Botanical name(s):

Medicago sativa. Family: Fabaceae

Other name(s):

hay, lucerne, purple medic

General description

Alfalfa is a perennial grown worldwide as a feedstock for cattle. Its appearance is cloverlike, but it grows to a height of 2 to 3 feet. It blooms in the summer with purple or blue flowers. At harvest time alfalfa is mowed, field dried, and baled. The baled hay can be fed directly to cattle or ground to a coarse powder first. It can also be enriched with grain or other supplements.

Alfalfa seeds are sprouted and used as garnish for salads and other foods. Alfalfa leaves contain triterpenoid saponins (soyasapogenols) that have been shown to reduce cholesterol absorption and vascular plaque formation in animals but can also cause hemolytic anemia. The leaves are safer to use than the seeds because alfalfa seeds contain the toxic amino acid L-canavanine (arginine analog).

Medically valid uses

Although alfalfa has a long history as a medicinal herb, no well-established benefits supported by hard scientific or unbiased evidence are associated with its use. However, well-documented information demonstrates that L-canavanine, a non-protein amino acid present in alfalfa (particularly in the seeds and sprouts), can cause lupus or worsen the course of already-established lupus. Lupus, or systemic lupus erythematosis (SLE), is an autoimmune disease that affects connective tissue (found in every organ of the body).

Unsubstantiated claims

Please note that this section reports on claims that have NOT yet been substantiated through scientific studies.

Alfalfa is claimed to have positive effects on allergies, malfunctions of the thyroid gland, blood and liver toxicity, asthma, and pituitary functions. It is also claimed to reduce heart attack risks and help with an inflamed prostate, rheumatoid arthritis, stomach disorders, and diabetes. Finally, alfalfa has also been reported to work as a diuretic.

Dosing format

Follow packaging instructions for correct dose.

Side effects, toxicity, and interactions

Alfalfa is generally safe when taken by healthy individuals. It can, however, cause or worsen the course of lupus. If you have lupus, do not use alfalfa. Alfalfa seems to increase certain immune system functions and may make diseases associated with an overactive immune system, such as rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis, worse.

On occasion, alfalfa sprouts have been contaminated with Salmonella and E. coli and have been responsible for outbreaks of diarrheal disease and hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a disease associated with E. coli. Improved processing has largely removed these risks. However, alfalfa sprouts should be eaten shortly after purchase and should not be stored for prolonged periods.

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should consult a physician before taking any herbal medicines.

There are no known significant food or drug interactions associated with alfalfa.

Additional information

Click here for a list of reputable websites with general information on nutrition.