ASHWAGANDHA use dates back to 6000BC and people have used the roots and orange-red fruit of ashwagandha for medicinal purposes ever since.
Ashwagandha has been used in Ayurveda, the oldest traditional medicinal system of India, for thousands of years as a rejuvenative (Rasayana). Ayurvedic healers have long prescribed the herb to treat exhaustion caused by both physical and mental strain.
Ashwagandha is traditionally taken with ghee and honey (equal parts), which act as anupans (a medium for carrying herbs deeper into the tissues) for overall nourishment and rejuvenation.
In Ayurveda it is said to support the following dhatus, or tissues, of the body: muscle, fat, bone, bone marrow, nerves and reproductive system.
The Sanskrit word ‘ashwagandha’ translates as ‘the smell of a horse’, (ashwa - horse, gandha - smell), which refers to its ability to bring you the strength and stamina of a horse while nourishing the female and male reproductive and nervous systems.
The story goes that Ashwagandha bestows the vitality and sexual energy of a horse on the person who is taking it.
Its botanical name Withania somnifera tells us something about this herb; somnifera translates as ‘sleep-inducing’, reflecting its relaxing and calming properties that bring us energy by supporting deeper rest.
Ashwagandha will strengthen an exhausted or agitated nervous system, while at the same time calming it. The chemical components in the plant are remarkably similar to those found in ginseng and yet studies have demonstrated its superiority in stress-relieving abilities when compared to its Chinese cousin.
Ashwagandha also improves sleep quality and sleep onset latency (the amount of time taken to fall asleep after lights are turned off) in people with insomnia, as shown in a 2019 study in Cureus.
This herb is an ideal health bolster for weakened constitutions during convalescence or for the fragile elderly. Its use has also been shown positive for HIV/AIDS patients as an adjunctive treatment and for those recovering from drug abuse or addiction.
Ashwagandha regulates and balances blood sugar levels because it contains a group of potent plant compounds called flavonoids.
Flavonoids have been shown to possess hypoglycaemic and anti-diabetic effects and may therefore help to reduce and stabilise blood glucose levels as well as helping to improve overall insulin sensitivity.
Using ashwagandha is a boon for those wanting reduce weight because it curbs stress-related food cravings, improves digestion and increases endurance in exercise regimes.
King of the adaptogens
Ashwagandha is a renowned adaptogenic herb, which means it is used to help the body resist physiological and psychological stress by adapting to the needs of the body.
It is deeply supportive of many tissues and body systems, including the immune system, the reproductive system, a healthy thyroid and much more. It also improves digestion and balances our gut bacteria. Studies have found that ashwagandha prevented stress-related ulcers and vitamin C deficiency and increased energy and endurance when under stress.
The bioactive compounds in the plant exert antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory activities that help reduce stress and anxiety, boost testosterone levels and potentially alleviate the symptoms of certain diseases.
Ashwagandha protects cells against damage caused by free radicals.
Daily use of the herb increases levels of infection-fighting immune cells and helps to decrease inflammation. Inflammation underpins many health conditions and reducing it can protect the body against a variety of conditions.
By increasing immunoglobulin (antibodies that fight off bacteria) production and suppressing pro-inflammatory cytokine (cell signalling molecules) production, ashwagandha helps to promote and support an anti-inflammatory environment within the body.
Suhas Kshirsagar, medical director of the Maharishi College of Ayurvedic Medicine in New Mexico, explains: “Ashwagandha strengthens and gives more flexibility to the heart muscles and is also useful for treating uterine and menstrual conditions involving the muscles, such as menstrual cramps. In India Ashwagandha is prescribed for weak pregnant women as it helps to stabilise the foetus. In classical use it has been used during pregnancy to strengthen the mother and unborn child and it is thought to be a tonic to the uterine muscles.” (Refer the fact file for Western contrindications)
Ashwagandha is a great ally for at least the first 6-12 months after giving birth, to strengthen, relax and stabilise the over-taxed nervous system, the whole physical body and the mind, for both the mum and dad.
A natural Nootropic
Ashwagandha supports brain health, cognition, promotes cell growth and boosts memory and focus.
It is known to have pronouced neuroprotective properties due its key constituents withaferin A and withanolide A. These mimic GABA an amino acid that acts as a neurotransmitter in our central nervous system and calms nervous activity.
Stress causes a surge in the adrenal hormones; adrenaline and cortisol that increase alertness. Not only does ashwagandha regulate imbalanced cortisol levels but also it nourishes the adrenal glands.
The warming, heavy, unctuous qualities of Ashwagandha make it the perfect antidote to the unrelentingly fast and stressful pace of modern living. For the practicing yogi, ashwagandha proves to be of significant help for focussing our attention and resilience in asanas, body exercises and breath work, while also calming the incessant chatter of the mind in preparation for meditation.
This is due to the herb’s remarkable energy-boosting properties while simultaneously calming the nervous system of sensory overload without decreasing levels of alertness and clarity.
Add to these wonderful benefits ashwagandha’s pain-reducing, immuno-protective qualities and it becomes quite understandable why any yoga aspirant would seek out a quality ashwagandha product to enhance and sustain their practice.
How do we take it?
Ashwagandha replenishes our storehouse of energy so we can be productive, alert and focussed without pushing it as severely as coffee does.
This herb is a great example of one that can be taken for longer periods of time when consumed in moderate doses.
Ashwagandha is incredibly versatile and can be taken as a powder, a tablet or a liquid extract, with or without food and at any time of the day - even right before bed.
The best results are attained from ashwagandha treatment when it is taken systematically for a few months; then we really start to see a desirable shift in our energy, focus, resilience and sleep patterns.Ashwagandha root has a slightly bitter, pungent and earthy flavour so often spices and something naturally sweet such as honey are added to improve the taste.
It is wonderful in a smoothie or added to porridge and no doubt there are many creative ways that ashwagandha can be incorporated into our diet.
Taking ashwagandha with honey adds a cooling effect, particularly in the summer months.
Traditionally ashwagandha is used as comforting hot drink; the powder can be mixed with any warm milk of choice, spices and honey.
According to Ayurvedic medicine, if taken before bed, this drink calms the mind and fosters healthy sleep patterns, supports the reproductive system and bolsters strength. This nightcap drink was often called ‘Moon Milk’.
Aphrodisiac for men and women
Ashwagandha enjoys the reputation in the West as an aphrodisiac, a use endorsed by a recent study in which more than 70 per cent of men reported increased libido and sexual function after taking the herb. It can increase sperm count and sperm motility.
Male participants demonstrated ashwagandha’s ability to improve energy, strength and vitality. A study of 57 men taking ashwagandha deminstarted ‘significant increases in muscle mass and strength’ and more than doubled their reductions in body fat percentage compared to a placebo group.
Another study found that healthy men who took around one gram of ashwagandha per day saw gains in muscle strength after 30 days.
One study, published in October 2015 in the journal BioMed Research International, tracked 50 heterosexual women who were experiencing sexual dysfunction, difficulty becoming aroused or having an orgasm, low libido, or other problems.
It found that those who took 600mg of ashwagandha extract every day reported feeling more satisfied with their sexual encounters with their partner, more lubrication and arousal and more orgasms at the end of eight weeks than women who took a placebo.
For those who have little faith in the healing capacity of herbs used empirically throughout thousands of years, there is a plethora of scientific research that simply validates what the herbalists have always understood.
Ashwagandha has become of interest to a number of researchers, particularly as it grows in popularity.
The findings of a study published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine found that Ashwagandha root safely and effectively improves an individual’s resistance towards stress and thereby improves self-assessed quality of life.
Ashwagandha root has been the subject of studies looking at the benefit on the immune system, including support of the immune system during radiation and chemotherapy.
Many experiments have shown that ashwagandha is effective against cancer and it has been found to reduce the growth of new cancer cells and induce death in pre-existing cancer cells.
Most of these findings have been on animal studies and it has yet to be tested on humans, but the data looks promising to treat several cancers.
One experiment on mice found 70 to 80 per cent reduction in tumour growth and complete inhibition of metastasis to other organs compared to untreated controls. The study was conducted by NCBI, US National Library of Medicine.
THE AYURVEDIC actions for this herb include: Visaya (increases sexual potency), Balya (increases strength), Medhya (promotes the intellect/mind), Nidrajanana (promotes sleep), Sukrala (increases sperm production), Sothahara (prevents consumption), Svasa (benefits breathing), thyroid issues and reduces kapha and vata (referenced from Sebastian Pole’s excellent Ayurvedic Medicine book).
According to the Ayurveda philosophy, universal life force manifests as three different energies (doshas), known as vata, pitta and kapha.
We’re all made up of a unique combination of these three forces. In the physical body, vata is the subtle energy of movement, pitta the energy of digestion and metabolism and kapha the energy that forms the body’s structure.
Ashwagandha characterises three different tastes namely Tikta (bitter), Katu (pungent) and Madhura (sweet). It is blessed with Laghu (light) and Snigdha (oily) gunas. It has Ushna Virya (hot potency) and Madhura Vipaka (pungent metabolic property). Vata types can sweeten their ashwagandha milk with some maple syrup or honey and add a pinch of nutmeg to enhance its sleep-inducing properties. For Kapha types, it’s best to add some honey and cardamom or pippali (long pepper).
People with a Pitta Prakriti or serious Pitta imbalances should be careful (high Pitta conditions notably include excessive hunger or perspiration, burning sensations and bleeding disorders).
Try taking it with honey, which adds a cooling effect; otherwise choose the cooling herb Shatavari. It’s better not to take Ashwagandha in cases of high Ama (a form of un-metabolised waste that cannot be utilized by the body), excess Pitta, congestion or low energy due to excess Kapha dosha.
Used in combination with liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), shatavari (Asparagus racemosus), safed musli (Chlorophytum borivillanum) and sesame seeds (Sesamum indicum), ashwagandha has been shown to support healthy cholesterol levels and antioxidant properties.
Common Names: Indian ginseng, (though not related) winter cherry (not to be confused with Physalis alkekengi).
Botanical name: Withania somnifera
Family: Solanaceae (nightshade - the same family as tomatoes and potatoes).
The Plant: This perennial evergreen shrub grows up to three feet tall and the entire plant is covered in silver-grey, felted hairs. The leaves are oval and are up to 15cm long and its small, yellow-green, star-shaped flowers grow up to a half-inch in any direction. The ashwagandha berry is enclosed inside a papery calyx that serves as protection for the fruit. Interestingly, ashwagandha’s adaptogenic properties and its ability to help the body adapt to stress is reflected in the fact that the plant thrives in arid conditions and in poor quality, alkaline soils. While most plants would suffer from severe stress in this environment, ashwagandha flourishes.
The Cultivated Herb: Ashwagandha grows in India, the Middle East and parts of Africa. Today it is cultivated in temperate climates around the world. While the leaves and berries have therapeutic value, most of the benefits are derived from the stout, fleshy roots.
Key Indications: Ashwagandha is used to help treat the following: stress, anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, pain, inflammatory conditions, skin problems, leukoderma (a skin condition marked by white patchiness), chronic immune deficiency, fibromyalgia, post viral syndromes, chronic liver disease, menstrual problems, anaemia, diabetes, arthritis and epilepsy. Support during chemotherapy or radiation for cancer. Also it is a mood stabiliser, aphrodisiac and a natural remedy for depression. It is also anti-carcinogenic
Contraindications: Very large doses of ashwagandha can cause abdominal discomfort and diarrhoea in some people. Ashwagandha has otherwise been tolerated well in the few reported studies that exist. Though the herb is traditionally used in India during pregnancy, in the West, it is recommended that ashwagandha be avoided in pregnancy; this is because of its spasmolytic activity on the uterus and its induction of abortions in animals when given in very large doses. Patients who take benzodiazepines, anticonvulsants, or barbiturates should likely avoid ashwagandha because this botanical may have both sedative and GABAnergic effects.