Ashwagandha (scientific name Withania somnifera) is a herb used in Ayurveda medicine and belongs to the Solanaceae family, which includes a number of medicinal plants, spices, and weeds.
It is used for millennia by the Ayurvedic medicine, the traditional system of medicine in India, as a rasayana for its wide-ranging health benefits. Rasayana is described as a metallic or herbal preparation that promotes a youthful state of mental and physical health and expands happiness.
The name „ashwagandha” literally translates into „smell of a horse”. This is a reference to both the unique smell of the herb, as well as the virility of a horse, an inference to the traditional use of the herb to support a healthy male reproductive system.
It is frequently referred to as „Indian ginseng” because of its rejuvenating properties, even though botanically, ginseng and Withania somnifera are unrelated. The plant is also known as winter cherry, withania, hayahvaya, asana or kuthmithi.
It is a robust herb that can survive both low temperatures and very high temperatures, ranging from 40°C to as low as 10°C. It grows from sea level to an altitude of 1500 meters above sea level.
Ayurveda medicine acknowledges the herb especially for its strengthening, building and nourishing nature. In Ayurveda medicine, the leaves and berries are applied externally to tubercular glands, tumors, carbuncles, and ulcers.
The roots are used to prepare the herbal remedy ashwagandha, which has been traditionally used for different conditions and symptoms.
Health benefits of ashwagandha
The best way to understand Withania somnifera’s effect is to consider the word „enhancement”. While focusing on no single organ system in the body exclusively, this herb, like ginseng, allows the different systems to function „better.”
For example, we already have a functioning immune system within ourselves, but animal researchers with this plant show an increase in numbers of infection-fighting white blood cells. So, we have our own systems to reduce inflammation, relax our minds, buffer stress, and so forth, but with the help of this medicinal herb, everything seems to work better.
The Kama Sutra, one of the oldest surviving texts on human sexuality, mentions this herb in its literature as a potent sexual stimulant.
A 2013 study indicates that the herb supports sexual health and vitality by increasing blood flow and reducing bodily tension. Women taking it typically experience an increase in sexual satisfaction and desire.
It can help keep skin looking radiant and youthful. It works by increasing estrogen levels, which in turn stimulate collagen production and increase natural skin oils and hyaluronic acid. Besides, the roots and leaves have anti-inflammatory benefits.
A paste made from root or leaf of winter cherry is used to treat painful swelling, cellulite, abscesses, and leucoderma. It also helps relieve inflammation and bring about quick wound healing.
A 2009 study by the National Institute on Drug Dependence, Peking University, Beijing, China evaluated the action of traditional herbal remedies and acupuncture for treating drug addiction. They concluded that Salvia miltiorrhiza and Withania somnifera can reduce morphine tolerance and alcohol intake.
This herb has been found to be effective in dealing with a variety of rheumatologic problems. The herb is known to act as a cyclooxygenase inhibitor that decreases pain and inflammation. The study conducted at the Los Angeles College of Chiropractors suggests that this plant has anti-inflammatory properties that come from the saponins, alkaloids and steroidal lactones found within it.
Stress affects both body and mind and can be a strain that leads to underperformance. Most people will also testify that stress reduces the quality of life. Withania somnifera has been documented in Ayurvedic medicine for its stress-combating effects.
The Department of Neuropsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry at India’s Asha Hospital coordinated a randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study in 2012 involving 64 subjects with a history of chronic stress.
After separating the participants into study and control groups, the study group began supplementing with high-concentration, full-spectrum Withania somnifera root extract. After 2 months, the study group reported considerable improvements in all stress evaluations and quality of life, all without serious side effects.
Treats Alzheimer’s Disease
Although these studies have not yet progressed to human trials, researchers are enthusiastic about preliminary findings for the treatment of degenerative brain disorders with this medicinal herb. Rat studies have shown that it may improve memory deficits, induce neuronal growth and help brain cells rebuild lost connections. Other studies support these conclusions as well.
Prevents and Treats Cancer
Laboratory experiments have demonstrated that this herb can inhibit the growth of breast, lung, and colon cancer cells comparable with the effects of chemotherapy drugs. Animal studies in 2005 concluded that the herb inhibited the development of stomach cancer. Both tumor incidence and the number of tumors were significantly reduced by 60 percent and 92 percent respectively. Another research showed that this plant also had a positive effect on skin cancer.
Improves Athletic Performance
The herb tends to promote the natural systems of the body via its adaptogenic properties. As such, during times of physical exercise, the herb promotes better oxygen flow to the muscle cells, hence added strength and more endurance. Ashwagandha may also be helpful in countering the effects of stress hormones during times of physical activity.
Furthermore, it may also be beneficial in controlling the buildup of lactic acid. A 2012 study by the Faculty of Sports Medicine and Physiotherapy, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, Punjab, India has shown that animals given this medicinal herb tend to have significantly more endurance in physical activities and they were more likely to gain muscle mass compared to a test group not given supplements.
It is very effective in treating insomnia. It is rejuvenating and the nervine properties produce energy which helps the body in getting a sound sleep. It also rejuvenates the nervous system, eases stress and cures insomnia.
In men who exercise, this herb can increase testosterone levels by 17% and decrease cortisol by 28%. In females, the cortisol levels are also decreased notably. Thus, increasing testosterone (for men) and decreasing cortisol (for women) helps gain muscle mass and decrease body fat percentage. These also help burn fat in the right places (the butt, stomach and midsection and the upper thighs).
Stops Hair Loss
The plant is great for growing thicker hair. When used in hair care preparations, it helps improve hair growth and increase scalp circulation, as well as help with greasy and dandruff hair. In addition, the medicinal herb is also said to preserve our natural hair color.
The powerful antioxidants from the herb fight the free radicals that are usually responsible for hair graying. In addition, it stimulates the production of melanin, the pigment responsible for hair color.
Many conditions can be caused or exacerbated by free-radicals, which are highly reactive altered oxygen molecules that wreak havoc on virtually all cells of the body. One of the easiest ways to stave off this destruction is to ensure that your diet includes adequate supplies of antioxidants which are found primarily in vegetables and fruits.
A 2012 study concluded that an overall decrease in systolic blood pressure was found, though it was non-significant. Moreover, a decrease in systolic blood pressure was significant in group I, whereas a decrease in diastolic blood pressure was appreciable in both groups. Hence, supplementation of Ashwagandha with milk is recommended in the treatment of stress-oriented hypertension.
How to use it
The root is available in the market either in dried form, powdered form or fresh root. You can make a tea, by boiling the powder in water for 10 minutes. Don’t use more than a teaspoon of the powder in one cup of water.
Side effects of Withania somnifera
From an Ayurvedic perspective, use it with caution in cases of excess ama and pitta. Not for use in pregnancy except under the supervision of a healthcare specialist.