Alfalfa, also known as lucerne or Medicago sativa, is a plant grown as livestock feed for hundreds of years.
It was long prized for its superior content of vitamins, minerals, and protein compared to other feed sources.
Alfalfa is a part of the legume family, but it’s also considered an herb.
It seems to have originally come from South and Central Asia, but it has grown worldwide for centuries.
In addition to being used as feed, it has a long history of use as a medicinal herb for humans.
Its seeds or dried leaves can be taken as a supplement, or the seeds can be sprouted and eaten as alfalfa sprouts.
Nutrient content of alfalfa
People typically consume alfalfa as an herbal supplement or as alfalfa sprouts.
Because the leaves or seeds are sold as herbal supplements and not as foods, no standard nutrition information is available.
However, they are typically a fair vitamin K source and contain many other nutrients, including vitamin C, copper, manganese, and folate.
Alfalfa sprouts contain the same nutrients and are also very low in calories.
For example, 1 cup (33 grams) of alfalfa sprouts contains 8 calories. It also contains the following:
- Vitamin K: 8% of the daily value
- Vitamin C: 3% of the daily value
- Folate: 3% of the daily value
- Thiamine: 2% of the daily value
- Riboflavin: 3% of the daily value
- Magnesium: 2% of the daily value
- Iron: 2% of the daily value
- Copper: 6% of the daily value
A cup also contains 1 gram of protein and 1 gram of carbs from fiber.
Alfalfa also has a high content of bioactive plant compounds, including saponins, coumarins, flavonoids, phytosterols, phytoestrogens, and alkaloids.
Summary: Alfalfa contains vitamin K and small amounts of many other vitamins and minerals. It is also high in many bioactive plant compounds.
Alfalfa may help lower cholesterol
Alfalfa’s cholesterol-lowering ability is its best-studied health benefit to date.
Numerous animal studies have shown that it can lower total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and triglyceride levels while increasing HDL (good) cholesterol — which may decrease heart disease risk.
The cholesterol-lowering effect of alfalfa is attributed to its high content of saponins, which are plant compounds known to lower cholesterol levels.
They do this by decreasing cholesterol absorption in the gut and increasing the excretion of compounds to create new cholesterol.
However, there is a lack of recent research on alfalfa and cholesterol in humans.
While more human research is needed, current studies show promise for alfalfa as a potential cholesterol-lowering agent.
Summary: Alfalfa has been shown to decrease cholesterol levels in animal studies. This is probably because it contains plant compounds called saponins.
Other potential health benefits of alfalfa
There is a long list of traditional uses of alfalfa as a medicinal herb.
They include lowering blood pressure, acting as a diuretic, increasing breast milk production, treating arthritis, and getting rid of kidney stones.
Most of these proposed health benefits have not yet been researched. However, a few of them have been studied to some extent.
Improved metabolic health
One traditional use of alfalfa is as an antidiabetic or blood sugar-lowering agent.
Several animal studies have found that alfalfa improves cardiometabolic health by decreasing blood fat and blood sugar levels.
However, while these findings are promising, more studies are needed to determine whether alfalfa would have the same effects in humans.
Menopause symptom relief
Alfalfa is high in plant compounds called phytoestrogens, which are chemically similar to the hormone estrogen.
Suggested read: 10 incredible health benefits of fennel & fennel seeds
This means they can cause some of the same effects in the body as estrogen.
Phytoestrogens are controversial, but they may have several benefits, including easing menopausal symptoms caused by decreased estrogen levels.
The effects of alfalfa on menopausal symptoms have not been extensively researched, but there is some evidence to support its use in reducing hot flashes.
However, there are also some potential risks. It’s important to speak with a healthcare professional if you are considering using it to treat those symptoms.
Alfalfa has a long history of use in Ayurvedic medicine to treat conditions caused by inflammation and oxidative damage.
Indeed, alfalfa has some powerful antioxidant properties, as some animal studies have noted that it prevents oxidative stress damage caused by free radicals.
Specifically, alfalfa can reduce cell death and DNA damage caused by free radicals. It does this by lowering free radicals’ production and improving the body’s ability to fight them.
However, these results have occurred in test-tube cell studies in rats or live rats, mice, and chickens. More research is necessary to find out whether alfalfa would have the same effects in human participants.
Summary: Alfalfa has many potential health benefits, but only a few have been scientifically evaluated. It may benefit metabolic health, menopause symptoms, and antioxidant status, but more human studies are needed.
Safety and side effects
Although alfalfa is probably safe for most people, it may cause harmful side effects for some individuals.
If you are pregnant
Because raw alfalfa sprouts and supplement products derived from alfalfa seeds come with potential food safety risks (such as serving as a reservoir for foodborne pathogens like E. coli, salmonella, and listeria), pregnant people should avoid these products.
If you take blood thinners
Alfalfa and alfalfa sprouts are high in vitamin K. Although this benefits most people, it can be dangerous for others.
Suggested read: Soy: Good or bad?
High doses of vitamin K can cause blood-thinning medications such as warfarin to be less effective. Therefore, it’s important for people taking these medications to avoid big changes in their vitamin K intake.
If you have an autoimmune disorder
There have been reported cases of alfalfa supplements causing the reactivation of lupus in some people.
This effect is believed to be due to possible immune-stimulating effects of the amino acid L-cavanine found in alfalfa.
Therefore, those with lupus or other autoimmune disorders are advised to avoid it.
If you have a compromised immune system
The moist conditions required to sprout alfalfa seeds are ideal for bacterial growth.
Consequently, sprouts sold in stores are sometimes contaminated by bacteria, and multiple bacterial outbreaks have been linked to alfalfa sprouts.
Eating contaminated sprouts can potentially make anyone sick, but most healthy adults will recover without long-term consequences. Yet, an infection like this can be very serious for people with a compromised immune system.
Therefore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises children, pregnant women, older adults, or anyone with a compromised immune system to avoid alfalfa sprouts and supplemental products derived from alfalfa seeds.
Summary: Alfalfa may be harmful to some people, including those who are pregnant, take blood thinners, or have an autoimmune disorder or a compromised immune system.
How to add alfalfa to your diet
You can take alfalfa supplements in powdered form or as a tablet or use alfalfa to make tea.
Because so few human studies have been done on alfalfa seeds, leaves, or extract, it’s hard to recommend a safe or effective dose.
The FDA does not tightly regulate herbal supplements, so research and buy from a reputable manufacturer — preferably one that pursues independent third-party testing on its products.
Another way to add alfalfa to your diet is by eating it as sprouts. You can add alfalfa sprouts to your diet in many ways, such as in a sandwich or mixed into a salad.
You can buy them at health food stores or sprout them at home. Here’s how:
- Add 2 tablespoons of alfalfa seeds to a bowl, jar, or sprouter and cover them with 2–3 times the amount of cool water.
- Let them soak overnight or for 8–12 hours.
- Drain and rinse the sprouts well with cool water. Drain them again, removing as much water as possible.
- Store the sprouts out of direct sunlight and at room temperature for 3 days. Rinse and drain them thoroughly every 8–12 hours.
- On day 4, relocate the sprouts to an area with indirect sunlight to allow for photosynthesis. Continue to rinse and drain them well every 8–12 hours.
- On day 5 or 6, your sprouts are ready to eat.
However, be mindful of the high risk of bacterial contamination. Ensuring the sprouts are grown and stored in safe conditions is a good idea.
Summary: You can take supplements or eat alfalfa sprouts. Sprouts can easily be added to sandwiches, salads, and more. You can either purchase sprouts or sprout your own at home.
Alfalfa has been shown to help lower cholesterol, benefit blood sugar management, and relieve symptoms of menopause.
People also take it because it contains antioxidants and nutrients like vitamin K, copper, folate, and magnesium. Alfalfa is also extremely low in calories.
That being said, some people may need to avoid alfalfa, including those who are pregnant, those taking blood-thinning medications, and those with autoimmune disorders.
Even though more high-quality research on alfalfa is needed, it does show a lot of promise as a health-promoting food or supplement.