Ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera)
Often called Indian ginseng, this Ayurvedic herb is used for stress reduction, immune system support, pain relief, depression … and may even be an aphrodisiac
By Kathi Keville
What It Is
Ashwagandha is a shrub with greenish or yellow flowers belonging to the pepper family. Native to India and Africa, it is sometimes sold under its common name, winter cherry, because of the bright red, inedible berries it produces in the fall. Ashwagandha is often compared to ginseng because, like ginseng, it has many uses in healing and regulating the body.
The roots of ashwagandha have been used medicinally in traditional Indian and Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years for an array of ailments and conditions. A rejuvenating tonic, ashwagandha strengthens the body and is used to help people who suffer from nervous exhaustion, weak muscles, insomnia, various sexual problems, and memory loss, especially when these conditions are stress-related. Because ashwagandha has a balancing influence on so many of the body’s systems, herbalists consider it an adaptogen, a category of herbs that increases the body’s ability to deal with stress. Ashwagandha is also known to aid in depression and improve heart and circulation activity. Indian physicians prescribe it for the elderly and to speed recovery from cancer therapy or a lengthy illness that leaves one feeling depleted. Although it doesn’t offer a cure, ashwagandha is used to improve quality of life during a long-term disorder, such as chronic fatigue syndrome or multiple sclerosis. As a pain reliever, it can reduce discomfort from arthritis and rheumatism.
Scientists at the Amala Cancer Hospital and Research Centre and other research centers in India have found that withanolides, active constituents in ashwagandha, boost the immune system. Ashwagandha is reported to work quickly to decrease mood swings caused by anxiety or depression. A recent Banaras Hindu University study (Phytomedicine, 2000, vol. 7, no. 6) described the herb as a stabilizer and found its action comparable to antianxiety and antidepressive drugs. According to a 2000 review by the Los Angeles College of Chiropractic, ashwagandha’s adaptogenic properties helped improve heart function, breathing rate, and physical endurance (Alternative Medicine Review, 2000, vol. 5, no. 4). People with arthritis and rheumatism have found that taking ashwagandha decreases their stiffness and pain, allowing them to be active and move around more easily (Journal of Pharmacology, 1992, vol. 24, no. 2). Ashwagandha has also been shown to enhance sexual performance in men in their 50s, while at the same time lowering their cholesterol levels (Journal of Research in Ayurvedic Siddha, 1980, vol. 1, no. 247).
Ashwagandha is considered a safe herb, with no toxicity reported even when large amounts were taken for six months. However, a few people have experienced diarrhea or nausea. (If this happens to you while taking any herb, decrease the amount you are taking or stop it altogether if necessary). Ashwagandha can also be problematic for those taking barbiturate-type sedatives because the herb can increase the effectiveness of these drugs. If pregnant, take it only under the supervision of your health care practitioner.
Good-quality ashwagandha has a potent odor, especially when fresh. Once you sniff it, you’ll understand why the name ashwagandha translates to “that which has the smell of a horse.” Indians believe that taking the root will also give you the energy of a horse. Buy ashwagandha combined in a formula with other herbs or as a single herb in capsules, tablets, tincture, or powder.
Ashwagandha is comparable in price to most herbs, generally costing less than $20 for a bottle of 100 tablets (500 mg each). A 1-ounce tincture costs about $10. A 4-ounce bottle of powder costs about $8.
For a restorative tonic, take 500 mg daily, 35 drops of tincture, or one-half teaspoon of powder mixed with a little honey to sweeten the taste.