Ashwagandha is one of the most highly prized herbs in the Ayurvedic medical system. The use of this herb in Ayurvedic medicine extends back over 3000 to 4000 years. Ashwagandha is unique as a tonic herb with amazing stress relieving benefits. Unlike any other herb it is very easy to cultivate and is ready for harvest after only one year of growth. Ashwagandha is a small woody shrub or herb in the Solanaceae or nightshade family that grows usually about 2 feet in height and is naturally found in diverse areas ranging from Africa, the Mediterranean and East into India.
Ashwagandha in Sanskrit means “horse’s smell,” and is a reference to the scent of its root. It is also known as Withania somnifera where somnifera means “sleep-bearing” in Latin, a popular use of the herb. It is also goes by the name Indian ginseng, poison gooseberry, and winter cherry.
The commercial supplies of ashwagandha are obtained from both wild and commercial sources. The fresh root of the one-year old plants are harvested from January to March. It is either dried whole or cut in short transverse pieces and dried directly in the sun.
The unique properties of ashwagandha while being an energy tonic, is very beneficial for calming the mind, relieving arthritis and building sexual energy. It also has anti-inflammatory properties and can be used as an alternative for detoxification, an antiseptic, antitussive (alleviating coughs), sedative and as an overall rejuvenative.
The pharmacological activity of this herb is attributed to certain steroidal alkaloids and steroidal lactones found in the root. A total of twelve alkaloids, 35 withanolides and several sitoindosides have been isolated from Ashwagandha roots. The two main withanolides responsible for the health benefits are withaferin A and withanolide D, plus an alkaloid, Somniferin.
Ashwagandha contains a relatively high amount of iron (320mcg/g), giving a standard dose around 1 mg of iron.
An Exceptional De-Stressor
Ashwagandha is a well known adaptogen. Adaptogens greatly improve the body's ability to adapt to stress, whether it's a hectic schedule, heat or cold, noise, high altitudes or any number of other stressors. This herb imparts strength, energy, stamina, endurance, and improves mental clarity.
Ashwagandha is unique among adaptogens in that it has a nerve tonic effect, helping to increase your tolerance to stress that goes beyond what other adaptogens do. So it not only helps minimize excessive cortisol (the body’s stress hormone) output from stress, it helps you perceive events as less stressful! It is an uplifting nerve tonic, so it is wonderful for depression, especially if the depression is stress induced.
Elevated cortisol levels and chronic stress can affect every physiological system in our body, including our thyroid and adrenal glands. It can make us anxious and irritable, lead to weight gain and bone loss, contribute to diabetes and heart disease risk, and deplete our energy levels.
Cortisol is also known as the aging hormone. When cortisol gets too high, it puts us into a “fight or flight” response, which stimulates our sympathetic nervous system and our adrenal glands. When this occurs, there is a decrease in our digestive secretions and an increase in blood pressure. This puts our body in a state of constant stress, which will burn out our adrenal glands, stress our digestive tract and cause us to age more rapidly.
Apart from lowering the levels of cortisol, ashwagandha should be considered as the premiere herb for all negative conditions associated with aging. This includes its use for the prevention and inhibition of senile dementia and Alzheimer's Disease, low energy and arthritis.
Numerous studies on both animals and humans have attested to the anti-arthritis properties of crude preparations of the herb. The combined alkaloids also seem to exhibit anti-convulsant and antispasmodic properties against many spasmogenic agents on the intestinal, uterine, bronchial, tracheal and blood-vascular muscle.
A Great Hormone Regulator
The withanolides in ashwagandha serve as important hormone precursors which the body is then able to convert into human physiological hormones. For example, if there is an excess of a certain hormone, these hormone precursors occupy the so-called hormone receptor sites, without converting to human hormones. This is in order to block absorption of the excess hormone. In this way, ashwagandha is amphoteric meaning it can serve to regulate important physiological processes, increasing or decreasing as needed.
Powers up the Reproductive System
Ashwagandha is also useful for strengthening the female reproductive system for which it is commonly combined with another Ayurvedic herb called shatavari (Asparagus racemosa). The uniqueness of Ashwagandha is that it achieves its results through strengthening the nervous system and increasing the potential of reproductive hormones. It can aid other gynaecological disorders, such as female and male infertility, impotence and low sexual libido.
Aids Cancer Treatment
Ashwaghanda has chemo-preventive properties that make it a useful adjunct for patients undergoing radiation and chemotherapy. Its ability to boost white blood cell counts helps prevent the immune suppression so common with chemotherapy.
It’s Not All in the Roots…
So far, all discussion is about the use of the root which possesses the most valued tonic properties. However, the bitter leaves are used in the treatment of alcoholism and to relax the spasms of the lungs for the treatment of asthma and emphysema. They can also be made into an anti-inflammatory poultice and topically applied for boils and carbuncles. Internally, as with so many other strongly bitter herbs, they are anthelmintic (clearing worms). The seeds of the fruits are diuretic and can be used as a substitute for rennet to curdle milk.
To Sum Up...
Ashwagandha presents itself as a herb that adapts to many stressful situations while simultaneously calming the nerves and promoting sleep. Allowing you to age gracefully and regulate your hormones, it seems to combat many common ailments we see today in this modern era. Although this herb seems to be the one stop shop for many conditions there are a few precautions that we need to be aware of.
Ashwagandha is relatively safe when taken in the prescribed range of dosage. Large doses, however, have been shown to cause gastrointestinal upset, diarrhoea and vomiting. Large doses of ashwagandha should not be taken during pregnancy unless under the direction of an experienced health professional. It is also contraindicated in conjunction with sedatives or if one is suffering from stomach ulcers.
Recipes for Health
Ashwagandha is used in Ayurvedic medicine as a powder, decoction, medicated tincture, mixed with clarified butter, combined with honey or sugar syrup or as a medicated oil. The most common form is as an alcoholic extract or capsules, of the powdered root.
Dosage is as follows:
§ Powder: 500-1000mg of Ashwagandha capsules a day, up to 3-6 grams daily for acute conditions.
§ Decoction: 2 tsp added to warm cow's milk.
§ Alcoholic Extract: 2-4ml of the tincture taken two to three times a day. Up to 2 tbsp, 2-4 times daily for acute conditions.
§ Mixed with ghee or honey: 1 tsp twice a day.
§ Narayana Taila Oil: Internally 3-10 drops or freely applied externally to painful arthritic joints.