Ashwagandha (Withania Somniferum) also known as winter cherry and indian ginseng, is a herb native to India and North Africa that belongs to the Solanaceae (Nightshade) family that has been used for 3,000 years in ayurvedic medicine to relieve stress, increase energy and improve concentration.
The plant is a small shrub with yellow flowers that is able to flourish in harsh environments that most plants would suffer from severe stress under, a quality it seems to pass down to us when consumed. This herb has an important place in ayurvedic medicine and is often referred to as a royal herb due to its many rejuventive effects on various systems of the human body, namely the neurological system, the immune system, the energy production system, the endocrinal system and the reproductive system.
Its botanical name translates to sleep inducing, and ayurvedic name translates to ‘smell of horse’, both due to the smell of the roots and because consuming the extract is thought to give you the strength and vitality of a horse.
In ayurvedic medicine rejuvenative herbs are called rasayanas, which are traditionally given to small children and the elderly as a tonic to support overall well-being. The root is traditionally dried and ground, mixed with ghee, honey and milk, then consumed as a raw beverage before bedtime.
In ayurvedic medicine systems of the body are divided up into doshas, with ashwagandha being the best regulator of the vata system which is associated with air, space, movement and the lower abdomen. Balanced vata energy helps maintain supple skin and joints, healthy body weight, vitality, cognitive function and a healthy nervous system. Working on your vata energy is thought to treat urinary problems, painful periods and endometriosis.
Ashwagandha can be taken orally to enhance immunity, increase energy and strength, whilst reducing stress. Externally the oil can be used for painful joints, frozen shoulders, nerve pain such as sciatica, numbness, muscle spasms and back pain. It heals wounds, sores and dry, itchy skin conditions, such as eczema.
Here are some of the ways ayurvedic medicine claims ashwagandha can help:
Adaptogens- Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, which are a class of metabolic regulators that help our body in recovering from and adapting to physical and mental stress, can combat fatigue, enhance mental performance and ease depression and anxiety. When we go through stress, our bodies go through what’s called general adaptation syndrome (GAS), a three stage response consisting of alarm, resistance and exhaustion. Adaptogens help us stay in the resistance phase longer, so that in the midst of a stressful moment we can try to adapt and perform better, rather than crashing.
Reduces cortisol levels- Cortisol is a stress hormone released from the adrenals that evolved to help the body mobilize its fight or flight response. Whilst cortisol is useful to keep us alert, too much can make us ill and stressed. High levels of cortisol can disrupt our natural hormone levels, as the body produces cortisol from the same precursors used to make reproductive hormones, and in times of stress the body will preferably produce cortisol instead of testosterone, estrogen and progesterone. In modern society with high levels of stress and many people suffering due to an overactive fight or flight response, ashwagandha can be a calming saviour, making it very helpful for those suffering from chronic pain, stress, anxiety, panic attacks, nervous exhaustion, insomnia and ADHD.
Antioxidant and anti-aging- Ashwagandha has antioxidant properties that limit damage from free radicals and reduce aging. It promotes energy, strength and vitality and is recommended for problems of weakness and emaciation. In ayurvedic medicine it is used to treat problems of old age, including poor memory, weak eyes, arthritis and insomnia.
Iron- Ashwagandha is rich in iron with the ability to improve white blood cell production and strengthen a weak immune system, which has lead to it being used as a treatment in ayurvedic medicine for autoimmune problems like MS, psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis, and has been shown to increase resistance to respiratory infections and is therefore great for allergies and asthma. It is anti-inflammatory too and therefore will help with the pain that comes with these conditions.
Building strength and muscle- Ashwagandha has a couple of properties that are useful for building strength, muscle and overall physical fitness. It promotes healthy levels of creatinine kinase, which reduces natural muscle damage during exercise meaning you can exercise for longer and need less recovery time in between workouts. Metabolically, it has an anabolic action, encouraging weight gain during the natural growth phase and supports the pathways in the brain for Gamma Aminobutyric Acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter responsible for sustaining calmness and maintaining muscle tone.
Withanolides- Ashwagandha contains chemicals called withanolides which have demonstrated their ability to encourage regeneration of liver cells, inhibit tumor growth and are anti-inflammatory, helping with many types of pain.
Not convinced by its use in ancient ayurvedic medicine alone? Early studies have shown promising results for ashwagandha as a treatment for chronic stress, sexual dysfunction and for improving muscle strength and recovery.
In 2012, 64 subjects with a history of chronic stress were enrolled in a 60 day study to assess the effectiveness of ashwagandha as treatment for stress. Subjects were given a standard stress-assessment questionnaire, had their serum cortisol levels measured and then for 60 days were given a 300mg capsule of high concentration ashwagandha twice a day.
At the end of the 60 days the treatment group that was given ashwagandha exhibited a significant reduction in these indicators of stress when compared to the placebo group. Any adverse effects were mild in nature and no serious adverse events were reported.
At the end of the study the ashwagandha group displayed:
From this study we can see that ashwagandha improves an individual’s resistance towards mental stress, the problems that can be caused by stress and thereby improves self-assessed quality of life.
In 2015, an eight week trial on 57 young male subjects was conducted to assess ashwagandha effect on muscle recovery. Subjects’ muscle strength, muscle size, body composition, serum testosterone level and muscle recovery were measured, then subjects were given 300mg ashwagandha extract twice a day and underwent resistance training for 8 weeks. Here are the differences they measured after 8 weeks:
Compared to the placebo subjects, the group treated with ashwagandha had significantly greater increases in muscle strength, muscle size and testosterone levels and significant reduction in body fat percentage and in exercise induced muscle damage.
In 2015, a study was conducted to investigate ashwagandha’s effect on improving sexual function in women. 50 women were given questionnaires to measure various indicators of sexual function, then consumed 300mg of ashwagandha twice daily for 8 weeks. The results show some impressive differences between the ashwagandha group and the placebo:
They found significant improvements in arousal and satisfaction, which seems to back up ayurvedic theory about ashwagandha improving vata energy and helping your sacral chakra.
Both ayurvedic medicine and western medicine seems to indicate that ashwagandha could be a wonderful treatment for many conditions, namely those induced by stress and a good supportive herb to take for building strength and fitness, whilst also having immune system boosting and anti-aging qualities.
We’re still in the early days of western ashwagandha trials but the impressive results of these studies seem to indicate that we are just at the beginning stages of understanding ashwagandha’s many health benefits.
As always, if you’re on other medication or have complex health issues consult your doctor before taking ashwagandha, avoid in pregnancy and whilst breastfeeding.
The Ayurveda Bible by Anne McIntyre, 223, 339-40, 340.