Ashwagandha – also known as Indian ginseng – is one of the most popular Ayurvedic herbal medicines with documented use going back over 3,000 years. In Ayurveda, Ashwagandha is classified as a rasayana (rejuvenation) herb used to promote physical and mental health and promote longevity.
The evergreen shrub (Withania somnifera) belongs to the same nightshade family as the tomato, and produces small physalis-like red fruits that are known as winter cherry or poison gooseberry.
It is mainly the roots that are used medicinally, however, and the Hindi name, Ashwagandha, means ‘sweat of a horse.’ This is said by some to refer to the roots’ odour, and by others to refer to their invigorating action that allows men to attain the strength and sexual vitality of a horse. As I have not noticed a particularly horse-like odour from Ashwagandha supplements, I can only assume the latter explanation is more correct.
Ashwagandha roots contain iron and a series of unique alkaloids and steroidal lactones known as withanolides such as withaferin A, withanolide D, ashwagandhine, withanone, withanosides and somniferine.
Ashwagandha has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antifungal and antibiotic actions and is used in Ayurvedic medicine as a restorative tonic to treat anaemia, general debility, nervous exhaustion, insomnia and loss of memory.
Research shows that Ashwagandha improves oxygen processing and energy production in cells through effects on mitochondrial function.
By reducing oxidative stress, Withania somnifera also enhances the expression of marker proteins responsible for growth, differentiation and cell communication, especially in the central nervous system.
Ashwagandha for anxiety and stress
The botanical name of somnifera, means ‘sleep bearing’ and Ashwagandha helps to promote serenity and deep sleep, which in turn improves mental acuity and nervous exhaustion.
Ashwagandha is a powerful adaptogenic herb, whose effects are similar to those of Panax ginseng in increasing resistance to physical and emotional stress. This is reflected in its ability to prevent the depletion of vitamin C and cortisol hormone which typically occurs during periods of prolonged stress.
Analysis of data from five clinical trials found that Ashwagandha extracts were more effective in improving anxiety symptoms than placebo, and more effective than psychotherapy – Ashwagandha decreased anxiety scores by 56.5% compared with 30.5% for psychotherapy. Taking Ashwagandha also reduced scores on the Perceived Stress Scale by 44% compared with a 5.5% reduction in those taking placebo.
Ashwagandha and the nervous system
Ashwagandha has neuroprotective effects and has shown benefit in several neurodegenerative conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s diseases as well as spinal cord injury.
Withania somnifera extracts are used in Ayurveda to treat central nervous system disorders such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, tardive dyskinesia, stroke and the management of drug addiction.
Ashwagandha as an aphrodisiac
Ashwagandha is used by both men and women as a sexual restorative to improve sexual performance and desire, especially when libido is reduced during convalescence. It is also used to treat erectile dysfunction (impotence) in those who find Panax ginseng too stimulating.
Ashwagandha and weight
Chronic stress has been associated with weight gain, and Ashwagandha was investigated for its effects on weight in 52 experiencing stress and anxiety.
Those who took 300mg Ashwagandha twice a day for 8 weeks showed significant improvements in Perceived Stress Scale, Food Cravings Questionnaire, Oxford Happiness Questionnaire, Three-Factor Eating Questionnaire, serum cortisol, body weight, and body mass index compared with those taking placebo. The researchers suggested that Ashwagandha root can be used for weight management in adults under chronic stress.
Ashwagandha and immunity
Ashwagandha increases the number and activity of CD4, CD3+ T lymphocytes and Natural Killer cells which fight abnormal cells. After taking supplements for 4 days, enhanced immune function was found for all immune cell surface receptors tested, to reduce susceptibility to infections and potentially increase immune vigilance against cancer.
Ashwagandha and cancer
Ashwagandha root contains withaferin-A which has a potent anti-cancer effects. In cell culture studies, withaferin-A suppresses the cancer-inducing effects of known carcinogens through a variety of potent anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory, anti-proliferative and cell signalling mechanisms. Ashwagandha root extracts have been found to enhance the natural programmed death (apoptosis) of abnormal cells, and to sensitise resistant cancer cells to standard chemotherapy agents. For example, withaferin-A enhances the effects of platinum-containing chemotherapy agents in colon cancer cells.
NB Do not take Ashwagandha if you have cancer except under the advice and supervision of your oncology specialist.
Select products standardized to contain 5% withanolides, for which the usual dose is 300mg to 600 mg, once or twice a day. Ashwagandha is also taken in powder form mixed with ginger, warm milk, honey or hot water to improve digestion.
The form I take for mental clarity is organic Aswagandha 600mg extracts from Brainpower Nootropics.
Ashwagandha side effects
Ashwagandha has been used for thousands of years and at usual doses has not shown toxicity. Do not exceed manufacturer’s recommended doses.
Excessive doses may cause stomach upset, nausea and diarrhoea. High doses of Ashwagandha may increase levels of thyroid hormones and can produce symptoms of thyrotoxicosis (overactive thyroid gland).