A generic, blood-sugar lowering drug, with a history of more than sixty years gets a lot of attention recently: it is studied for is its cancer fighting anti-aging and weight loss properties. It is metformin, the world’s most prescribed drug for diabetes 2. As all pharmaceutical drugs, metformin was derived from a plant, in this case goat’s rue (galega offficinalis).
The humble, a little bit weedy, easy to grow plant of course is not crowned with scientific studies. Everyone can grow or gather it or otherwise buy it cheaply at a dispensary, there’s no money in medicinal plants! Goat’s rue is so easy to grow that it might even classify as a permaculture plant, a member of the legume family and thus a nitrogen fixer a medicinal and a good bee crop in one.
Bubonic Plague and Snake Bites:
Most sources claim that goat’s rue has been used historically to lower the blood sugar and as a galactagogue (increase milk production), however “a garden of Medicinal plants” claims that this is untrue. They confirm that goat’s rue was used for severe maladies like bubonic plague, infectious diseases, malignant fevers, epilepsy, worms, snake bites and poisoning.
Despite of goat’s rue is growing wild in the Mediterranean; there is no written evidence of its use in ancient times. The first reports of its medicinal use are from the Italian Petrus de Crescentiis around 1300. In the 16th century, the plant was already grown in Central Europe in gardens both as a medicinal plant and ornamental and as a bee fodder plant. In spite of that, galega is not a very commonly used plant in modern herbalism.
What Chemists Cooked up:
At the end of the 19th century, chemists discovered the alkaloid in goat’s rue, responsible for the blood sugar lowering effect. It was galegine, a derivative of guanidine. There were a variety of guanidine derivatives found in goat’s rue but galegine or isoprenyl guanidine proved to be the least toxic one. Due to its short duration of action galegine could not be marketed successfully. The chemistst wanted something stronger and came up with various biguandidines. Three of them, namely phenformin, buformin, and metformin hit the market as pharmaceutical drugs. Of the three, metformin is the only one still used today. The other two, phenformin and buformin were taken from the market because of the high risk of lactic acidosis, a condition where the body produces too much lactic acid which can result in life threatening complications.
Studies, Side Effects and the Humble Plant:
There are many studies performed on metformin’s possible other uses the treatment and prevention of cancer, obesity and as an anti-ageing drug. As exciting as it sounds, metformin has its side effects: they reach from a variety of stomach problems like heart-burn, diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting as well as headaches, a metallic taste in the mouth and yes, it can cause lactic acidosis as well. To me, that sounds neither safe nor healthy!
For goat’s rue on the other hand, literature mentions little side effects for humans; mainly that it lowers the blood sugar, which is wanted if you treat diabetes but a side effect when you want to increase breast milk. Herbalists used the plant for a long time and it is generally deemed safe. Most sources tell that further studies are needed to evaluate the safety of this herb.
For goats and sheep, this plant is generally regarded as toxic and there have been various reports of sudden livestock death after feeding on goat’s rue. Drying of the herb doesn’t seem to make a difference. Apparently, the lush green spring growth and the immature pods in autumn are most toxic. But other reports state that galega has been used for milk production in animals!
Herbalists still use goat’s rue and the difference is maybe that humans use one or two teaspoons for a tea rather than munching through a whole stand of galega.
Goat’s rue shares the fate of other herbs: a lot of potential but unless an expensive drug can be synthesised there is little money for scientific studies. Imagine a whole yearly supply of the dried galega herb would maybe cost $30 or worse: you could grow that plant for a few dollars yourself.
We need studies that clarify:
- Why goat’s rue sometimes poisonous to ruminants, but in other instances it was used safely for increasing milk production (dairy farmers are doing it tough right now!).
- Whether goat’s rue is really safe for humans.
- If and how it can be used for diabetes, weight-loss, cancer-cure and prevention and anti-ageing.
- What are side effects?
Unfortunately, our Western Herbal Medicine is an interrupted one and lore and wisdom has been burned with the witches. It never really recovered from that purge and little effort is put into the restoration from the official side.
I would be really interested about your experiences with goat’s rue, be it in humans, goats, sheep, cattle or other animals! Do you grow it? Are you intrigued by the plant?
You can buy the plants here!