Agaves are succulent plants from the family Agavaceae, which includes Beschorneria, Furcraea, Hesperaloe, Manfreda, Polianthes, Prochnyanthes and Yucca. Agave plants are common in the American southwest, Mexico, central and tropical South America, the Mediterranean and some parts of India. There are over 200 known species of agave; many produce musky odors that attract bats serve to pollinate them, while others produce sweet odors to attract insects.
Agave americana is also known as the American aloe, although it is not related to the true aloes. The leaves of the agave plant yield fibers suitable for textile production. The native people in Mexico used the agave spikes to make pens, nails and needles. Agave sisalana, the source of sisal fiber, is cultivated in plantations in Africa and Asia. The flowering stem can be dried or roasted and eaten; the seeds can be ground into flour to make bread or used as a thickener for soups. A sweet liquid (sap) called agua miel (honey water) gathers in the plant if the stem is cut before flowering. This sap is collected over a period of about two months, and can then be fermented to produce the alcoholic beverage pulque (octili), which Native Americans use in religious ceremonies. Further distillation creates Mescal (mezcal). A form of tequila is made when Mescal is produced from the blue agave (Agave tequilana) plant within the Tequila region of Mexico. This is the most important economic use of agave, worth millions of dollars to the Mexican economy. Mescal is often sold with the caterpillar of the agave moth in the bottle.
Agave is also useful as a sugar alternative because with a 90% fructose, it has a low glycemic index. Steroid hormone precursors are obtained from the leaves. Pulque prepared from Agave species was a food item studied intensively for nutrition potential among traditional and indigenous peoples, and is an example of how local food-based strategies can be used to ensure micronutrient nutrition. Traditional food strategies could be used not only for alleviating malnutrition, but also for developing locally relevant programs for stemming the nutrition transition and preventing chronic disease, particularly among indigenous and traditional peoples who retain knowledge of using food species in their local ecosystems.
These uses have been tested in humans or animals. Safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider.
* Key to grades
A: Strong scientific evidence for this use B: Good scientific evidence for this use C: Unclear scientific evidence for this use D: Fair scientific evidence for this use (it may not work) F: Strong scientific evidence against this use (it likley does not work)
Tradition / Theory
The below uses are based on tradition, scientific theories, or limited research. They often have not been thoroughly tested in humans, and safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider. There may be other proposed uses that are not listed below.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not strictly regulate herbs and supplements. There is no guarantee of strength, purity or safety of products, and effects may vary. You should always read product labels. If you have a medical condition, or are taking other drugs, herbs, or supplements, you should speak with a qualified healthcare provider before starting a new therapy. Consult a healthcare provider immediately if you experience side effects.
People who have allergies to plants in Agavaceae family should be cautious in using agave. Contact dermatitis after exposure to the sap of Agave americana has been reported in rare cases.
Side Effects and Warnings
The stiff, erect leaves of some agave plants are tipped with sharp needles, which can cause injury upon contact. Multiple reports of skin rash from Agave americana exist.
Vascular damage from crystals in agave has been reported. There are reports of irritant contact dermatitis from Agave americana when used incorrectly as a hair-restorer.
Pulque consumption may be associated with liver disease (cirrhosis) and increased death rate.
Some constituents of Agave sisalana, have high hemolytic activity, and may be potentially toxic.
Calcium oxalate crystals, found in prickly pear and agave, may have caused microwear of human teeth.
Significant increases in homocysteine levels and a tendency to increase blood glucose concentration and to decrease insulin sensitivity were found in healthy, non-obese young men who consumed tequila daily.
Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
Women from rural areas of the central plateau of Mexico drink a mild alcoholic beverage called pulque as to stimulate breast milk flow (as a galactogogue). The relatively small amount of ethanol taken in by infants through milk is unlikely to have harmful effects. However, pulque intake during breastfeeding may have adverse influences on postnatal growth in some Mexican populations.
Anordin and dinordin, prepared with steroids derived from the sisal plants Agave sisilana and Agave americana have been used for their antifertility effects. These agents, whose anti-fertility properties have been confirmed by scientists in Sweden and the United States, constitute a potential new family of contraceptives promising the advantage of having to be taken only once or twice a month instead of the 20 times per month necessary with the ordinary pill.
Steroid hormone precursors are obtained from agave leaves. Caution is advised when taking agave with other steroidal agents.
Contraceptive and anti-fertility effects have been reported with the use of agave. In theory, caution is advised when taking agave with other contraceptive agents, such as birth control pills.
Agave may alter blood sugar levels. Caution is advised in patients with diabetes or hypoglycemia, and in those taking drugs, herbs, or supplements that affect blood sugar. Serum glucose levels may need to be monitored by a qualified healthcare professional, including a pharmacist, and medication adjustments may be necessary.
Interactions with Herbs and Dietary Supplements
Steroid hormone precursors are obtained from agave leaves. Caution is advised when taking agave with other herbs with steroidal properties.
Agave may alter blood sugar levels. Caution is advised when using medications that may also alter blood sugar. Patients taking drugs for diabetes by mouth or insulin should be monitored closely by a qualified healthcare professional, including a pharmacist. Medication adjustments may be necessary.
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de la Cueva P, Gonzalez-Carrascosa M, Campos M, Leis V, Suarez R, Lazaro P. [Contact dermatitis from Agave americana] Actas Dermosifiliogr. 2005 Oct;96(8):534-6.
Gonzalez-Ortiz M, Pascoe-Gonzalez S, Kam-Ramos AM, et al. Effect of tequila on homocysteine, insulin secretion, insulin sensitivity, and metabolic profile in healthy men. J Diabetes Complications 2005;19(3):155-159.
Hackman DA, Giese N, Markowitz JS, et al. Agave (Agave americana): an evidence-based systematic review by the natural standard research collaboration. J Herb Pharmacother. 2006;6(2):101-22.
High WA. Agave contact dermatitis. Am J Contact Dermat 2003;14(4):213-214.
Kerner J, Mitchell J, Maibach HI. Irritant contact dermatitis from Agave americana L. Incorrect use of sap as "hair restorer". Arch Dermatol 1973;108(1):102-103.
Narro-Robles J, Gutierrez-Avila JH, Lopez-Cervantes M, et al. [Liver cirrhosis mortality in Mexico. II. Excess mortality and pulque consumption]. Salud Publica Mex 1992;34(4):388-405.
Ricks MR, Vogel PS, Elston DM, et al. Purpuric agave dermatitis. J Am Acad Dermatol 1999;40(2 Pt 2):356-358.
Shatoian I, Golomozenko VF. [Contact dermatitis caused by agave used for therapeutic purposes]. Vestn Dermatol Venerol 1987;(2):63-64.
The information in this monograph is intended for informational purposes only, and is meant to help users better understand health concerns. Information is based on review of scientific research data, historical practice patterns, and clinical experience. This information should not be interpreted as specific medical advice. Users should consult with a qualified healthcare provider for specific questions regarding therapies, diagnosis and/or health conditions, prior to making therapeutic decisions.