We’re talking about a very old, wise and cherished medicinal plant here. The Winter Cherry. Indian Ginseng. Ashwagandha. Whatever name you know this plant by, there’s a many thousand year history that tells the tale of this plant. In this article I’ll give you an idea of what herbalists use Ashwagandha for traditionally, and what the latest research can tell us about new and innovative ways we’re using it to treat anxiety, infertility, cognitive disorders and diabetes. You may have heard of Ashwagandha (or ‘Withania’) as an adaptogen for the adrenal system that builds your stress tolerance. Absolutely right, I’ll tell you how Ashwagandha works and impart a bit of herbal wisdom in the next few paragraphs.
Welcome to herb class….
- Botanical name: Withania somnifera (L.) Dunal
- Common names: Ashwagandha (Sanksrit), Indian Ginseng, Winter Cherry, Asgandh (Hindi)
- Botanical Family: Solanaceae
- Part used: root
- Taste: bitter, pungent, sweet
- Smell: the Sanksrit name is ‘ashwa’ meaning ‘horse’ and ‘gandha’ meaning ‘smell’. The roots smell of a horse. This also relates to the tonic and strengthening action of the plant, giving you the strength of a horse.
- Therapeutic actions: tonic, adaptogen, anti-tumour, anxiolytic, immune modulator, sedative, anti-inflammatory
- Indicated for: insomnia, adrenal fatigue, anaemia, chronic fatigue, menopause, nervous exhaustion, depression, children with failure to thrive or underweight
- Positive clinical evidence for use in: children for growth,
- Qualities: warming, rejuvenating (rasayana herb in Ayurveda)
- Daily therapeutic dose: 3-6g daily, children: 2g daily
invigorate | restore | adapt
This is a herb for anyone who feels over-worked, stretched too thin, exhausted or under-nourished….the qualities of the herb are strengthing, tonifying and building
Extract on Ashwagandha from the foundational Ayurvedic text Charaka Samhita (pre 2nd C BCE)
The pungent and sweet roots of Ashwagandha have been used medicinally in India for more than 3,000 years. It’s a prominent rasayana herb, meaning it belongs to a class of Ayurvedic healing plants that we commonly refer to as ‘tonics’ because they lift our vigour and performance. In its traditional setting its benefits are well known: it increases strength (i.e the strength of a horse), nourishes the nerves, promotes growth, enhances sexual performance and libido, assists in sperm production and nourishes the body.
Herbalists use for multiple body systems including to promote fertility and sexual performance, as an adaptogen to improve stress-resilience, as an antioxidant, as a sedative for insomnia and as a tonic for anxiety and stress disorders (anxiolytic action here). It’s also used to improve iron levels as studies show it increases red cell count and haemoglobin levels and thus improves energy. Fancy more of that? So this herb really is a great all-rounder as you can in the graphic below, but predominantly it’s specific for anxiety and stress. More on its use in stress below….
Ashwagandha builds & boosts your nervous system health
Our baselines for stress tolerance keep having to rise. But we’re still the same physiologically and mentally that we’ve been for centuries, if not millenia. So how do we cope with increasing levels of anxiety and uncertainty? We adapt. Some of us handle it better than others. The more stress-resilient folk power through but many of us are developing chronic illnesses (and invisible illnesses), gut problems, hormonal imbalances, anxiety, depression and insomnia. We just can’t sustain good health in the face of all of this stress and overwhelm.
Ashwagandha suits any illness derived from/triggered by stress that persists for more than 3 months. It lowers stress and anxiety levels and sedates to improve sleep while nourishing and rebuilding a robust nervous system architecture in the background. This makes it a wonderful support in chronic disease where sleep is so essential stress makes things worse (conditions like chronic anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue, cognitive impairment and mood disorders).
Stress underlies chronic illness and permeates all of our body systems in some way or other causing instability and weakness. It’s a common theme in clinic where I’ve seen lots of people suffering from a range of disorders who come to realise after a bit of a chat, that many of their issues arose after a period of stress. Have you been wondering about this yourself? If so, read my article on ‘invisible illness’ where you’ll find questionnaires and handouts you can use to assess your own risk of a chronic illness.
I suffered from chronic anxiety for years around a marriage breakup. I felt stressed and alone for years, living on the other side of the world away from my family and friends. If only I’d known about Ashwagandha then….I say that because this plant deserves its reputation as a primary tonic herb. It would have helped me on so many levels back then, physically, mentally, emotionally, even spiritually.
David Frawley, expert in Ayurveda, suggests taking Ashwagandha for anxiety, Use 1-2 tsp of the powder in the morning and night in warmed milk.
And from an evidence-based perspective:
- Ashwagandha boosts neuronal health with some of its constituents (like withanoside IV in the root) demonstrating the ability to increase development and growth of neurons and their synapses. How often do you hear about a drug medication doing that? And the evidence base for Ashwagandha in neurodegenerative disorders is growing. It’s been trialled in children with mental retardation, healthy adults, people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and more.
- A systematic review of human trials by Pratte et al (2014) found that 600mg-12g of the herb daily led to significant dose dependent reductions in anxiety and stress scores compared to placebo and psychotherapy controls.
A systematic review by Ng et al (2020) reviewed five human trials featuring a range of neurodegenerative disorders from mild cognitive impairment through to Schizophrenia, they found that Ashwagandha improved cognitive performance, executive function (leading to improved organisation and planning), attention and reaction time and was well tolerated in terms of safety. Doses ranged with an average of 600mg – 1g of the dried herb daily. Note: there was a fair variability in participant characteristics between trials.
Ashwagandha promotes fertility
In women Ashwagandha can begin its work in adolescence and continues to be a building and nourishing support for women in their fertile years and beyond. Studies show it significantly promotes fertility in women as well as promoting growth in children. Traditionally it was used to promote sexual development in females and males.
Up to half of all infertility is caused by male factors. Within these cases, up to 40% are due to sperm abnormalities. Numerous trials demonstrate the sperm boosting effects of Ashwagandha. The name implies giving the virility of a horse and studies support this. Ashwagandha increases sperm count, improves sperm morphology (shape) and motility (ability to swim). These are the main issues facing men with infertility diagnoses today. Its not just about the amount of sperm, but about how well formed and mobile each sperm is. Semen volume is also increased after treatment with Ashwagandha. With contemporary biomedical treatments for male infertility often involving invasive protocols, it’s crazy not to give Ashwagandha a go.
Also, as men age their sperm becomes more prone to DNA fragmentation. This contributes to slower and lower success rates with conception. It also contributes to miscarriage. Antioxidant herbs like Ashwagandha can assist in preventing and reducing this sort of damage to sperm and egg DNA. The stress relieving effects of this herb also assist indirectly as stress is a major contributor to infertility.
Aim to be on 5 or more grams of Ashwagandha root daily for at least 3 months for best effects. Animal trials suggest its use is safe in pregnancy but only do this under the guidance of a qualified herbalist.
An ally for an impending plethora of metabolic conditions
The steady rise in metabolic diseases like syndrome X, insulin resistance, Polycystic ovaries, heart disease and high cholesterol is showing no signs of slowing down. What’s really missing on a global level is effective strategies to prevent the risk of these diseases in the first place. The prospects for Ashwagandha as an anti-diabetes agent are looking quite promising.
A 2020 systematic review and meta-analysis of 24 trials suggested it could reduce insulin, cholesterol and glycosylated haemoglobin scores (the marker for diabetes) as well as restore health blood glucose levels. Note however the studies included in-vitro trials and pre-clinical trials.
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How to use Ashwagandha
Secrets from a herbalist here…..
- This is a fascinating medicinal plant. While the taste warms and invigorates, it also has an action on smooth muscle tissue that resembles that of another Solanaceae plant, the Opium Poppy. It also has both sweetness and pungency so you can think about using it in sweet dishes or as an additive in smoothies (with cardamom and dates) and warm milky drinks.
- When you drink your Ashwagandha latte or chai, feel the herb moving swiftly through your vascular system bringing vitality to all of your tissues, and bringing vigour to your pelvic area. At the same time, enabling you to focus your mind more effortlessly. This is a herb that brings ease.
- Take it in those times when you need a bit of a boost. To be lifted and strengthened, and when your hormonal system needs a bit of balancing. Make some time for yourself and blend some sesame oil with Ashwagandha root powder. Blend then together to make an oil that flows easily, and massage it into your scalp. Enjoy the scent of horses!
- If you’ve been through trauma or suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, go easy with Ashwagandha. This is important with any tonic herbs. They can be too stimulating and draining. I’d recommend starting with ½ teaspoon of the powder together with some Chamomile or Lemon Balm and they’ll help to balance things out. Chronic fatigue and adrenal exhaustion are conditions that may benefit from gentle restoration at first, followed by at least 6 weeks of Ashwagandha once their adrenals are regaining some energy.
- Consider including Ashwagandha to improve cardiovascular health. If there’s a family history of heart disease, atherosclerosis, high cholesterol, congestive heart failure or hypertension. It’s anti-obesity and cholesterol lowering action is just what you’re body needs.
- Because it’s a warming herb, anyone who suffers from poor circulation or cold intolerance will find it brings warmth to the skin. Women after the transition could blend it with cooling herbs to help avoid hot flushes or excessive heat. Licorice and Shatavari work well. Try it in smoothies with a dash of rose water in those instances, rather than in hot drinks.
- I love taking it as a powder mixed in hot milk and honey, or just mixed straight into honey with some balancing spices like cardamom and cinnamon. (buy the powder here). This can then be used to flavour chai or hot cacao drinks. Yum!
- For best effects, take it in water or as a herbal extract. The combination of alcohol and water makes the best extraction solvent for the alkaloids in Ashwagandha.
One of the features of the Solanaceae plant family is the presence of compounds called alkaloids. Ashwagandha has numerous alkaloids including withasomnine. it’s important to respect the daily dosage with any of the alkaloid containing plants and not to over-dose. These alkaloids make up to 4% of the root. People with Nightshade family allergy should not take Ashwagandha.
Making Ashwagandha Extract – sacred & meditative
To get the best out of your Ashwagandha, take it in water or as a herbal extract. The combination of alcohol and water makes the best extraction solvent for the alkaloids in Ashwagandha.
You can also put it into honey and take a tablespoon daily or have it as a hot drink with added milk. Try my Ashwagandha latte here.
Care for an Ashwagandha latte? Find the recipe here along with more info on the health benefits of this amazing medicinal plant. Or buy some certified organic Ashwagandha here and start nourishing that beautiful body and mind!
Hey there! Welcome to my world of totally natural and powerful healing medicines. Medicines from nature. Medicine from Source. I’m a naturopath and herbalist with extensive clinical experience working with a range of health conditions including hormonal, metabolic, mental health, sleep and more.
I’ve brought together years of clinical and teaching experience, academic skill and curiosity to bring you this blog. I hope you enjoy it! If you do, leave a comment, I’d love to hear from you!
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