Withania somnifera, commonly known as ashwagandha, winter cherry or Indian ginseng, is a plant which has been part of Ayurveda medicine, the traditional medicine of India, for thousands of years thanks to its restorative and rejuvenating properties. The first writings about the benefits of ashwagandha are in Ayurveda texts from roughly 3,000 – 4,000 years ago. Considered a rasayana (life extender), ashwagandha root is used with excellent results for overall vitality and longevity. It had also been used by Native Americans and Africans in an effort to protect themselves from several types of infections. Its use for so many centuries has aroused the curiosity of the modern medical world who has started investigating the medicinal properties of the plant, bringing it back into the spotlight.
The Sanskrit term ashwagandha means “smell of horse” because of the roots’ horse-like odor, suggesting that the herb confers the vitality of a stallion. It is considered an adaptogen, a term used to describe herbs that help the adrenal system regulate hormones and manage stress. It is mainly recommended to alleviate symptoms common to our fast-paced environment such as stress, chronic fatigue or difficulty concentrating, but also to improve sexual health.
Origins of Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is an evergreen shrub that grows up to two feet, with oval leaves, yellow flowers and orange-red fruit the size of a grape. The flowers have a central yellow section and light green petals that look like small leaves. The herb is a member of the Solanaceae, or nightshade, a family of plants, just like tomatoes, and is native to the dry regions of India, northern Africa and the Middle East. Today it is also grown in more mild climates, including the United States. It can survive very high and low temperatures, ranging from 40°C to 10°C.
The roots, leaves and berries of the plants are all used for medicinal purposes. Ashwagandha root is easily available in the market in powdered, dried or fresh root form that can be chewed or brewed as a tea. Ashwagandha is also available as tablets and liquid extract.
The general dosage of this plant is around 4 – 5 grams a day. Ashwagandha is often sold in the form of capsules. It is recommended to take 1-2 two capsules daily in the evening.
For preparing infusion and decoction, take 2 grams of dried root for one infusion. Boil the plant for 15 minutes and leave it to infuse for 10 minutes. Do not consume more than 2 cups of decoction per day.
Ashwagandha can be combined with several other plants due to its numerous benefits. It works extremely well with Goji Berry, Rhodiola, Ginseng, tribulus, Gingko Biloba, Thyme, Eucalyptus, Cannabis, Turmeric, Liquorice and several others.
The most important biologically active components in ashwagandha are alkaloids, steroidal lactones, saponins, iron and choline. It also contains 18 different fatty acids and several polyphenols and phytosterols. Recent research suggests that ashwagandha has countless health benefits in various areas.
The herb combats fatigue and insomnia, boosts overall energy levels and improves overall health and longevity. One surprising effect of ashwagandha is that it gives an energy boost whenever it is required, but also relaxes the mind and promotes restful sleep. In other words, you may find that a morning dose of the herbal preparation provides you with extra energy to go through the day, while an evening dose helps you have a good night’s sleep. While this may sound contradictory, it is not difficult to see how a good night’s sleep can make you more energetic the next day. The Latin name of the plant is Withania somnifera, which refers to its use to support healthy sleep cycles.
There are different types of energy. When we feel tired, it has become our natural response to reach for an energy drink, coffee, chocolate or comfort food. The result is prompt but short-lived. Energy boosters will stimulate surges of energy, but deeply exhaust the body in the process. Sadly, each time the energy goes up as a result of a double espresso, it will crash into a deeper hole. To pull out of that hole, the brain must find a stronger stimulant. As opposed to the temporary energy obtained from caffeine through the stimulation of the central nervous system and eventually leading to crash, the ashwagandha extract increases energy by enhancing the body’s own energy-producing mechanisms within cells, notably the primary unit of cellular energy, which is called ATP. Ashwagandha does not lead to dependency or addiction.
Ashwagandha is popular among bodybuilders and strength trainers since it helps build muscle mass and increase strength and stamina. According to a 2-month study, published in 2010 in the International Journal of Ayurveda Research, involving young men aged between 20 to 23 years, 500 mg ashwagandha extract per day resulted in increased power and velocity compared to those who were given a placebo. It improved their neuro-muscular coordination and increased the muscular strength of lower limbs, two critical aspects of sports and athletics. In 2012, an eight week study conducted by the Faculty of Sport at India’s Guru Nanak Dev University in which forty elite cyclists supplemented with ashwagandha concluded that significant enhancements in both cardiovascular and respiratory endurance were reported.
Ashwagandha relieves stress, anxiety and depression and soothes the nervous system. When feeling stressed, the body goes into a “fight or flight” response and secretes increased amounts of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. A 2012 study published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine found that ashwagandha reduces stress as well as its side effects. People suffering from stress who took ashwagandha had lower levels of cortisol.
Moreover, ashwagandha also contains several chemicals that enhance the production of acetylcholine, the primary transmitter of neural signals, which in turn improves thinking, concentration and memory. Ashwagandha is usually given in milk to young children to improve growth and muscle tone, especially for those who lag behind others. When ashwagandha was given in small doses of 2 mg to pre-school children for 60 days, it was found to improve their ability to concentrate on learning tasks and assimilate facts at a faster rate.
Ashwagandha also protects against the risk of mental illnesses such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases by stimulating the growth of parts of the neural cells that have already been damaged.
Being high in antioxidants, ashwagandha increases white blood cell production and improves the functioning of the immune system. Its antibacterial and antifungal properties help ward off infection, as shown by a study conducted at the Centre for Biotechnology at the University of Allahabad in India. It is one of the best herbal medicine to help rebuild the internal system after an illness. For wound care, the leaves of the plant are said to provide a healing poultice.
Ashwagandha cannot only make you more healthy, but also more beautiful. Thanks to its antioxidant properties, it helps fight the signs of aging like wrinkles, dark spots, fine lines and blemishes. Its antioxidants are very effective in neutralizing free radicals produced during the process of metabolism. Ashwagandha is very useful in treating keratosis, a condition that leads to the rough and dry skin. Its root can also be used as a skin toner.
Ashwagandha can also help prevent hair loss by reducing cortisone levels and promotes the health of the hair. It inhibits the loss of melanin in the hair to prevent premature graying. It contains tyrosine, an amino acid that stimulates the production of melanin in the body. The anti-inflammatory properties of ashwagandha are useful for treating scalp conditions like dandruff, scalp psoriasis and eczema.
Sexual Health and Reproduction
Ashwagandha has aphrodisiac properties and it helps to improve vitality and fertility in both men and women. It was recommended by Kama Sutra or the Art of Love, an ancient Indian text dedicated to the success of human relations, which stressed the importance of satisfying sex lives, and prescribed ashwagandha for enhancing desire, improving performance, and ensuring satisfaction of both partners. A recent scientific study indicated that ashwagandha helps increase the sperm count and sperm motility in men. It supports a healthy erectile response. Thanks to its mind-calming effect, it elevates a person’s mood, increasing the sexual desire and performance. When we are healthy and active overall we can devote more of our energy to sexual and reproductive vitality. As per a study reported in the Natural Medicine Journal, young infertile men were found to have a 53% increase in semen volume and 167% increase in sperm concentration after being treated with ashwagandha three times a day for 12 weeks. It is also used to treat dysmenorrhea and problems associated with menopause.
The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of ashwagandha could be partly responsible for this herb’s cancer-protective effect. Recent evidence suggests that ashwagandha has the potential to inhibit cancer cell growth. Ashwagandha was termed as an emerging and novel alternative in the field of oncology, in association with radiation therapy and chemotherapy. There are encouraging findings that suggest the herb has the potential to slow human cancers including breast, lung, kidney, and prostate.
Rheumatism and Arthritis
Rheumatism and arthritis are two general terms used to refer to pain and stiffness in the joints. Thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties, ashwagandha can be used to treat rheumatic and arthritic symptoms. It provides relief from inflammation and pain. One study in the Indian Journal of Medical Research found the herb to have strong potential as a treatment option for rheumatoid arthritis.
The root extract increases the secretion of thyroid hormones. Both people with hypothyroidism, as well as hyperthyroidism, can benefit from ashwagandha. The thyroid hormones, triiodothyronine (T3) and its prohormone, thyroxine (T4), are tyrosine-based hormones produced by the thyroid gland that is primarily responsible for regulation of metabolism. In the case of hypothyroidism, ashwagandha use has been shown to increase thyroid function through increasing glucose-6-phosphate function in the liver. On the other hand, it seems to downregulate thyroid function in people with excess blood levels of the T3 and T4 hormones.
The herb helps regulate blood sugar levels. In a study involving 32 diabetics, a significant reduction in blood sugar and glycated hemoglobin (HbA1C) was observed in 18 people on administering 250 mg of ashwagandha twice a day for a month.
Ashwagandha boosts cardiac health. It improves the blood circulation in the heart, thus preventing blood clotting. It stabilizes the blood sugar and controls the cholesterol. It also helps in maintaining the blood pressure levels in the body. Ashwagandha also helps treat high blood pressure, chest pain and heart disease. One study published in the International Journal of Ayurveda Research found that using the herb for heart health (in combination with another Ayurvedic herb) was helpful in improving muscle strength and endurance.
Ashwagandha and Ayurvedic medicine in general have intrigued the modern world with their alternative solutions and numerous health benefits, but still remain somewhat of a mystery to modern science. Some of the studies so far have been inconclusive, either because they were too small, conducted only on animals, or their design was flawed. For this reason, researchers cannot fully vouch for the effectiveness of the ashwagandha treatment. However, its benefits cannot be ignored, either.
Ashwagandha has numerous health benefits and is considered safe with no known toxicity within normal dosage amounts, but if you are considering taking ashwagandha, consult a health practitioner first to evaluate your condition and ensure that the herb will not interact with your other medications or treatments. It’s important to remember that ashwagandha should not replace any medical treatments recommended by your doctor. If you do choose to use the herb as part of your treatment plan, make sure first to discuss it with your doctor.
For example, pregnant women should avoid ashwagandha as it may cause miscarriage. People with thyroid conditions should not take preparations with ashwagandha as it may induce hyperthyroidism. Ashwagandha may increase the effects of sedatives.