Ashwagandha is the Sanskrit name of the medicinal plant Withania somnifera, commonly known as Indian ginseng or Indian winter cherry. The term Ashwagandha literally means ‘smell of horse,’ directly referring to the musky odor of the leaves and stem of the plant, while indirectly alluding to its invigorating effect on the mind and the body. On the other hand, its Latin name somnifera means ‘sleep-inducing,’ which happens to be another effect of the plant.
Ashwagandha is widely used in the ancient medical stream of India known as Ayurveda, which roughly translates to ‘the Science of Life.’ This short perennial has a wide distribution in the foothills of the Himalayas and the surrounding arid plains. It grows wild in undeveloped areas but is cultivated on a large-scale to meet the high demand.
This herbaceous perennial rarely grows more than 3 feet. The simple leaves and the stem are covered with a soft mat of hair that gives the plant a lighter hue of green. The small flowers are rather inconspicuous, but not the bright orange-red berries that form inside the persistent calyces. They have some resemblance to tomatillos and Peruvian ground cherry, but they are poisonous, as many other berries of the nightshade family (Solanaceae) are. Crushed berries are used topically to treat tumors and ulcers on the skin though.
The root of Ashwagandha is the main part used in medicinal preparations. Several alkaloids such as somniferine ashwagandhine and cuscohygrine, and steroidal lactones like withaferin A, are responsible for its wide-ranging therapeutic effects. Commercial crops are grown as annuals, with the root usually harvested in the first year itself, although the alkaloid content is higher in the root of older plants.
Ashwagandha root is available as dried bits and in powder form for preparing medicinal formulations. They can be used for making a rejuvenating tea, but capsules and liquid extracts are more popular with users. Ashwagandha can be used to treat specific problems such as asthma and rheumatism, but it is mainly used as a restorative and adaptogen that helps the body and mind as a whole.
Some of the health benefits you can expect from Ashwagandha supplements are:
1. Ashwagandha provides an energy boost
When people complain of general fatigue or lack of mental and physical energy and initiative, Ashwagandha is often the first remedy recommended by Ayurvedic practitioners. In fact, what people first notice when they start using an Ashwagandha supplement is a perceptible increase in energy, accompanied by a sense of well-being. It is this effect that has earned it the epithet Indian ginseng. However, unlike stimulant drugs that cause a sudden spurt of energy, it does not result in an overexcited state. What’s more; Ashwagandha does not lead to dependency or addiction.
The energy boost is more balanced, and is usually apparent as an increased ability and stamina to perform normal tasks without tiring easily. Clinical studies have shown that Ashwagandha use results in higher blood cell production and enhanced circulation. Researchers could contribute this to high energy levels since every cell and organ in the body requires a good supply of oxygen-rich blood for optimum performance.
2. Ashwagandha is excellent for stress relief
This herbal preparation is the best stress buster there is. It reduces anxiety without making you drowsy. Clinical studies have proven the efficacy of Ashwagandha root extract as an anti-anxiety medication time and again. In one such study published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, involving 64 individuals assessed to have chronic stress, it showed a significant reduction in symptoms.
A 300 gm dose of full strength Ashwagandha was administered twice a day to one group while others were given a placebo. On comparing their serum cortisol levels at the start of the study and after completing a 60-day period of Ashwagandha use, a marked reduction was observed in the group that was given the drug.
Cortisol is a steroidal hormone produced by the adrenal gland in response to stress. This hormone is essential for the body to kickstart appropriate responses that help us survive real stressful situations. However, constant high levels of cortisol due to chronic stress can be detrimental in more ways than one.
3. Ashwagandha promotes restful sleep
One surprising effect of Ashwagandha is that it gives an energy boost whenever it is required, but relaxes the mind and promotes restful sleep when it is sorely needed. In other words, you may find that a morning dose of the herbal preparation provides you with extra energy to go through the day; while an evening dose helps you have a fitful sleep. While this may sound contradictory, it is not difficult to see how a good night’s sleep can make you more energetic the next day.
The sleep promoting effect of Ashwagandha alone is sufficient to make it a popular therapeutic, given the fact that insomnia is a so prevalent in our modern society. The reasons could be stress and strain at workplaces and in relationships, not to mention environmental stress, but insomnia puts us at greater risk of developing metabolic disorders like diabetes and hypertension. People with sleep disorders have been found to have an increased risk of congestive heart failure too. Regular use of Ashwagandha can restore healthy sleep patterns for the benefit of the body as well as mind.
People who took Ashwagandha reported an improvement in nighttime sleep and enhanced sense of well being. The reciprocal effect of stress reduction and sleep is quite clear here. Restful sleep naturally reduces stress levels, while lower stress levels lead to good sleep. Both have an overall positive effect on the body and mind.
4. Ashwagandha provides mood lift
Ashwagandha is often prescribed for treating depression. It is known to improve mood without driving the person to the other extreme. That’s why it is particularly useful in treating bipolar disease in which there is alternating of periods of depressive and manic phases.
Antidepressant drugs often push the person into the manic stage, necessitating the use of suppressants. They, in turn, zap the person, resulting in a lack of energy and a melancholic disposition. Ashwagandha, on the other hand, creates a balance and prevents extreme mood swings.
5. Ashwagandha helps increase concentration and cognitive abilities
Ashwagandha is usually given in milk to young children to improve growth and muscle tone, especially for those who lag behind others in physical parameters. But, when Ashwagandha was given in small doses of 2 mg to pre-school children for 60 days, it was found to improve their ability to concentrate on learning tasks and assimilate facts at a faster rate. Its potential in treating attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) in school children is being actively explored.
6. Ashwagandha improves memory and reduces brain cell degeneration
Ashwagandha has a long history of being a choice drug of people advancing in age. It is believed to arrest the aging process and associated effects such as gradual loss of physical strength and memory. Recent studies have shown this to be true. For example, a study conducted in mice with Alzheimer’s disease at the National Brain Research Centre showed definite improvement in their memory retaining capacity as well as the ability to learn new tasks with the administration of Ashwagandha extract for 20 days. There was a significant reduction in the amyloid plaques that indicate brain degeneration.
The excellent antioxidant action of Ashwagandha could prevent brain cell degeneration, but some substances in the extract might help the regeneration of neurons and dendrites as well.
7. Ashwagandha helps with blood sugar control
People with Type 2 diabetes can benefit from Ashwagandha supplements as evidenced by several clinical trials. In a study involving 32 diabetics, a significant reduction in fasting blood sugar and HbA1C was observed in 18 people on administering 250 mg of Ashwagandha twice a day for a month.
A laboratory study on rats has shown that Ashwagandha is capable of reducing blood glucose levels in a dose dependent manner. Both blood glucose levels and HbA1C showed a reduction of 35% to 45% in diabetic rats treated with the root and leaf extracts of the herb at a higher dose of 200 mg/kg of body weight. But the effect was much less in those treated with 100mg/kg of body weight.
The mechanism of action seems to be an increase in insulin sensitivity rather than an increase in the production of insulin by the pancreas. Liver glycogen showed a 150% increase, indicating higher rate of glycogenesis. Another significant finding was an increase in hemoglobin levels.
8. Ashwagandha is cancer-protective and holds promise in cancer treatment
The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of Ashwagandha could be partly responsible for this herb’s cancer-protective effect. Ashwagandha leaves are used to remove tumors and carbuncles, and the root extract is used in many Ayurvedic preparations prescribed for treating several types of cancer.
Research conducted at the University of Hawaii in its College of Pharmacy has found that the extract of Ashwagandha root could inhibit cytokines related to cancer development. Another research team at the Louisiana State University has shown how it inhibits the growth of cancerous tumors. A study at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute found that it inhibited the migration of breast cancer cells.
There have been several other experimental studies and a few clinical trials in the alternative medicine domain to test the efficacy of this claim, but modern medicine is yet to make use of its chemotherapy potential.
9. Ashwagandha stimulates thyroid function
People with a sluggish thyroid that results in hypothyroidism, as well as those having hyperthyroidism due to an overactive thyroid, may benefit from Ashwagandha.
In the case of hypothyroidism, Ashwagandha use has been shown to increase thyroid function through increasing glucose-6-phosphate function in the liver. On the other hand, it seems to downregulate thyroid function in people with excess blood levels of the T3 and T4 hormones.
In effect, unlike allopathic drugs which have a specific action on glandular function, either stimulating or dampening it, Ashwagandha has more of a modulating and balancing action on the thyroid. However, you should keep a close watch on thyroid function while taking this drug to see how it affects you, adjusting the dosage of any other thyroid medication you are taking.
10. Ashwagandha improves sexual performance
This is one of the historical uses of Ashwagandha that had helped make it very popular. ‘Kama Sutra’ or the ‘Art of Love’ is an ancient Indian text dedicated to the success of human relations. It stresses on the importance of satisfactory sex lives, and prescribes Ashwagandha for enhancing desire, improving performance, and ensuring satisfaction of both partners.
In Ayurveda, drug formulations containing Ashwagandha as the main ingredient are often used to treat impotency, erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation. The aphrodisiac effect of Ashwagandha extends to both men and women, and is meant for strengthening steady relationships, rather than producing a Viagra-like instant fix.
11. Ashwagandha helps resolve infertility and menopausal problems
Ashwagandha strengthens the reproductive system in both men and women through various mechanisms, the most important being stress reduction, and restoring hormonal balance. It has a direct action of several endocrine glands, such as the adrenals and the thyroid, regulating the androgens produced by the adrenal cortex in particular.
In men, drugs containing Ashwagandha are used to improve the quality of semen, increasing both the count and motility of sperms. As per a study reported in the Natural Medicine Journal, young men with confirmed infertility were found to attain a 53% increase in semen volume and 167% increase in sperm concentration on being treated with 225 gm Ashwagandha 3 times a day for 12 weeks.
Ashwagandha is considered a womb cleanser and toner. It eliminates the impurities that stand in the way of conception and strengthens the uterine muscle. It is also used to treat dysmenorrhea and problems associated with menopause.
It should be noted that the drug should be stopped as soon as the woman gets pregnant because it can cause powerful uterine contractions that may result in miscarriage.
12. Ashwagandha brings arthritis and rheumatism relief
Rheumatism and arthritis are two general terms used to refer to pain and stiffness in the joints. Ashwagandha is traditionally used to treat rheumatoid arthritis resulting from the inflammation of the membranes around the joints. It is characterized by pain and swelling, usually following a period of rest. People with this type of arthritis often have an identifying RA factor in the blood. The exact cause of this condition is not known, but it is thought to be an autoimmune disorder.
The anti-inflammatory and immunoregulatory actions of Ashwagandha may be able to tackle the autoimmune factor, in addition to reducing pain and swelling. People with osteoarthritis resulting from physical damage caused to the cartilage covering the bone joints may also benefit from Ashwagandha’s anti-inflammatory effect.
13. Ashwagandha enhances sports performance
Ashwagandha is popular among bodybuilders and strength trainers since it helps build muscle mass and increase strength and stamina. It is particularly useful for young men undergoing rigorous practice regimens to maximize their performance in competitive sports.
According to a 2-month study, published in 2010 in the International Journal of Ayurveda Research, involving young men aged between 20 to 23 years, 500 mg Ashwagandha extract per day resulted in increased power and velocity compared to those who were given a placebo. It improved their neuro-muscular coordination and increased the muscular strength of lower limbs, two very important aspects of sports and athletics.
It should be kept in mind that Ashwagandha is a highly potent drug, not just a nutritional supplement. The standard therapeutic dosage of Ashwagandha for general health and wellbeing is 300 mg to 500 mg of root powder in capsule form (such as this), to be taken twice a day. However, the dosage for specific conditions needs to be determined by a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner who usually tries to assess the ‘nature’ or ‘constitution’ of the individual before prescribing medication.
Persons taking cardiac medications or drugs to control high blood pressure and diabetes should not take Ashwagandha without proper medical supervision since it may enhance the effects of these drugs. Ashwagandha may have drug interactions with other therapeutics; hence, its use should be reported to the physician when you go in for other treatments.
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