You have probably noticed it sitting in a neat supplement bottle on the shelves of holistic medicine stores. It has been in use for more than 3000 years in Ayurveda, one of the oldest wellness sciences, for healing. The science of Ayurveda enlists thousands of herbs that heal, rejuvenate, and replenish the body. Ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng or winter cherry, finds its mention at the top of this list as one of the most widely used herbs around the world, particularly for stress relief and as an adaptogen.
Grown in India, the Middle East, and some parts of Africa, the shrub is used by Ayurvedic practitioners in herbal formulations. Ashwa in Sanskrit translates to ‘horse’ and Gandha refers to the smell. The nomenclature comes from the smell of its roots which smell like that of a horse’s body. Ashwagnadha has something for everyone. It is used as a tonic for children and among the aging population and it can also improve muscle mass, fertility, and act as an aphrodisiac in the sexually active population.
Various parts of the herb are known to be useful in treating conditions like asthma, arthritis, blood sugar, certain types of cancers, rheumatism, and stress-related disorders. The bitter leaves are helpful in treating minor fevers and inflammations. The flowers are popular aphrodisiacs with purifying and detoxifying properties. The seeds in combination with an astringent and rock salt are used for eye treatments. You can have it in the form of powder, tablets or in herbal formulations along with other potent herbs. A very important quality of ashwagandha is that it has very low toxicity among herbs, so that is one worry out of your way in trying to use herbs for preventive and supplementary use.
Big on Stress Relief
Ashwagandha has the unique gift of revitalizing your body and mind while also calming your nerves. It is a popular adaptogen, that is a substance that regulates the adrenal system which is activated in response to stress. This way it reduces stress-related symptoms of fatigue, anxiety, and jitteriness. It also regulates the secretion of cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone that rises when the brain senses danger or a stressful situation. It prepares the body for a fight or flight reaction by releasing more energy that may be needed by the body. But here’s the problem—in the process, it draws energy into certain bodily functions at the expense of other physiological processes that are not needed currently while the body deals with the stressor. Due to the prevalence of stressful situations all around the day at work, home, or school, cortisol tends to stay at elevated levels which can lead to its own set of problems and cause stress-related lifestyle disorders. The stress hormone which remains elevated in some cases can cause obesity and high blood glucose levels as active cortisol release increases insulin resistance in the body.
A study carried out on patients of chronic stress, showed that patients who supplemented their diet with ashwagandha showed 30% reduction in cortisol release. This is why Ashwagandha is widely used in tonics and other rejuvenating formulations.
Balances Excess Vata (Air and Ether Element) and Kapha (Earth Element)
Symptoms we experience such as tiredness, fatigue, excessively oily skin and hair, or weight gain can all have their roots in vitiated Kapha dosha. Vata imbalance on the other hand can cause sleep disorders, restlessness, affected cerebral function, dry skin, digestive problems, bloating, cramps, and other illnesses that are related to bodily movement and prana or life force. Intake of Ashwagandha and ashwagandha based herbal formulations are recommended by Ayurveda doctors to bring both these doshas into balance.
Presence of Withanolides
Ashwagandha has high concentration of two important compounds—withanolides and withanosides. The withanolides regulate acetylcholine, which is responsible for activation of the parasympathetic system and ensures that our nervous system stays longer in the restful state, when the heart rate is at ease, the mind is calm and relaxed. Withanolides are also a powerful and natural immunostimulant substances that boost the body’s ability to fight infections and diseases. They also manage stress and its impact by regulating cortisol release.
Multiple studies have concluded that roots of ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) have constituents like withanoside IV that help manage symptoms of degenerative neurological disorders by reducing memory impairment, managing neural pathways and synaptic loss in the cerebral cortex in the brain. Synaptic loss may interrupt neural communication. It helps regenerate axons and dendrites that wear out in patients with neurodegenerative diseases and so prevent development of the symptoms.
Regulates Blood Sugar
Studies have also found ashwagandha to be helpful in boosting insulin secretion in both, patients of diabetes mellitus and those who do not have the disease yet. It also improves insulin sensitivity in muscle cells that leads to better glucose metabolism in the body. A 4-week study conducted on patients of schizophrenia, showed decent reduction in their blood sugar levels. And similar results were observed in a study conducted on patients of type 2 diabetes. It’s role as an adaptogen also helps reduce stress as a risk factor for diabetes.
Antidote to Depression
A key study observed that consumption of regulated dosage of ashwagandha reduced depression symptoms by 79%. Given the growing trust deficit on western medicine prescribed for mental health disorders and their long term implications on one’s health, these natural alternatives have come as healthier and more holistic answers to dealing with depression. Several studies suggest, ashwagandha holds particular promise in treating exacerbated symptoms of depression and anxiety in patients of schizophrenia.
Boost Fertility in Men
One factor that affects sperm count and quality of sperm in men is chronic stress. Ashwagandha as an adaptogen helps manage stress and its impact on fertility. As part of a 3-month study, 75 men with infertility problems were administered 5 grams of ashwagandha every day. They reported an increase in sperm count and motility (mobility and strength of sperm cells). They also reported that in 14% of the cases, partners had been able to conceive.
Good for the Heart
An important benefit of this Indian herb is it reduces inflammation and supports heart health by reducing bad cholesterol and triglycerides. A study reported 17% reduction in bad cholesterol among patients who took a high dosage of ashwagandha.
Increases Muscle Strength
An exploratory study published in Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine to examine the tolerability, safety and activity of ashwagandha showed improvement in muscle force in three parts-upper extremity, lower extremity and the trunks. This property of increasing muscle strength found in ashwagndha is called Mamsawardhana (increase in muscle mass) in Ayurvedic texts. For those who are 30 years and above, it is important to supplement their diet with ashwagandha to fight back muscle loss.
It has an impact on markers of inflammation especially ones related to heart diseases. High concentration of Withanolides present in the herb is the contributing factor for this. Regular intake of the herb can increase the number of immunity boosting (killer) cells in the body.
It also combats tumor growth and has been found to fight certain types of cancers like lung, breast, kidney and prostate cancer. Animal studies showed it has potential in healing lung tumors and inhibiting growth of cancerous cells.
In Ayurveda certain herbs are categorized as Medhya Rasayana, that is rejuvenating herbs that benefit higher cerebral brain functions and have to do with intelligence, memory and mental perception. Ashwagandha holds an important place in Ayurveda as a Medhya Rasayana. The antioxidants in ashwagandha help protect the nerve cells from damage, boost memory and cognitive function. In a particular study men reported better reaction time and task performance on supplementing their diet with ashwagandha.
Ashwagandha is a Rasayana or rejuvenating agent in Ayurveda. It comes loaded with antioxidants. The presence of these antioxidants reduces oxidative stress, increases collagen production (that holds the skin texture in place) and fights off rogue free radicals that affect the skin cells, produce dark spots and make it look wrinkly. Ashwagandha is soothing for the skin and protects it from Vata-related dryness. The withanolides present in it help cleanse the skin pores and removes dirt.
Ashwagandha also improves the release of DHEA hormone which regulates secretion of reproductive hormones in both men and women. DHEA and estrogen work to improve collagen production that is needed for skin to maintain its supple, young and soft texture.
Exploratory study done by researchers in India on its tolerance, safety and dosage on healthy people showed that there were no hematological and biochemical changes in organ functions when dosages were increased incrementally from 6 gm–10 gm, except reduction in cholesterol and improvement in muscle force. There were no signs of intolerance or negative effects on vitals like body temperature, pulse rate, systolic and diastolic blood pressure as well as the respiratory rate.
- Should be avoided during pregnancy
- If Pitta is excessively vitiated and there is high aama (toxin) deposit, then ashwagandha dosage should be reduced.
- Overuse of the herb can lead to digestive problems.