or tablet form or prepare alfalfa tea. Due to the lack of human studies on alfalfa seeds, leaves, and extract, it is difficult to recommend a safe or effective dosage.
The FDA does not strictly regulate herbal supplements; therefore, it is important to conduct research and purchase from a reputable manufacturer, preferably one that conducts independent third-party testing on its products .
Another way to incorporate alfalfa into your diet is by consuming its sprouts. You can incorporate alfalfa sprouts into your diet in numerous ways, including in sandwiches and salads.
They can be purchased at health food stores or sprouted at home. This is how:
- Place two tablespoons of alfalfa seeds in a bowl, jar, or sprouted and cover them with two-to-three times as much cool water.
- Soak them overnight or for eight to twelve hours.
- Drain and thoroughly rinse the sprouts with cold water. Once more, drain them to remove as much water as possible.
- Keep the sprouts at room temperature and out of direct sunlight for three days. They must be thoroughly rinsed and drained every 8–12 hours.
- On day four, move the sprouts to a location with indirect sunlight to facilitate photosynthesis. Continue to rinse and drain them every 8 to 12 hours thoroughly.
- On day 5 or 6, the sprouts are ready for consumption.
However, the likelihood of bacterial contamination is high. It is prudent to take precautions to ensure that the sprouts are grown and stored in a sanitary environment.
Alfalfa has been shown to reduce cholesterol levels and may also be beneficial for blood sugar management and menopause symptoms. In addition to containing antioxidants and nutrients such as vitamin K, copper, folate, and magnesium, it is also consumed by humans. Additionally, alfalfa is extremely low in calories.
However, avoiding alfalfa may be necessary for certain individuals, including those who are pregnant, taking blood-thinning medications, or suffering from autoimmune disorders. Despite the need for additional high-quality research on alfalfa, it shows great promise as a health-promoting food or supplement.
Disclaimer: This article is only a guide. It does not substitute the advice given by your own healthcare professional. Before making any health-related decision, consult your healthcare professional.