Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
by Krystal Thompson
Perhaps you’ve heard of an adaptogen before. In general terms, adaptogens are defined as plants that support the ability of an organism to handle stress, thereby conserving energy and keeping the entire body system more balanced over time. There are however three specific qualities that an herb must illustrate before it can be labeled a true adaptogen, as originally noted in 1969 by Brekhman and Dardymov. First, the substance must be relatively non-toxic to the recipient. Second, an adaptogen must have “non-specific” activity and act by increasing resistance of the organism to a broad spectrum of adverse biological, chemical, and physical factors. And lastly, the herb must help regulate or normalize organ and system function within an organism. Truly, that any herbs meet all of those criteria is wonderful all on its own. But for me, the real beauty in adaptogens is that they accomplish each of those things differently, based on the user’s specific needs and current body state. That’s nearly magic. It isn’t, of course, and we’ll go into the chemistry of how that works later in the monograph- but it sure feels like magic when I think about twenty different people all getting essentially specialized benefits from the same plant.
If we’re talking about chronic stress, we’re probably talking about adrenal fatigue, and then we’re likely talking about the average American. Overworked, under-rested and unsatisfied, but still trucking. I’m generalizing here, but I think adrenal fatigue is something that currently plagues or has plagued most of us. I love this quote by Jim McDonald about ashwagandha indications in this case:
“Ashwagandha is exceptional for when your adrenal burnout isn’t something that’s happening, but has happened (maybe a while ago). You’re exhausted, but you can’t sleep, and when you do you don’t sleep deeply… You can’t think quite straight, your concentration is shot. You might find yourself more and more irritable. Perhaps your libido has also crashed, or is in other ways unreliable. But you’re still doing, doing, doing, because that’s what you do. And you’ll run yourself ragged before you let burnout stop you.”
Sound familiar? A little too close to home, isn’t it? Let me be clear, I am not suggesting (nor should anyone) that ashwagandha is a white unicorn stress-cure-all. Those don’t exist. We must stop fooling ourselves into thinking that we can lead emotionally, physically, and environmentally stressful lives, then take a magic pill and wake up feeling new. What I am suggesting, and what I hope to illustrate in this monograph, is that this plant is beautifully varied in its benefits. And when trying to heal from chronic issues, it can be the necessary stepping ladder from rock bottom to “I think I can.” In his co-authored book Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief, David Winston beautifully calls plants like ashwagandha “a bridge that can carry us over stressful situations with our health intact.”
On the whole, we can turn to ashwagandha as an ally for the entire body, but it is especially useful to us as a tonic for the endocrine and immune systems. And whether you’re suffering or you’ve never been better, I think we could all benefit from that. Let’s dive in.
Common Names: Winter cherry, Indian ginseng, Ayurvedic ginseng, poison gooseberry
Description/Taxonomy: Ashwagandha is a small, woody shrub or herb in the Solanaceae (nightshade) family. It grows to about two feet in height and sprouts yellow/green flowers followed by small, spherical, bright orange/red berries which are harvested in the late fall. The leaves are a dull green color and elliptic. The shrub is especially hardy and drought resistant, and prefers dry, sub-tropical regions (American herbalist Kiva Rose says she’s successfully growing it at her home in New Mexico!). Ashwagandha is native to diverse landscapes throughout Africa, India, Asia, and the Mediterranean, though it is perhaps most widely cultivated and distributed throughout the central and northwestern Indian states. Because of this broad growing range, there are various chemotypical variations in the respective area-dependent species. The root has a very particular strong, earthy odor for which the plant is named. The common name comes from the Sanskrit word ashvaganda, ashwa meaning horse and gandha meaning smell. There is also suggestion that the Sanskrit name could be interpreted to mean horse essence, suggesting that the plant provides the strength and stamina of a horse to those who take it (5). Ashwagandha’s species name somnifera means “sleep-inducing,” referring to its use as a gentle sedative.
History, Ethnobotany, and Folklore: With a use history that dates back over 6,000 years, ashwagandha is one of the most highly valued and traditionally used herbs in Ayurvedic medicine. In its earliest ancient text appearances, the plant is noted for its benefit in emaciation for people of all ages (including babies), its power to enhance the reproductive system, and its benefit for arthritic and rheumatic inflammation.
The Maasai people of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania use juice made from ashwagandha leaves for conjunctivitis, and fresh bruised berries applied topically for ringworm. In Lesotho, ashwagandha bark infusion is used internally for asthma and externally for bedsores (5). The tender shoots are commonly eaten as a vegetable in India.
Parts Used: Mainly the root, though ashwagandha’s bitter leaves are often used as a hypnotic in the treatment of addiction and to relax spasms of the lungs in cases of asthma and emphysema. The seeds of the fruit are also dieuretic, and the flowers are astringent and aphrodisiac (2).
Cultivation and Harvest: Unlike other potent tonic herbs such as ginseng, ashwagandha is fairly easy to cultivate and is ready for harvest after only one year (1). The fresh roots of one year old plants are harvested from January to March, and are then either dried whole or cut into short pieces and dried directly in the sun. Crop quality is determined by the size of the main tap root as well as organoleptic qualities such as color, odor, and flavor (1).
Herbal Actions: adaptogen, alterative, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, antispasmodic, antitussive, aphrodisiac, anxiolytic, bitter, immunomodulator, thermogenic, sedative, stimulant.
Constituents: Alkaloids, steroidal lactones, and saponins. Many of which support immunomodulatory actions.
Energetics and taste: Warming, sweet, bitter, dry, pungent.
Meridians/Organs Affected: Kidneys and heart. Yang tonic.
Medicinal Use: In Ayurveda, ashwagandha is considered a Rasayana: an herbal preparation that promotes a youthful state of both physical and mental health (2). Rasayanas are considered tonics and are administered to people of all ages: from young children for preventative health measures to the middle-aged and elderly for supporting longevity. Among the Ayurvedic Rasayana herbs, ashwagandha is the most prized and widely used.
Ashwagandha is further classified into a subgroup of Rasayanas called Medhyarasayanas, Medhya referring to the mind and mental capacities (2). Ashwagandha proves its worth as a Medhya as used for the prevention and treatment of cognitive disorders such as senile dementia and Alzheimer’s, and neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s. On this note, there are dozens of studies that have demonstrated ashwagandha’s ability to slow, stop, and even reverse neuritic atrophy and synaptic loss- the primary culprits of cognitive impairments due to these neurodegenerative diseases (2). Ashwagandha also boosts GABA (a crucial neurotransmitter in the central nervous system) mimetic effects by promoting the formation of dendrites. As a general tonic, ashwagandha is beneficial to the brain and nervous system as a whole, improving both memory and cognition in both acute and chronic cases.
Ashwagandha is indicated for a wide range of conditions including arthritic inflammation, anxiety, insomnia, respiratory disorders, nervous disorders, gynecological disorders, and impotence (1). Some specific indications within this list are chronic constipation, swollen glands, and asthma. Due to its high iron content, ashwagandha also benefits iron-deficient anemia (a suggested preparation in this case is simmered in milk with molasses). It is important to note that ashwagandha is a calming adaptogen, so while there are other plants that may offer similar benefits, ashwagandha is best suited for those that are prone to anxiety or nervousness.
According to Dr. Michael Tierra, “ashwagandha should be considered as the premiere herb for all negative conditions associated with aging” (1). It is often administered as a libido enhancer and as a means to increase sperm count, and as mentioned before as a general longevity tonic. Though certainly not just an issue for our aging brothers and sisters, Ayurvedic herbalists suggest ashwagandha in cases of long-term sleep problems. It’s not an herb that is going to knock you out the moment you take it (hello, Passionflower), but rather helps to balance and regulate sleep cycles over time, facilitating more restful sleep on a long-term scale (3). For this purpose, Ayurvedic practitioner KP Khalsa suggests 10 gm per day in capsule form, and encourages those who try it to wait a few days before expecting results.
As mentioned before, ashwagandha is a great ally to our immune system and all of its facets and functions. Its immunomodulating properties make it beneficial for both hyper and hypo-immune conditions, another reflection in its adaptogen mirror. Ashwagandha is also commonly indicated for autoimmune conditions that affect the muscles and joints, such as rheumatoid arthritis (6). It is suggested that this plant actually inhibits the autoimmune response altogether. Further, ashwagandha can benefit those with hypothyroid conditions, but is contraindicated for hyperthyroid conditions such as Grave’s disease as it can be overstimulating.
Can we geek out about hormones for a second? The following action of ashwagandha makes me feel like a kid in a candy store. The primary medicinal properties in ashwagandha are from certain steroidal alkaloids and lactones in a class of constituents called withanolides. These constituents act as crucial hormone precursors which the body is able to, as needed, convert into human physiological hormones. If there is an excess of a particular hormone in one’s body, these plant-based hormone precursors take up residency in the hormone receptive sites (without converting), actively blocking absorption (1). Essentially, these constituents act as an endocrine neighborhood watch- constantly observing, only acting when necessary. This action is the heart of the benefit of adaptogenic tonic herbs such as ashwagandha and ginseng. They regulate important physiological processes, as needed, specific to the individual. In this way, ashwagandha allows us to adapt to a variety of heightened stressful situations, in effect both boosting stamina and extending the window through which we can handle stimula before being sent into fight or flight. In rat tests, ashwagandha increased stamina during swimming endurance tests and prevented the over-release of the stress hormone cortisol. Similarly, pre-treatment with this plant showed significant protection against stress-induced gastric ulcers (2).
In a 2013 clinical trial in New Delhi, India, breast cancer patients were given 500 mg of ashwagandha extract three times daily throughout six cycles of chemotherapy, and all patients experienced less fatigue and better quality of life during chemotherapy than their opposite control group (5).
Allies: Ashwagandha is well paired with shatavari for strengthening the female reproductive system. For stress and burnout, pair ashwagandha with milky oats to soothe the adrenals. If something more cooling is needed to balance the heat of ashwagandha for your body type, pair with rose or lemon balm.
As a kidney and immune support, ashwagandha pairs beautifully with nettle and elderberry (4). For fibromyalgia and other chronic inflammatory conditions, pair with kava kava and scullcap. Culinarily, to mask the otherwise intense flavor, herbalist Kiva Rose suggests mixing ashwagandha powder with cardamom and dates!
Cautions and Contraindications: Pregnant women should consult an experienced healthcare provider before using ashwagandha, as it can have abortifacient properties in large doses. Ashwagandha is generally safe when taken in small doses, though large doses have been known to cause gastrointestinal upset such as diarrhea and vomiting (1).
Dosage and Method of Delivery: Because of ashwagandha’s very intense odor, the plant is common in both capsule and extract form. As with many Ayurvedic herbs, the powders and extracts are commonly combined with clarified butter, heated milk, or honey. Topically, ashwagandha leaves can be made into a poultice and applied locally to soothe inflammation from boils and carbuncles (1).
Though you should always consult your healthcare professional before trying a new herb, standard dosage of ashwagandha as a tonic is 3-6 grams/daily of powder, 2 tbs 2-4 times daily as tincture, or 1 tsp twice daily of herbal ghee or honey (1).
1. Tierra, Michael. Ashwagandha: Wonder Herb of India. East West School of Planetary Herbology. Accessed online July, 2016.
2. Singh, Narendra. An Overview of Ashwagandha: A Rasayana (Rejuvenator) of Ayurveda. African Journal of Traditional, Complementary, and Alternative Medicines via US National Library of Medicine, 2011.
3. Khalsa, Karta Purkh Singh. Sleep Soundly, 2014. www.kpkhalsa.com, accessed online July, 2016.
4. Rose, Kiva. The Winter Cherry: Restoring Vitality, 2008. www.bearmedicineherbals, accessed online July, 2016.
5. Engels, Gayle, and Brinckman, Josef. Ashwagandha, 2013. American Botanical Council. Accessed online July, 2016.