For hundreds of years Ashwagandha, an evergreen Indian plant has been recognised for its adaptogenic benefits in Ayurvedic practice. Ayurvedic practitioners particularly venerate the roots and orange-red fruits of this high-quality herb for their restorative and rejuvenating benefits, as well as for having the potential to cure an array of health disorders.
Part of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, Ashwagandha, or Indian ginseng, is also known by names like Withania somnifera, winter cherry or poison gooseberry. Somnifera is a Latin word meaning ‘sleep-inducing’ while Ashwagandha in Sanskrit refers to a different idea as ‘ashwa’ means horse and ‘gandha’ means smell. Thus, in the Indian context, the herb connotes the idea of providing horse-like vitality and power. According to ancient Indian scriptures, the root of Ashwagandha apparently smells of horse sweat. Interestingly, ginseng and ashwagandha are botanically very dissimilar species but their rejuvenating qualities have resulted in them being clubbed together.
These qualities along with the constituent active components like alkaloids, steroidal lactones, saponins, and withanolides, have made Ashwagandha a highly acclaimed nerve tonic and also an all-purpose stimulant for enhancing thinking capability, reducing joint pain and inflammation, and controlling the ageing process. Not only that, but this magical herb also contains hormone stabilising and antioxidant properties which enables it to check and cure a host of many other ailments. Widely accepted as an adaptogen, Ashwagandha can help humans deftly adjust their stress responses to changed settings by assisting the body to cope with physical strains. Emotional stress like anxiety, restlessness and other stress-induced anomalies can also be managed through it.
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Considered one of the most vital herbs of Ayurveda, Ashwagandha is also known by a plethora of other names including Ajagandha, Amangura, Amukkirag, Asan, Asana, Asgand, Cerise Hiver, Haya Vaya, Kanaje Hindi, Kuthmithi, Orovale, Payette, Samm Al Ferakh, Sogade-Beru, Strychnos, Turangi-Ghanda and Vajigandha. This shrub also grows in profusion in countries like Nepal, China, Middle East, Africa, and Yemen. Today, the increase demand for this herb has led to its cultivation in milder climates of countries like that of the United States.
A part of the nightshade species, Ashwagandha grows well in dry, rocky soil and needs sun as well as partial shade. This plant is well suited for the Indian climate and grows well across the country and also in the famous forest reserves including the Sariska Tiger Reserve, Ranthambore National Park and Eravikulam National Park. Indian families also grow this herb in their kitchen garden.
The plant is stout, short and tender, and grows up to 35–75 cm in height. For cultivation, the seeds of the plant can be sown at the beginning of spring; it can also be grown from greenwood, and its cuttings planted towards the end of the spring season. The plant has oval-shaped leaves which are dull green in colour and oval in shape, and 10–12 cm in length. Flowers are yellow-coloured, small and bell-shaped while the fruits are red or orange and are of the size of raisins. For the preparation of the supplements, extracts are typically obtained from the roots of the plant which is known for multiple medicinal qualities like an aphrodisiac, anthelmintic, astringent, diuretic, narcotic, thermogenic and stimulant. However, the berries are also used for the preparation of pills or powder.
Ashwagandha is a classical Ayurvedic medical herb which has been in use for more than 5,000 years in India. Since long this herb has been used to treat conditions like infertility, physical weakness, rheumatism, constipation, sleeplessness, nerve-related issues, stress, thyroid, inflammation, parasite attack and hormone imbalances, to name a few conditions.
Historically, the medical practitioners of India used Ashwagandha root extracts and made them into powder or paste to be applied topically to treat ulcers, wounds and other skin infections. According to Charak Samhita, ever since the advent of Ayurveda, Ashwagandha has been called ‘Sattvic Kapha Rasayana’. Rasayana, which is a Sanskrit term coined in the early ayurvedic medical dialect. ‘āyana’ means path and ‘rasa’ means essence. It connotes the knowledge of expanding one’s lifespan. Eventually, during the 8th-century, the term rasayana often referred to Indian alchemy.
Numerous references to Ashwagandha can be found in ancient, historical, modern Ayurvedic and Unani medicinal texts. Over the years this medicinal herb has been recognised and lauded all over the world and across cultural spectrums. The first reference of the word Ashwagandha can be traced to the sacred Ayurvedic texts of the Charaka and the Sushruta Samhitas, where it is mentioned as one of the most powerful medical herbs, particularly known for its restorative and recuperative qualities.
The name Ashwagandha dates back to its ancient and historical use for promoting a vigorous sex drive, as ‘ashwa’ in Ashwagandha means horse which is a very energetic animal. Besides, the powdered extracts of the herb are known to have a smell similar to that of a horse. That said, the herb has also been used since ages for a calming and restoring effect, especially after illness or surgery. Ashwagandha has been extensively used in Indian Ayurveda since the prehistoric era. History is replete with references of Ashwagandha prescribed by ancient medical practitioners for its wound healing capacity.
Conventionally, the freshly plucked leaves of the plant were applied topically to cure joint pains, skin wounds and swellings.
The plant has found mention in the teachings and dictates of one of the most revered Hindu sages, Punarvasu Atreya. He was appointed as the principal physician of the ruling king of his time.
This renowned Rishi’s teachings, later formed the basis of the Charaka Samhita. Legend has it that Alexander the Great along with his huge army used to make wine and concoct it with the Ashwagandha plant. This made them more energised and valiant during the war.
Another allegory goes that Apollo the Greek god of healing, medicine and archery and also one of the Twelve Olympians, spotted this herb and handed it over to his son Asclepius. Interestingly, Asclepius is known as the most illustrious champion of healing, truth, and prophecy in Greek mythology.
The active Constituents of Ashwagandha are what makes it such an effective herbal medicine. It is rich in steroidal compounds like lactones, Withaferin A, and carbon-27-glycowithanolides, which are together grouped as Withanolides. The plant also has a substantial quantity of alkaloids; tropine, pseudotropine isopelletrine, anaferine, and saponins. These compounds promote antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immunomodulatory activities and are administered in the human body for treating and preventing conditions like rheumatism, amnesia, stress, depression, impotence and neurodegenerative diseases.
Research findings further revealed other characteristics of Ashwagandha, like that of A cardioprotective, anti-microbial, anti-tumour and anti-diabetic herb. These qualities are derived from the plant’s potential in reducing reactive oxygen species and inflammation, regulating apoptosis, modulating mitochondrial function, and promoting endothelial functions.
Some of the key phytochemical constituents of Ashwagandha are Withanolides that is the triterpene lactones, Withanolides, Withaferin A, Alkaloids, Steroidal lactones, Tropine and Cuscohygrine.
Researchers have been successful in isolating about 40 withanolides, 12 alkaloids, and numerous sitoindosides from an Ashwagandha sample. Since the withanolides have structural similarity to the ginsenosides of Panax ginseng, the name Indian ginseng was coined for Ashwagandha or W. somnifera.
Moreover, the chemical ingredients that are biologically active in Ashwagandha are Alkaloids like isopelletierine, anaferine, cuscohygrine, anahygrine, Steroidal lactones like withanolides and withaferins) and Saponins.
It is the presence of constituents like Sitoindosides and acyl steryl glucosides which makesAshwagandha an anti-stress agent and substance. Sitoindosides VII-X and Withaferin-A are particularly responsible for relieving stress. Some of the other constituents of Ashwagandha have the potential to promote immunomodulatory actions. The parts of the plant that stay above the ground have ingredients like 5-dihydroxy, withanolide-R and withasomniferin-A.
Ashwagandha is a well-known adaptogen and helps in controlling stress that is both physical and mental. These qualities have made Ashwagandha an extremely potential rejuvenating herbal medicine which is effective in developing cognisance, relieving joint pain and irritation, and controlling the aging process. The plant extracts are also used for curing hormone imbalance and treating many other chronic health conditions like restlessness and exhaustion.
Ayurveda calls the exotic herb, Ashwagandha, ‘balya.’‘Bal’ in Sanskrit means strength. This is because Ashwagandha is known to boost energy levels and build overall stamina and staying power. The plant is gaining recognition as a gifted alternative method of treatment for an array of diseases.
Growth of nerve cells: Researchers have found that the plant extracts have special properties to treat mental degenerative diseases by promoting the growth of nerve cells. Ashwagandha is known to shield the brain cells from damaging environmental effects.
Giving strength: Since antiquity, Ashwagandha, a natural adaptogen, has been administered by physicians as an all-purpose tonic for endowing strength and promoting wellness. Chyawanprash, the widely popular mixture present in every Indian household, which contains Ashwagandha. Studies further indicate that the herb might enhance swimming performance in humans by preventing and reducing adrenal cortisol and ascorbic acid levels resulting from swimming-related body stress.
Sexual health: Another very significant contribution of Ashwagandha is its effectiveness as an aphrodisiac and a herb promoting sexual well-being. It also addresses male infertility by improving sperm quality in men. However, it is said that this herb does not increase sperm count. However, Ashwagandha supplements, when taken regularly for about eight to nine weeks together with counselling sessions, can increase sexual desire and satisfaction in women having sexual dysfunctions.
Hormonal balance: Ashwagandha promotes hormone balance and thus influences the endocrine system. Studies also prove that the plant can address symptoms like hot flashes and mood swings at the time of menopause.
Anti-ulcerogenic: Ashwagandha supplements are effective in checking ulcers of the gastrointestinal tract, which are mainly caused by stress. Research results show that the plant can provide efficient protection against immobilization and aspirin induced gastric ulcers.
Stress relief: Ashwagandha can significantly bring down stress levels by controlling the rise of cortisol levels. Presently, the herb is used in tranquilizers and antidepressants, as it is instrumental in alleviating stress that is both physical and mental.
Sleep inducing: The rejuvenating traits of the herb make it highly useful in insomnia treatment. Ashwagandha extracts soothe the nerves, relieves stress and addresses sleeplessness. Customarily, Ashwagandha powder has been mixed with raw honey and warm goat-milk for relaxing the vata dosha and moderating the sleeping and waking process.
Beauty, hair and skincare: Ashwagandha supplements greatly enliven dry, wrinkled and sagging skin. Being a strong antioxidant substance, the herbal extracts help defend the skin from free radical damage and control the ageing process among adults. This leads to one’s skin looking firm and youthful. Ashwagandha fuels-up DHEA, which in turn boosts production of testosterone and estrogen as well as the secretion of natural oils. The secretion of vital compounds and proteins like hyaluronan for hydration of the skin, elastin for keeping it supple and collagen for providing the skin with strength are also promoted by Ashwagandha, when used along with lemon and sun-dried ginger.
Ashwagandha is liberally used in shampoos as it is known to enhance scalp circulation and give strength to the hair while doing away with dandruff. Besides, it also encourages melanin secretion. Melanin being the pigment that gives colour to the hair. The use of Ashwagandha products can effectively slow down the greying process of one’s hair. Additionally, the herb can also be effective in addressing hair loss.
Ashwagandha alleviates side effects of antipsychotics medications which are prescribed in schizophrenia treatment but are known to raise fat and sugar levels in the blood. Ashwagandha extracts taken for a month or so can decrease the fat and sugar levels in the blood of people undergoing antipsychotics medication treatment.
Herbal products that made use of Ashwagandha are known to improve the attention span and impulse control in children afflicted with Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Ashwagandha supplements, when taken for eight to ten weeks, can improve brain functions in people with bipolar disorder. Such a supplement can also address conditions like cerebellar ataxia by improving bodily balance.
Those with hypothyroidism, in other words, those with high levels of thyroid stimulating hormones (TSH) in their blood and low levels of thyroid hormone can be made healthier with the help of Ashwagandha.
Arthritis can also be treated by using Ashwagandha together with the zinc complex, guggul, and raw turmeric. Rheumatoid arthritis is also addressed by ashwagandha powder when taken for about three weeks. This dosage is generally followed by four weeks of consuming the mixture of gold, mercury, and sulphur – popularly called sidh makardhwaj in India.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD is also addressed by root extracts of Ashwagandha if used in prescribed quantities for nearly six weeks along with other Medications.
In addition consuming Ashwagandha extracts while undergoing chemotherapy treatment can also reduce the resultant fatigue experienced by the procedure.
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Ayurveda says that the human body is made from the food it receives, the nutrients which are ingested and metabolised, to form energy. In addition, the body also builds cells, tissues, and organs. The body requires essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients on a regular basis to sustain the delicate balance of its systems. Herbal supplements like Ashwagandha provide the body with these necessary nutrients.
Like all other natural supplements, the accurate dose of Ashwagandha varies according to the user’s age, health condition, and lifestyle choices and such other factors. Till now no such standardised scientific rule exists to decide the correct proportions of Ashwagandha doses. In spite of the fact that organic and herbal products are more or less safe and devoid of serious side effects, overdose can lead to health hazards. Hence it is extremely vital to read and follow the appropriate directions written on the labels of the products and also to talk to a doctor, pharmacist or such other healthcare experts before consuming Ashwagandha.
The dose also depends on the type of health disorder or condition that needs to be treated. In general, Ashwagandha can be taken as a powder in a dose of 450 mg to 2 g every day.
Capsules and liquid varieties of Ashwagandha extracts are also readily available at stores selling health-food and herbal-supplements. Ashwagandha supplements are available in a finely powdered form which has to be mixed and consumed with honey or ghee (clear butter).
People belonging to Western cultures prefer Ashwagandha capsules.
For treating stress and anxiety, 300-500 mg of Ashwagandha root extract can be consumed twice, daily, after meals. If the dose is taken once it has to be taken after breakfast. This dose must be continued for two months in order to experience results like reduced stress and an augmented impact of anxiolytic agents.
For insomnia, the tentative dosage is Ashwagandha powder, consumed with a cup of hot goat milk before bedtime. One can also opt for an Ashwagandha capsule.
The impact of Ashwagandha products on stress and anxiety constantly increases for a period of two months after one starts consuming the supplement daily. Moreover, studies say that keeping the dose amount and timing the same, also helps in achieving better results.
It is not yet known if stopping the dose of Ashwagandha or changing it from every day to alternate days, yields the same results. The implications of administering Ashwagandha directly to the skin are also unknown.
Herbal supplements are known to be generally safe and do not have serious health ramifications. That said they can cause certain health threats if not taken in prescribed quantities or at times, even without any known cause.
Ashwagandha is known to lower blood sugar levels and hence can tamper with diabetes treatment and result in dangerously low blood sugar.
Ashwagandha can also lower blood pressure and for people taking medication for low blood pressure, this could be dangerous. Besides, it can also tamper with high blood pressure treatments.
According to health experts, Ashwagandha is likely to aggravate the gastrointestinal tract infection; hence those suffering from stomach ulcers of those having a history of the same, must avoid it.
Increase in testosterone levels is also a side effect. Hence patients with hormone-sensitive prostate cancer must stay away from Ashwagandha products.
Those on medications like benzodiazepines, anticonvulsants, or barbiturates must also avoid Ashwagandha as it can cause sedative and GABAergic effects.
Intake of Ashwagandha products by pregnant women can lead to abortion. Impact of consuming Ashwagandha by lactating mothers is still unknown. However, it is better to stay safe and avoid it while breastfeeding.
Fake Ashwagandha capsules are known to cause Hemolytic anaemia and abdominal pain.
As Ashwagandha creates a drug-like effect on neurotransmission, unintended side- effects in the form of loss of potency, is a possibility, especially if taken over a longer duration of time.
Consuming Ashwagandha capsules for chronic fatigue can lead to an overactive thyroid.
Burning, irregular heartbeat, dizziness, itching, a rise of liver enzymes, skin rash, fatigue, fever, oedema, diarrhoea and discolouration of skin/mucous membranes are some other commonly reported side effects.
Ashwagandha can hyper-activate the immune system, thus increasing symptoms of auto-immune diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS) and lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or other conditions. People afflicted with these disorders must avoid using this herbal supplement.
Ashwagandha has the potential to slow down the central nervous system. According to doctors, anaesthesia and such other medications administered during and after any surgical procedure can augment this effect. It is important to stop the ashwagandha dose at least two to three weeks before a surgery is scheduled.
Mild sleepiness and sedation, nausea, headache, stomach irritation, upper GI discomfort, loose stools in others are also common side effects.
The time taken for Ashwagandha to work also varies from one individual to another. However, the standard rule is to wait for about a month to see the best results. Also, according to Ayurveda, it takes a year for any herbal medicine to yield tangible results. The time taken for Ashwagandha to work and show results also depends on the type of condition it is taken for.
While acting as an anti-ageing herb, Ashwagandha is prescribed in lower doses, which is recommended to continue for a couple of months. Ashwagandha will take some months to bring about the desired action, and it will happen gradually. Again, as an antidepressant, anti-stress and sleep aid herb, Ashwagandha is known to yield tangible results in just about 5 - 7 days. As an energy-boosting herb, it takes nearly 3 - 5 days to show results and in stimulating sexual drive, the herbal medicine can take nearly a week to show the best results.