What is Ashwagandha?
What a word: Ashwagandha. It sounds like it has magic in it. And in the area of herbal remedies it does seem to be magical. It is a veritable panacea like ginseng. In fact some call it Indian ginseng although it is not related to ginseng at all.
Other names for it are Winter Cherry and Vitania sluggard. Vitania sluggard should be its Latin name in my opinion. It is a nod to the adaptogenic power of this herb. Vitania means full of life and sluggard is the opposite. Remember an adaptogen can go both ways depending on what is needed.
Its official Latin name however is Withania somnifera. For all of Ashwagandha's uses this name is pitifully nondescriptive. So much so that over 30 articles on the subject never mentioned what it meant, but I am stubborn and tracked it down eventually.
Withania is thought to be in honor of Henry Witham, a British geologist who is known for his writings on fossil botany since 1830. And Somnifera means something that brings sleep. Maybe that was the first thing noticed about this multipurpose herb. It is probably because the leaves have a tendency to bring on sleep and they were probably tried before the roots were explored.
Ashwagandha has an interesting meaning. Ashwa means horse and gandha means scent. Some people say this refers to the distinct earthy smell of the herb likened to the smell of a horse and others think that when you take the herb you get strength like a horse and horse smarts and other good attributes a horse is thought of as having.
The horse had become a symbol of nobility and power and even in southern India where there aren't many horses, images of horses are presented to gods as sacred offerings. So it makes sense that people wanted horse like characteristics.
Identification and Habitat
The ashwagandha is a little plant 1 to 5 feet only. It is native to the drier regions of India, Northern Africa and the Middle East. Some also claim it is native to Southeast Asia. It is cultivated all over the world not only for medicinal purposes but as an ornamental plant as well.
It is a little sturdy thing. It grows despite any condition. It looks furry and thick. The leaves can grow up to 4 inches and their hairiness looks like fur or a loose felt. The leaves are oval and when you touch them they give out a smell. That accounts for the scent part (gandha) of the word ashwagandha.
Greenish yellow flowers grow in clusters of five. The hairy sepals (the modified leaves that nestle the flower) turn into a paperlike sheath around a berry after pollination. Near the fall the paper pod opens up and falls away leaving a delicious looking berry like a goldenberry or a little cherry tomato. But the berries are fairly bitter which give an unpleasant surprise the first time you find out about it. Also, they don't contain the same quantity of medicinal properties as the roots so they are not as popular in remedies.
Ashwagandha Uses and Benefits
The berries are used in industry to coagulate milk in the making of cheese replacing the controversial rennet. And sometimes a decoction of the fruit was used for eye remedies. A decoction is when you boil something in a liquid to draw out the internal ingredients. This remedy was used topically and as a tea.
The roots are the most sought-after part of the plant. They are light brown and grow out from a tap root which grows straight down. The lateral roots can reach the size of a thin carrot. The amount and variety of medicinal compounds found in the roots is staggering. It has saponins like ginseng, but they are different saponins with much bigger compounds and it also has polysaccharides called glycowithanolides that stimulate the immune system similar to the way ginseng does.
Research in India I believe has far surpassed the amount of research done elsewhere on natural alternatives. And since ashwagandha is their baby there has been so much research and so many compounds revealed with healing properties that it is dizzying. Ginseng probably has just as many, but research done in the US and Europe toward hopefully making a drug instead of exploring the potentials of using the whole herb for different things gives limited research only on specific drug promising compounds.
Understanding its Bioactive Compounds
The Biologically active constituents found in exploring ashwagandha include:
- Alkaloids (isopelletierine, anaferine, anahygrine, witanin, somniferin, somnin, tropin, pseudowitanin, pseudotropin, choline and kuskohigrin, etc.)
An alkaloid is a substance that contains Nitrogen and has pronounced effects on the workings of the body.
- Steroidal Lactones (Withanolides, withaferins). These are a steroid base attached to a lactone. A lactone is a ring of carbon atoms with an oxygen in it and the next carbon next to the oxygen has a double bond to an oxygen. The ring can have 3 members and up. The most stable ones have a 5 or 6 member ring. In ashwagandha the lactones attached to the basic steroid structure are 6 member rings. There are about 35 different compounds derived from that basic structure found in raw ashwagandha. They are denoted with letters A, B etc.. Withanolide A and Withaferin A are the compounds I ran into most often in reading studies showing many benefits for the body in multiple systems.
- Chlorogenic Acid
- Fatty Acids
- And last but not least Flavonoids including Quercetin.
It boggles the mind how many chemical compounds there are in plants. And they all work together. This is why nature's recipe is the best recipe. And this recipe has stood the test of time.
Ashwagandha has been used in India for over 3000 years as part of their Ayurveda. Ayurveda means science of life or knowledge of life. It was developed more than 5000 years ago and is most known for its whole body healing system.
More Healing Potential
Ashwagandha is an everyday household remedy in India and they consider that its effectiveness has been completely proven by science. In the US and Europe many studies have been done, but do not recommend ashwagandha or any other herb for that matter as a remedy outright because they say more research needs to be done. I won't tell you what I think about that, but feel free to put 2 and 2 together on your own.
Ashwagandha is commonly marketed as a calming herb that can help you cope socially and at the same time as something that will boost the adrenals.
It is also marketed as something to increase mental power and concentration and overall mental state.
Those are the reasons it has become more and more popular seemingly all of a sudden. But there is more to ashwagandha than that. I am going to try and list all the uses for Ashwagandha I encountered in my research:
- Helps with anything affecting the Central Nervous system and protects it from harm
- It helps the body build blood cells, red and white.
- It keeps the body comfortable not letting any system get all revved up out of balance with the other systems
- Helps in drug addiction withdrawal
- Creates rejuvenating effects
- It affects modulation of the immune system by several pathways
- Reduces stress hormones like cortisol
- Helps you regain and maintain your figure.
- Protects the mitochondria preventing disfunction or alteration in its behavior patterns
- Increases fertility
- Protects the heart
- Helps strengthen the Thyroid
- Helps normalize sleep
- Enhances muscle strength and recovery
- Helps maintain water balance in the body
- Aphrodisiac, especially in older people
- General health tonic (makes body tissues strong)
- Used as a stimulant
- Can modulate the production of melanin and so helps skin discolorations.
- Used on pimples, boils and carbuncles
- Helps constipated or flatulent colon
- Given with milk it could help emaciation in children
- Helps debility, from old age or injury for instance.
- Warms the body and unstagnates areas that are congested
- In combination with other things it is given for snake venom and scorpion stings.
So what do you think? Pretty impressive, right?
So we have two ancient healing systems the Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine that both have their champion herb ashwagandha and ginseng respectively. But lately there is a movement called Uber Nutrition that takes from both systems and they have been doing experiments with combining ginseng and ashwagandha together. They say they haven't found any problems combining them and are getting very good results.
Well I think I will take the gradient approach and do one at a time before doing a combo, but if any of you are the courageous type please let us know your experience. Both our ashwagandha and our ginseng are top notch.
So in summary, ashwagandha is an Indian herb with adaptogenic powers to make you ready for anything. It enhances your mind, your muscles and your body systems. Our ashwagandha has organic black pepper added to increase your absorption of the ashwagandha into your system. You get 1200 mg per serving of pure organic ashwagandha and 20 mg of the organic black pepper per serving in vegan capsules.