This lovely little plant (Withania somnifera) comes from the Nightshade family (Solanaceae) and is one of the primary healing herbs used in Indian medicine. This herb grows no more than 2 feet tall and the root has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for several thousand years. In Ayurveda, ashwaghanda is known as a rasayana- meaning a substance that promotes strength, vigor and longevity.
Known in the West as an adaptogen, ashwaghanda is particularly helpful for strengthening the immune system, stabilizing and calming the nervous system, improving libido and reducing insomnia. (Somnifera means sleep inducing.) Ashwaghanda has also been used as an aid to improving memory and cognitive function and for that reason it has been seen as very helpful for those who are experiencing cognitive deterioration such as Alzheimers and dementia.
In terms of the immune system, ashwaghanda helps increase white and red blood cell count and can be helpful in the treatment of autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Because it contains steroidal precursors, ashwaghanda can help reduce inflammatory processes such as carpal tunnel and arthritic conditions. In studies, It has also been found to be especially helpful fro the treatment of cancer. It not only appears to have anti-tumoral properties, it also helps with the side effects from chemotherapy. Ashwaghanda has anti-inflammatory properties which make it useful for reducing the pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. This herb has a special affinity towards the heart, helping to strengthen the heart muscles. Finally, it has been shown to be useful in regulating blood sugar levels and thus helpful for fighting diabetes.
In terms of mental health, I often suggest ashwaghanda to people who are feeling weak, depressed with a fair bit of anxiety and insomnia. This herb is also especially helpful for those with poor sexual drive, often due to underlying weakness, fatigue and anxiety. Ashwaghanda contains a number of alkaloids known as withanolides that appear to cause much of the sedative action of this herb.
There have been a number of randomized double-blind studies of the effectiveness of ashwaghanda that have shown its efficacy for treating anxiety. A 2012 study of 64 people with a history of chronic stress were given 300 mg of ashwaghanda twice a day for two months. The results showed a “significant reduction” in stress levels and anxiety. A 2009 study of 41 subjects taking 300 mg ashwaghanda twice a day for 6 weeks also showed greatly decreased anxiety and stress levels. A review of all the tests point to ashwaghanda’s larger effectiveness for a number of mental and phsyical complaints.
Ashwaghanda is warming and improves digestive and circulatory function. In sanskrit, ashwaghanda means “the smell of a horse” and because of that many are turned off from trying it in tea form. But really the taste of the herb is not that bad. It has a slightly sharp and bitter taste but is easily masked with other herbs or if prepared in a traditional Indian way with milk and honey. There are far more herbs that are hard to drink including yellow dock, rhodiola and damiana. Ashwaghanda is mellow comparatively.
To take as a powder, I would recommend taking a 5-600 mg capsule twice a day.
As a tincture, I would recommend taking one dropper full of tincture (35 drops) 3 times a day.
If you are interested in trying it as a tea, I would suggest 2 teaspoons of the herb to a cup of water boiled and simmered for 20 minutes. Take twice a day.
If you want to take it Indian style (yum), take one to tea spoons of the herb and add to a cup of milk (cow or almond). Add a pinch of cinnamon powder (1/4 tsp.) and clove powder (1/8th tsp.) if you want a little more warmth and spice. Warm up the milk for 5 minutes and add honey for sweetness. Tasty and awesome!
Contraindications: Because of its sedative effect I would avoid using this herb when taking benzodiazapenes such as klonopin and valium. Also avoid if taking immunological modulators pharmaceutical drugs. It should be avoided by pregnant women due to the very low possibility it could act as an abortifacient.
Conclusion: This is an incredibly valuable herb that can be quite useful for people with anxiety, lowered immunity, arthritic complaints and poor sex drive. It is gently warming nourishing and strengthening and can be taken over a period of weeks and months and is unlikely to cause strong side effects.
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