Ashwagandha, one of the most vital herbs in Ayurvedic healing, has been used since ancient times for a wide variety of conditions, but is most well known for its restorative benefits. In Sanskrit ashwagandha means “the smell of a horse," indicating that the herb imparts the vigor and strength of a stallion, and it has traditionally been prescribed to help people strengthen their immune system after an illness. In fact, it’s frequently referred to as “Indian ginseng" because of its rejuvenating properties (although botanically, ginseng and ashwagandha are unrelated). In addition, ashwagandha is also used to enhance sexual potency for both men and women.
Belonging to the same family as the tomato, ashwagandha (or Withania somnifera in Latin) is a plump shrub with oval leaves and yellow flowers. It bears red fruit about the size of a raisin. The herb is native to the dry regions of India, northern Africa, and the Middle East, but today is also grown in more mild climates, including in the United States.
Ashwagandha contains many useful medicinal chemicals, including withanolides, (steroidal lactones), alkaloids, choline, fatty acids, amino acids, and a variety of sugars. While the leaves and fruit have valuable therapeutic properties, the root of the ashwagandha plant is the part most commonly used in Western herbal remedies.
Medical researchers have been studying ashwagandha with great interest and as of this date have carried out 216 studies of its healing benefits, summarized below:
- confers immune system protection
- combats the effects of stress
- improves learning, memory, and reaction time
- reduces anxiety and depression without causing drowsiness
- stabilizes blood sugar
- lowers cholesterol
- reduces brain-cell degeneration
- contains anti-malarial properties
- offers anti-inflammatory benefits
Some studies have also found that ashwagandha inhibits the growth of cancer cells in small animals, but further research is needed to determine whether the herb prevents the development of tumors in human beings.
Practical Uses and Precautions
The usual recommended dose is 600 to 1000 mg, twice daily. For people who suffer from insomnia and anxiety, having a cup of hot milk that contains a teaspoon of powdered ashwagandha before bedtime is beneficial. In extremely large doses, ashwagandha has been reported to induce abortions in animals. Although no similar studies have been carried out on humans, women should avoid the herb during pregnancy.