It seems we all spend time, at some point in our lives, looking for the figurative fountain of youth. While astragalus may not be exactly this magic elixir, research suggests that it may help delay the ravages of time—even down to the parts of our chromosomes that in a very real way determine how long we may live.5 It’s no wonder that Traditional Chinese Medicine promotes astragalus as an herb that strengthens Qi, which is considered to be the life force within us.3-4
How can astragalus potentially help us age healthy, or in effect slow down the degenerative processes of aging? It turns out that astragalus has more than one anti-aging property, including improving the appearance of aging skin.
Anti-Aging Immune Protection
Some of the most potent anti-aging effects of astragalus come from its immune-boosting and regulating properties, which can help counteract the loss of immune function many studies have found in elderly populations. Astragalus also contains zinc, which can help keep the immune system working well.66-67 A healthy, optimally functioning immune system can decrease the typically higher risk of disease and infection we encounter as we grow older.10,65-66
Natural Life Extension?
Another newly discovered anti-aging constituent in roots of A. membranaceus called a small-molecule activator of telomerase (TA-65) can actually increase the length of chromosome tips.5 Does this matter, in terms of aging?
What Are Telomeres?
Telomeres are segments of DNA at the end of chromosomes that help protect the rest of the genetic material on the strands of DNA. These strands are twined together and make up each cell’s chromosomes. Without them the chromosomes can become dysfunctional, damaged, and cause the cell to die. As a normal part of cell aging, each time a cell divides the ends of the chromosomes, called telomeres get a little shorter until eventually the cell reaches the end of its life.6
Shorter Telomeres Linked to Shorter Lives
Studies have linked the length of telomeres to lifespan, which of course gives us the tantalizing prospect of finding something to keep or make the telomeres longer in order to allow people to live longer.6
And there actually is an enzyme produced in the body called telomerase that prevents the telomeres from getting shorter. Telomerase is typically stimulated by cancer cells as a survival mechanism to prevent the rapid shortening of telomeres in cancer cells as they divide at an abnormally high rate. The cells don’t go through a normal life cycle and you get the out-of-control growth of tumors. In fact, there are chemotherapy drugs that specifically seek to inhibit telomerase so that cancer cells will die.6
Using Telomerase as an Anti-Aging Substance
One of the concerns with using or stimulating production of this enzyme in healthy cells is that it may cause them to become cancerous. However, lab studies show that telomerase can be used in normal cells as well to lengthen their life—without increasing malignancy.6
Is it possible telomerase could help humans increase lifespan? An interesting study on 30 men with low-risk prostate cancer showed that healthy changes in lifestyle actually increased telomerase activity in immune cells—acting to maintain and boost the life of these cells that help protect the body from disease and infection (including cancer). This study suggests that telomerase may be stimulated to work in ways that increase health and damage from aging.78
Astragalus Increases Beneficial Telomerase Activity
In an animal study, mice with shortened telomeres and DNA damage were fed a diet supplemented with a substance from the roots of A. membranaceus called a small-molecule activator of telomerase (TA-65). The treatment stimulated the production of telomerase in the mice, resulting in longer telomeres and DNA repair—without increased cancer risk.5
And there were visible signs of astragalus’ anti-aging effects as well. In female mice, dietary TA-65 demonstrated increased bone and skin health. It also improved sugar metabolism.5 Other animal studies indicate that dysfunctional telomerase activity can cause impaired sugar metabolism and diabetes, which in turn causes cell damage throughout the body.79
So could astragalus be a magic pill that keeps us young and healthy?
The short answer is no—there isn’t any one substance that can magically make us immortal. Research indicates that health is a complex balancing act, and our immune systems play an important role in protecting cells and regulating the body’s response to harmful substances and disease processes. As we age, our immune systems often become less efficient and less able to fend off diseases that contribute to aging and death.10,66
Astragalus indirectly acts as an anti-aging substance with its known immune-boosting effects.3-4 Astragalus also contains zinc, often deficient as we age, that is also needed for healthy immune system functioning.66-67 Additionally, it appears to strengthen and helps maintain DNA itself at the cellular level—both in the immune system cells and in cells throughout the body—by stimulating enzyme activity that increases the length of telomeres and repairing DNA damage.5 So while astragalus may not be the fountain of youth, studies suggest that astragalus may very well help you stay healthier (and effectively younger) longer.