What is alfalfa, and what is it used for?
Alfalfa is a perennial flowering plant primarily grown as livestock fodder. Alfalfa sprouts are added as garnish to various foods, and dried leaves are sold as herbal supplements, available as tablets or powders to be steeped as tea.
Alfalfa herbal supplements are taken for several conditions including diabetes, high cholesterol, indigestion, and asthma, but there is little scientific evidence to support these uses. People also use alfalfa as a source of calcium, potassium, phosphorous, iron, magnesium, and vitamins A, C, E, and K.
Alfalfa contains fiber and saponins, compounds that are believed to bind to cholesterol and prevent its absorption in the intestines. Alfalfa contains phytoestrogens which may act like estrogen and help with the relief of menopausal symptoms, however, it can promote the growth of estrogen-dependent breast cancer cells. Some animal studies suggest that alfalfa may increase insulin secretion and improve its function, helping reduce blood glucose levels.
Although alfalfa appears to have a lot of nutritional value when ingested in food, there are no well-controlled studies in humans that establish its safety and efficacy for use as an herbal supplement. Alfalfa sprouts have been linked to a number of food poisoning (Escherichia coli and Salmonella infection) outbreaks in California and Europe. In addition, alfalfa seeds contain L-canavanine, a toxic amino acid that may trigger a relapse of lupus, an inflammatory condition.
Suggested uses of alfalfa include: