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The healing power of Ashwagandha

  • Ashwagandha is a shrubby plant native to the Indian Subcontinent, as well as parts of Africa and the Middle East.

  • It has been used for thousands of years to treat a variety of disorders.
  • It is thought to be an adaptogen, a substance that helps the body maintain optimal functioning in the face of stress.
  • Scientific studies suggest that it could one day offer viable treatments for mood disorders, epilepsy, and neurodegenerative disorders.


Ashwagandha - a brief history


Ashwagandha is enjoying a surge of new interest in the West. This plant has been highly regarded for at least 8,000 years on the Indian Subcontinent, though, where it has been used to treat a multitude of mental and physical complaints. 





Healthy as a horse? 


Ashwagandha, or winter cherry (botanical name Withania somnifera), is an evergreen shrub native to India, the Middle East, and parts of Africa. It is a member of the Solanaceae or nightshade family–the same family as potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants


The name ashwagandha is derived from Sanskrit ashva, meaning “horse,”  and gandha, meaning “smell,” as the smell of the roots is said to resemble the odor of a wet horse. Some say that it gives users the strength of a horse.


Ayurveda, healing through harmony


Ayurveda is a tradition of natural medicine originating in present-day India, where it has been practiced for at least 6,000 years. Ashwagandha has been a mainstay of Ayurvedic medicine for most of that time. 


In Ayurveda, disease and mental disturbances are regarded as the result of an imbalance between a person's constitution and their environment. Ashwagandha is used to restore harmony between the individual and the external world.


Sexual dysfunction, age-related weakness, fatigue, anxiety, depression, insomnia, emaciation in children, and hormone-related ailments in women–these are but a few of the conditions for which Ashwagandha is used in Ayurvedic practice. 


Ashwagandha healing with harmony


Ancient tradition, modern science


The Western world is just beginning to awaken to ashwagandha’s many virtues. Many of ashwagandha’s traditional uses seem to be supported by scientific study, leading to increasing enthusiasm for this versatile jack-of-all-trades. 


In addition, many advances in research now seem to validate Ayurveda’s core principles; the concept of harmony between the individual and the environment is becoming more central as understanding of how our bodies adapt to stress and injury grows. 




In 1947, Soviet toxicologist Nikolai Lazarev introduced the concept of adaptogens, compounds that help the body adapt to stress. Adaptogens are thought to help the body resist oxidative stress and maintain optimal function; in other words, they bring the body into harmony despite external pressures. 

Ashwagandha is  a cornucopia of potentially adaptogenic compounds. Cuseohygrine, anahygrine, tropine, and anaferine are alkaloids that offer analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties similar to those offered by constituents of opioids. 

Glycosides may help regulate blood pressure and heart rate. Withanolides are steroidal lactones that appear to modulate inflammation and reduce stress. Withaferins are withanolides with significant potential as antitumor, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory agents. 


Sitoindosides VII-X and Withaferin-A, both found in ashwagandha, have been shown to have significant stress-relief properties. These chemicals also appear to boost the immune system.


Neurological and psychiatric benefits of ashwagandha


Some of ashwagandha’s most exciting adaptogenic possibilities lie in the promise it shows for the treatment for mood disorders, epilepsy, and  Alzheimer’s Disease. These disorders are all complex, often defying treatment. Alzheimer’s is currently devastating and irreversible.

Mood and stress


One study found that those given 250 or 600 mg of ashwagandha extract for 8 weeks reported improved sleep quality and significant reductions in perceived stress. Their blood work showed lower levels of cortisol, the so-called stress hormone, than that of those who took a placebo.


In a separate study, those who took 240 mg of ashwagandha extract per day for 60 days reported greater reductions in anxiety as compared with those in a placebo group. In another study, those given ashwagandha reported effects similar to those given lorazepam (Ativan) for the treatment of acute anxiety. 


In a study on depression, ashwagandha’s effects were comparable to those of tricyclic antidepressant imipramine. 




Withanoside IV, found abundantly in ashwagandha, was found in one study to slow the loss of neurons, axons, and synapses caused by Alzheimer’s disease. Cognitive decline associated with increases in amyloid plaques was reversed significantly in rats given ashwagandha as opposed to those in a control group. 

These rats also recovered neurites, outgrowths of neurons that ultimately develop into axons or dendrites.These important structures facilitate the communication between neurons and are lost as Alzheimer’s progresses. This leads to cognitive deterioration, poor balance and muscle control. Chemicals found in ashwagandha could one day allow us to slow this deterioration. 


Forms of ashwagandha


In India and the Middle East, all parts of the Withania plant are used. Its bitter leaves are used to lower fever and relieve pain. The flowers are used as a diuretic and are sometimes enlisted as an aphrodisiac. The seeds are used to treat parasites. 


Which forms of ashwagandha are best?


Western supplements rely heavily upon ashwagandha root. It is taken as an extract or a tablet made of dried and powdered root.. 

Scientific studies have focused primarily upon the extract.  Ashwagandha extract contains more of the plant’s active ingredients and is more concentrated than powders. The extract is therefore more potent and quick-acting. 




Which dosage is best?


Dosage of ashwagandha depends upon the consumer’s needs, as well as the preferred preparation. In one study, researchers found that the duration and quality of sleep improved with a bedtime dose of 250-600 mg of ashwagandha root extract. In another study, 120 mg of root and leaf extract daily produced similar results. 


For general health maintenance, some researchers suggest taking a daily dose of 250–500 mg for at least 1 month. A single dose of 250–500 mg of ashwagandha a day appears to be effective in treating inflammation. In one study, memory, attention, and mental performance improved with  300 mg of ashwagandha root extract taken twice a day. Similar dosages were effective for reducing anxiety and stress in other studies. 


How long does it take ashwagandha to start working?


Those interested in starting ashwagandha often wonder how soon they will see results. Many ask, “when can I expect to see ashwagandha’s benefits?” 


Results vary. Ashwagandha might offer immediate results as a sleep aid, though effects improve over a period of weeks. Topical analgesic effects may be noticed immediately, as well. 


If taking ashwagandha for anxiety, you might notice improvement in as little as two to as much as six weeks. Improvements in memory and cognitive function may be seen within 30 days. Allow 60 days for stress relief and stress-related health issues to become noticeable. 


Caveats: safety, study accuracy, and contraindications


It must be acknowledged that some scientists remain skeptical about ashwagandha. A review of  studies on stress and mood disorders found flaws or limitations in methodology.. More studies will be done as Western interest in ashwagandha grows, giving us a more complete view. 


Studies have found few adverse effects. Still, long-term studies are lacking, and physicians usually advise using it for no longer than three months at a time.


Drowsiness and stomach pain


Ashwagandha has always been known to cause drowsiness: the somnifera part of its botanical name, Withania somnifera, comes from the Latin somnus, or sleep, after all. For the sake of safety, take the first dose near bedtime and avoid driving or operating heavy machinery until you know how it will affect you. 


In large doses, ashwagandha can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting. Starting at a lower dose and increasing slowly over time as needed might be best for those with a history of gastric conditions. 


Who should not take ashwagandha? 


Ashwagandha is not for everyone. Those who fall into one of the following groups should speak to their physician before proceeding with supplementation: 


  • Pregnant people - ashwagandha could possibly cause miscarriage or early labor. 
  • People with autoimmune disorders - ashwagandha’s immune-boosting effects may exacerbate conditions such as lupus, multiple sclerosis, or rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Those with diabetes - while ashwagandha appears to help regulate blood sugar, diabetes is a complicated and serious disorder. Check with your doctor before using. 
  • Those with thyroid conditions - ashwagandha can interfere with some thyroid tests. Let your doctor know you’ve used ashwagandha before tests.

  • Those taking prescription medicines - ashwagandha’s interactions with drugs have not been well-studied. It could reduce the effectiveness of some drugs, while increasing the effects of others. This could be dangerous. Speak to your doctor and your pharmacist before starting ashwagandha if you’re taking medication.

  • Anyone with a scheduled surgery - do not start ashwagandha before scheduled surgery. If you forget and take ashwagandha before a procedure, alert your anesthesiologist and surgeon beforehand. 



Infographic diving deeper into Ashwagandha





More and more, research appears to vindicate the Ayurvedic conception of disease as a lack of balance between the individual. Thought to be a powerful adaptogen, ashwagandha appears to modulate several different body systems, protecting them from the effects of oxidative stress. 


Ashwagandha has a long history of use in Ayurveda; it is used to restore mental and physical harmony to those suffering from  a diverse range of ailments. Scientific studies suggest that it might be useful in treating mood disorders, neurodegenerative disorders, diabetes, and hormonal disorders.


Ashwagandha appears to be safe for most people, though its long-term use has not been studied. Those for whom it is not contraindicated might find it useful in their quest for better physical and mental health.

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