Ashwaganda, also spelled ashwagandha, is a member of the pepper family known as Withania somnifera. The small evergreen grows in the frost-free drier parts of western India, northern Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. Ashwaganda grows to a height of 2–3 ft (about 1 m) and has oval leaves, showy yellow flowers, and red, raisin-sized fruits. All parts of the plant, including the root, are used medicinally. Ashwaganda is also called winter cherry, withania, asgandh, and Indian ginseng.
Ashwaganda is a major herb in the Ayurvedic system of health and healing. Ayurvedic medicine is a system of individualized healing derived from Hinduism that has been practiced in India for more than 2,000 years. It is a complex system that recognizes different human temperaments and body types. Each of these types has different qualities that affect a person's health and natural balance.
In Ayurvedic medicine, disease can result from any of seven major categories of factors: heredity, congenital, internal, external trauma, seasonal, habits, or supernatural factors. Disease can also be caused by misuse of the five senses: sight, touch, taste, hearing, and smell. Diagnoses are made through questioning, observation, examination, and interpretation. Health is restored by evaluating the exact cause of the imbalance causing the disease or condition and then prescribing herbs, exercises, diet changes and/or meditation to help restore the natural balance of body, mind, and spirit. Prescriptions are highly individualized, so that the same symptoms may require different remedies in different people.
Ashwaganda is used to treat a great many different conditions in Ayurvedic medicine. Every part of the plant is used: leaves, fruit, flowers, and root. In addition, the
young shoots and seeds are used as food and to thicken plant milks in the making of vegan cheeses. The fruit can be used as a substitute for soap, and the leaves are sometimes used as an insect repellent. Although ashwaganda can be taken alone, it is more often combined with other herbs in tonics to enhance its rejuvenating effects.
Ashwaganda is sometimes called the Indian ginseng because its actions and uses are in many ways similar to those of Chinese ginseng, although its cost is much lower. In Hindi, the name of ashwaganda means "horse smell." This name refers less to the herb's odor than to a horse's strength and health. Ashwaganda is supposed to impart that same horse-like strength to the people who use it.
Ashwaganda is an adaptogen. Adaptogens are substances that non-specifically enhance and regulate the body's ability to withstand stress and increase its general performance in ways that help the whole body resist disease. Ashwaganda is celebrated as an adaptogen that will do all of the following:
- boost strength
- increase stamina and relieve fatigue
- enhance sexual energy and rejuvenate the body
- strengthen the immune system
- speed recovery from chronic illness
- strengthen sickly children
- soothe and calm without producing drowsiness
- clarify the mind and improve memory
- slow the aging process
The powdered root of ashwaganda is normally used for whole body tonics that improve general health and well being. For most of these uses, ashwaganda is prepared as part of a rasayana, or rejuvenating formula that contains many different herbs. The use of ashwaganda in multi-herb formulas makes it difficult for modern laboratory scientists to assess its specific effects as an adaptogen.
In addition to the whole body effects of ashwaganda, the plant is used for many other specific conditions. Different parts are used for different conditions. Ashwaganda is one of the most frequently used remedies in India. It is taken internally for:
- chronic fatigue syndrome
- fluid retention
- sexually transmitted diseases
- stomach ulcers
- systemic lupus erythematosus
Ashwaganda can also be made into a poultice for external use, as it is thought to have antibacterial and antifungal properties. It is used to prevent infection in skin wounds and to treat skin diseases, including psoriasis, ringworm, and scabies.
University and medical researchers have been studying ashwaganda since at least the early 1960s. Chemical analysis shows that ashwaganda contains compounds thought to have anti-tumor, anti-inflammatory, and antifungal properties. Other compounds have been isolated that are associated with ashwaganda's sedative and anti-stress effects.
The most rigorous laboratory tests have been done in test tubes and on rats, mice, and other small laboratory animals. There is no proof that ashwaganda affects humans in the same way that it affects rodents. In animal studies, however, ashwaganda has been shown to have consistent anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, anti-stress, and sedative effects. In one well-known study, extracts of ashwaganda root were shown to significantly increase the swimming endurance of rats in a test that is considered a classic stress test.
Experimenters have had mixed results in demonstrating anti-tumor and anti-cancer properties of ashwaganda. Many have found that extracts of ashwaganda root slow the growth of tumor cells in test-tube and small-animal experiments, but these results have not yet been reproduced in human subjects. Some researchers report that ashwaganda makes tumors more sensitive to chemotherapy and radiation therapy without increasing side effects caused by these therapies.
Although there is little doubt that ashwaganda contains biologically active compounds that produce some of the healing effects in humans that have been found in test-tube and small-animal studies, few controlled studies using people have been done. One drawback to arriving at conclusive evidence in humans is that most people take ashwaganda as part of a multi-herb tonic, making it difficult for researchers to attribute specific actions to any one particular component of the formula. Scientific interest in ashwaganda is high, and laboratory studies continue to be performed.
Ashwaganda is available in many forms, including powders, decoctions, essential oil, tinctures, and teas made from the root, root bark, and the leaves. Commercially ashwaganda is available as capsules. The usual capsule dosage is 300 mg of powdered root, taken once or twice a day. Tincture dosage is often 2–4 ml (0.5–1 tsp) daily. Ashwaganda tea can be made by boiling the roots for about 15 minutes. Three cups a day is recommended. The fruit is often chewed to assist in convalescence from prolonged illness. These are simply representative doses and uses, since Ayurvedic medicine is highly individualized. The dose recommended depends on both the body type of the person and the nature of his or her illness.
Ashwaganda is not recommended for use by pregnant women. Thousands of years of use have shown that this plant is quite safe. On the other hand, laboratory tests indicate that rats given high levels of ashwaganda root extract develop kidney lesions. This effect has not been seen in humans, but using the herb in moderation may be prudent.
Ashwaganda has a sedative effect on the central nervous system. It will enhance the effect of any other central nervous system sedatives (e.g., barbiturates or alcohol) that are taken at the same time. People operating heavy equipment or working in situations that require a high level of alertness should keep this in mind when using ashwaganda.
No undesirable side effects have been reported with ashwaganda.
There are few, studies of how ashwaganda interacts with traditional Western medicines. It has been used for many years in combination with other Ayurvedic herbs without incident. Ayurvedic practitioners believe that when ashwaganda is combined with other herbs in rejuvenation formulas, it enhances the effects of these other herbs.
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Peirce, Andrea. The American Pharmaceutical Association Practical Guide to Natural Medicines. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1999.
American School of Ayurvedic Sciences. 2115 112th Avenue NE. Bellevue, WA 98004. (425) 453-8002.
The Ayurvedic Institute. P. O. Box 23445. Albuquerque, NM 87112. (505) 291-9698.
"Withania somnifera aphrodisiaca." Plants for the Future: <http://www.metalab.unc.edu.>