Ashwagandha (Radix Withaniae) is an Ayurvedic herbal medicine made from the dried roots of Withania somnifera, also known as Physalis somnifera or solanum somniferum, a plant from the nightshade family (Solancaeae).
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The name ashwagandha comes from Sanskrit and means “the smell and strength of a horse,” possibly alluding to the plant’s aphrodisiac/healing properties, its effects on the immune system, ability to impart a “horse’s” vigor, and/or to the root’s pungent odor.
Other names for the plant include:
- Winter cherry
- Indian ginseng
The genus Withania includes about 20 species.
Withania somnifera is widespread from Egypt and the Mediterranean coast to India and Pakistan.
The Latin species name, somnifera, means “to induce sleep.”
Ashwagandha has been widely used in Ayurvedic and traditional Indian medicine for at least 4,000 years.
In fact, it is one of the most commonly used herbs in Indian traditional medicine.
Traditionally, ashwagandha leaves, bark, fruit, and root were used in the Ayurveda, Yunani, and Siddha medicine systems, and in the Middle East to treat:
- respiratory system conditions, such as bronchitis and asthma
- gastrointestinal problems, such as indigestion and ulcers
- painful conditions such as lumbago and rheumatic pains
- skin disorders, such as scabies, psoriasis, and vitiligo
- dementia, emaciation, and debility/senile debility
- wasting in children (low weight for height)
- inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis
- stress, nervous tension, and insomnia
- high blood pressure
Ashwagandha is also widely used as a geriatric tonic and a restorative for increasing energy, strength, avoiding premature aging, longevity, and to speed healing during/after an illness.
In Ayurveda it is considered particularly useful in vata and kapha conditions.
Ashwagandha is regarded as sattvic in quality, which nurtures and clarifies the mind.
Its main medicinal actions are:
- tonic (particularly for the gastrointestinal system, endocrine system, nervous system, respiratory system, and immune system) – in 327 BC Alexander the Great purportedly drank a tonic wine with ashwagandha.
- depurative – has purifying and detoxifying effects
- aphrodisiac – it is classified as a vajikarana in Ayurveda
- anthelmintic – expels parasitic worms and other internal parasites from the body
- anti-anaemic – contains iron and increases hemoglobin, serum albumin, and red blood cells
- mild sedative
It has also been used to induce abortion and to promote conception.
Withania somnifera has been known as a herbal remedy in Europe since at least the 16th century.
Ashwagandha & Traditional Chinese Medicine
Ashwagandha can treat chi deficiency in the digestive, endocrine, nervous, immune, and respiratory systems.
It also is effective for blood deficiency in the heart and feeds and relaxes the nervous system, treating deficiency in the nervous system.
Finally, Withania treats deficiency of yang in the kidney.
What is Ashwagandha Good for?
Nowadays, ashwagandha root is mainly used as a general tonic which can
- prevent disease
- increase energy
- improve overall health
In other words, ashwagandha is what’s known as an adaptogen, like Panax ginseng in traditional Chinese medicine, a herb which can boost the immune system and help the body adapt to stress.
Indian Ginseng Vs. Chinese Ginseng
In 2002 it became illegal to label ashwagandha as “ginseng” and today it is sometimes referred to as Indian ginseng.
Like Chinese ginseng, ashwagandha has antitumor and adaptogenic properties, and can improve psychomotor performance, including:
- reaction times
- auditory reactions
- logical deductions
- mental mathematical calculations
Withania somnifera and Panax ginseng may also be used together as a general tonic.
However, unlike ginseng, which has pronounced stimulating effects, ashwaganda is a calmative and sedating herb.
It is therefore ideally suited for people who are overactive but debilitated.
Withania somnifera Uses
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the only medicinal use of ashwagandha supported by clinical data is as an anti-stress agent, measured by its ability to improve reaction time under stressful conditions.
Modern herbalists prescribe it to help their clients deal with stress and to boost the immune system.
Since stress affects so many facets of our lives, it is no wonder this anti-stress herb is useful for a wide range of conditions, including:
- cognitive disorders and Parkinson’s disease
- pain (e.g., arthritis and rheumatism)
How Does Ashwagandha Work?
Ashwagandha contains the following active constituents:
- steroidal lactones (withanolides) some of which have shown antibiotic and antitumor activities. Withanolides are also contained in Datura and other plants
- triethylene glycol – a sleep-inducing substance found mostly in the leaves
Ashwagandha is used by medical herbalists for the following purposes:
- alleviating anxiety
- promoting growth in children
- improving mood and well-being
- modifying cardiovascular risk factors
- preventing/reducing the negative physiological effects of stress
- improving conditions associated with aging, including muscle strength and function
Other indications for medicinal use of ashwagandha include:
- withdrawal from addictive drugs
- recuperation after illness or extreme stress
- chronic diseases, especially inflammatory conditions
- debility and nervous exhaustion, especially due to stress
- as a general tonic for disease prevention, including cancer
- for depressed white blood cell count, especially if caused by drugs
Let’s take a closer look at some of these uses.
Stress Management: Ashwagandha as an Adaptogen
First and foremost, ashwagandha is an adaptogen, which enhances the body’s response to stress and supports adrenal function.
As an adaptogen, ashwagandha may have the following benefits:
- increases feelings of energy
- prevents the negative effects of stress
- improves mental and physical performance
- restores vitality in debilitated and feeble individuals
Studies looking into ashwagandha’s antistress capabilities however focused on mice so their value is limited.
The scientists basically took some rats subjected them to chronic stress and gave some of them ashwagandha to see if it will make any difference.
And indeed, a difference was found:
- reduces oxidative damage in the brain
- restores levels of glutathione (a very important antioxidant)
- increases levels of brain enzymes which protect cells from oxidative damage
Even when the extract is free of any withanolides, it was found to be effective for reducing stress and strengthen the immune system.
The saponins on their own are capable of producing antistress activity as well as improve learning acquisition and memory.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
While ashwagandha supports adrenal function and may offer benefits in CFS, other adaptogens, such as Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) and Rhodiola rosea, are more specific to the disorder.
Ashwagandha may reduce hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms such as feelings of stress, anxiety, irritability, and fatigue.
In addition, studies also found anti-inflammatory effects of ashwagandha, but unfortunately they too were done mostly on animals.
Ashwagandha is also has a potent antioxidant effect in the brain.
Perhaps due to the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects of ashwagandha, it exhibits neuroprotective activity and may
- enhance neurite outgrowth:
- extend dendrites (withanosides IV and VI)
- extend axons (predominantly by withanolide A)
- prevent brain injury in Parkinson’s disease
It may also protect other organs, such as the liver, reducing liver damage from toxins, radiation, fatty liver disease, etc.
Ashwagandha for Anxiety
500-2,500 mg per day of Withania extract taken for 6 weeks has been shown to alleviate anxiety in people suffering from generalized anxiety disorder.
Ashwagandha may be also effective as an adjunct to anti depressants in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a chronic psychiatric disorder.
The Potential of Ashwagandha for Treatment of the Elderly
Ashwagandha may be especially beneficial for the elderly.
It can assist with prevention of sarcopenia, the gradual loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength with age.
It may also inhibit the formation of amyloid plaques in the brain, which may be responsible for Alzheimer’s disease. (However, the study was done in vitro.)
Other Medicinal Effects of Ashwagandha
With such powerful protective effects, it is no wonder ashwagandha was studied as a drug which can prevent disease (chemopreventive activity).
Indeed, ashwagandha prevented/slowed induced-cancer in mice.
It may also increase the effectiveness of radiation therapy and chemotherapy, while reducing side effects.
Ashwagandha can also be used for prevention of brain damage due to ischemia (anti-ischemic activity), restriction in blood supply to tissues.
30 days of ashwagandha supplementation prevented motor impairment and oxidative damage following an induced stroke in rats.
Ashwagandha was also demonstrated to provide strong protection to the heart (cardioprotective).
The immune system is also affected by ashwagandha (immune stimulant activity).
In mice treated with drugs which suppress the immune system, ashwagandha prevented the expected reduction in bone marrow activity.
If this works in humans too, then ashwagandha could be an important supplement to take during chemotherapy or if taking medications which suppress the immune system.
Moreover, ashwagandha appears to modulate the immune system by
- improving hemoglobin concentration, red and white blood cell count, platelet count, and body weight.
- stimulating natural killer cell activity
- enhancing antibody-dependent cellular cytotoxicity
- mobilizing and activating of peritoneal macrophages and phagocytosis
- increasing activity of the enzymes which break down excess or worn-out cell parts and destroying invading viruses and bacteria
Withania may also benefit men with fertility problems, especially when they are stress related.
Studies show it can
- reduce cortisol levels
- increase serum testosterone and LH
- reduce the levels of FSH and prolactin
- improve sperm count, volume, motility, and liquefaction time
Other Possible Benefits
When given to people suffering from chronic stress, they may experience reductions in
- C-reactive protein (an inflammation marker)
- fasting blood glucose and lipid levels
- blood pressure
- anxiety levels
- heart rate
as well as increases of
- quality-of-life scores
- serum DHEA-S (indicating the adrenal glands are working properly)
Ashwagandha also acts as an inhibitor of COX-2, an enzyme responsible for inflammation and pain. As such it may show benefit for painful conditions, such as endometriosis.
Taking ashwagandha may lead to an increase in muscle strength, even for elderly individuals.
Ashwagandha may also increase VO2max, the maximum rate of oxygen consumption measured during exercise of increasing intensity, as well as stamina.
It helps to build muscles, particularly if you are engaging in intense exercise.
Ashwagandha as a Nootropic: Effects on Memory & Cognition
In Ayurveda, Withania somnifera belongs to a group of herbs known as Medhya Rasayana, an alchemical elixir which can improve cognitive function.
In other words, it is regarded as a nootropic.
Ashwagandha may have the following benefits for cognition:
- improving short term memory
- reversing chemically/electrically induced memory deficits (in animals)
The withanolides may be responsible for the enhancement of cognition.
They work by inhibiting the enzymes acetylcholinesterase and butyrylcholinesterase, which are responsible for the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
The result of this inhibition is an increase in acetylcholine levels, which are associated with improved cognition. (Acetylcholine plays an important role in arousal, attention, memory, and motivation.)
Children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may benefit from ashwagandha supplementation although the study provided the children with a preparation which included ashwagandha along with other herbs (such as lemon balm and Bacopa monnieri).
Therefore, it is impossible to tell based on this study which of the herbs given had the positive effect.
Ashwagandha Benefits for Sleep – Does it Make you Sleepy?
How does ashwagandha affect our sleep?
Withania root is used as a sedative and hypnotic.
In fact, one of its traditional indications is as a sleep aid for insomnia or sleeplessness.
That is why it is called somnifera, meaning “sleep inducing” in Latin.
The herb ashwagandha is commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine to promote peaceful, deep, dreamless sleep and as a potent rejuvenating tonic.
Some insomnia sufferers may experience improvement in sleep quality and the time it takes to fall asleep.
How does ashwagandha work for inducing sleep?
We don’t know yet, though there may be an involvement of the GABAergic system.
Withania has also been shown to reduce cortisol levels, and is known to calm and clear the mind.
Many people report experiencing strange/vivid dreams, which are sometimes described as fascinating, interesting, enjoyable, or pleasant, and even recurring nightmares when just starting to take Ashwagandha.
For some, Withania dreams may be troubling, frustrating, or unsettling, even nightmarish.
People report improvement to their ability to recall dreams when taking ashwagandha, feeling awake while in the dream, and even lucid dreams.
Stephen LaBerge, one of the Fathers of lucid dream research, lists it in his patent titled “Substances that Enhance Recall and Lucidity During Dreaming.”
It is believed that triethylene glycol (TEG), a substance found in Ashwagandha, may not only induce non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep while slightly altering rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the stage of sleep in which vivid dreams are experienced.
Animals studies reveal no toxicity or organ damage from supplementation with ashwagandha.
Not only is it not addictive, but it may even help with withdrawing from addictions, such as alcohol addiction.
It is safe even for children.
To be on the safe side, do not use during pregnancy or breastfeeding.
No negative influence on the ability to drive and use machines is expected at the recommended dosage.
No adverse effects from ingestion of Withania are expected, even with long-term use.
Too high doses may cause
- gastrointestinal upset
Rarely, thyrotoxicosis manifesting as weight loss, palpitations, and confusion has been reported.
Ashwagandha may decrease blood pressure.
It may also aggravate symptoms of thyroid disorders, lupus, multiple sclerosis, stomach ulcers, and unbalanced blood pressure.
People with an intolerance/allergy to nightshade plants like tomatoes, peppers, or potatoes should avoid ashwagandha.
The leaves are toxic (cholinergic) and are only used externally (e.g., for cancer, fungus).
Ashwagandha may interact with some medications so make sure to ask your prescribing doctor, especially if you’re taking:
- barbiturates – ashwagandha may potentiate their effects
- benzodiazepines – ashwagandha may reduce or enhance their effects
- thyroid medication
How to Take Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha can be taken as dried powdered root (e.g., in capsules)
Dosage of dried powdered root: up to 6 g per day.
When making a decoction from the powdered root, use up to 8 g per day.
It is also possible to chew a piece of root the length of half a finger. The taste is not unpleasant and is somewhat reminiscent of that of licorice.
Alternatively, extracts/tinctures can be prepared, which may be standardized for withanolides (but remember that it is not the withanolides, but TEG that account for Withania‘s sleep inducing effects.)
The withanolides are important for cognition enhancing effects and may also be responsible for the improvement in dream recall and lucid dreaming under its influence.
How to Make Ashwagandha Tea
- Bring water to boil.
- Add dried roots.
- Simmer for 15-30 minutes.
- Remove from heat
- Optional: Add milk/cream, a sweetener, and/or spices.
- Let steep, covered for 10-15 minutes.
- Stir and strain.
Good spices to use are cinnamon (but Ceylon is safer than cassia), turmeric, pepper (e.g., long pepper, black/white pepper), cardamom, and ginger.
When to Take Ashwagandha
For purposes of sleep induction and dream potentiation, it is recommended to take ashwagandha about one hour before bedtime.
If you experience sleep disruption or if you’re taking ashwagandha for improving your dream recall, then take it after 4-5 hours of sleep.
Ashwagandha is best taken on an empty stomach, but if it causes gastrointestinal discomfort, then it can be taken with a snack.
How long for ashwagandha to work?
Some of the water-soluble constituents will take effect almost immediately, while the fat-soluble components may take longer to absorb.
It may take up to 12 weeks to start experiencing the full benefits of ashwagandha.
The water-soluble compounds in ashwagandha generally stay in the body for 2-3 days, while the fat-soluble compounds may stay for up to a month.
Ashwagandha as a Psychoactive Plant
Also known as the Sleeping Berry (Withania somnifera fruit) and the Vedic jangida root (a panacea, amulet, magical agent, and aphrodisiac), ashwagandha has also been used as a psychoactive plant.
Some of its interesting uses include:
- as a substitute for mandrake / henbane
- as a hypnotic, sedative, narcotic, and inebriant
- magical rituals, including sexual magic and tantric rituals (sometimes in combination with Cannabis)
- it may have been the entheogenic plant Dioscorides called morion and is also known as halicacabon (“salt jar”)
- possibly a psychoactive incense and an analgesic fumigant
- in Witches’ ointments
- in love potions
- In Pakistan, the leaves of the closely related Withania coagulans, are used (presumably smoked) as an inebriant