Dip a toe into the world of medicinal herbs, and you will quickly discover a whole new realm of names and terminology that you never knew existed. Ayurvedic, phytotherapy, decoctions, tinctures – all terms related to herbal medicine.
As for the names of the plants themselves, it doesn’t take long to be utterly bewildered by the string of official Latin names and the countless common ones. Althea officinalis for marshmallow, glycyrrhiza glabra for the plant commonly known as licorice.
After a very little bit of reading, you’ll start to recognize some of the more widely-known names in the herbal medicine portfolio. One of the more unusual names that you will see frequently mentioned is ashwagandha.
What is ashwagandha, where did it originate, and most importantly – how is it used? There is a lot of misinformation out there about herbal medicine in general and ashwagandha in particular, but this guide will give you all you need to know about what ashwagandha is and the role it plays in herbal medicine.
What is ashwagandha?
As a plant, ashwagandha isn’t much to look at.
There’s nothing striking about the plant itself, which is decidedly shrub-like and grows to be about 30 inches tall. Even the ashwagandha fruit, a reddish-orange berry, is not noteworthy or anything out of the ordinary.
But while ashwagandha’s outward appearance is rather boring, under the ground is where the plant’s potency is hidden. Herbal medicine uses ashwagandha root, not the flower, leaf, or stem that is used from other herbs.
Ashwagandha came to the West from India, where it has a long tradition of use in Ayurvedic medicine (more on that later). It can be found native from India to China, as well as in Nepal and Yemen. Farmers cultivate ashwagandha on dry, stony slopes.
The root emits a strong odor, said to resemble a horse; the name “ashwagandha” actually refers to that horse-like odor.
History of Ashwagandha use
It might be a surprise to learn that there is more than one herbal medicine tradition in the world. The true number of distinct herbal traditions is probably countless, only limited by the number of different cultures in the world. But when it comes to herbal medicine today, practitioners tend to discuss a much smaller number of traditions. European traditional medicine remains popular in the U.K. and continental Europe, while Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is officially recognized as a medical system in China.
But of all the systems of herbal medicine, probably none is older or more well-known than the Indian tradition. This tradition, also known as Ayurvedic medicine, relies on a number of different techniques used in combination with each other, from minerals to metals to herbs. The herbal part of the Ayurvedic tradition stretches back thousands of years, a history only rivaled by Chinese medicine.
Ayurvedic medicine grew immensely in popularity in Europe and the United States during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Today many Ayurvedic herbs have passed into common reference; ashwagandha, despite the unusual name, is one such example. The herb goes by a number of different names and titles. Known as the “king of ayurvedic herbs,” you’ll also see ashwagandha referred to quite commonly as Indian ginseng, or more infrequently as winter cherry. Regardless of the name, ashwagandha falls into a particular category of medicinal herbs known as adaptogens.
Withania somnifera as an adaptogen
In the Ayurvedic tradition, and more broadly within herbal medicine, there is an entire family of herbal remedies thought to boost resistance to stress. By modifying cortisol levels and other hormones within the body, these herbs increase a person’s ability to handle whatever life throws at them.
Because of that resistance-boosting ability, these herbs are commonly referred to as “adaptogen” or “adaptogenic” herbs; they increase the ability to adapt or react to the environment. Withania somnifera, ashwagandha, falls into this category.
In traditional Indian herbal applications, adaptogenic herbs are used in combination with other herbs; any particular remedy may have dozens of different herbs working together. As an adaptogen, Indian ginseng has a wide application – it is used alongside more targeted herbs to help to increase the body’s immune response to any number of ailments.
In modern herbal medicine, you’re likely to find ashwagandha used to help treat everything from lowered immunity to cholesterol levels, but in general you’ll find that Indian ginseng use used in three different ways:
Relieves stress and anxiety
One of the most potent applications of adaptogenic herbs is to reduce stress, and ashwagandha is widely used for this exact purpose. By boosting your body’s ability to react to its environment, you are better able to handle whatever comes your way. The better you’re able to cope with things, the less stressful life will seem.
As with most herbal treatments, you’ll rarely see ashwagandha listed by itself to treat anxiety or stress (or any of the other ailments listed here). Instead, you’ll find combinations of herbs working together. These positive interactions between herbs are some of the most important benefits of herbal medicine.
The immune system is our body’s core defense against any disease or ailment that comes our way; unless you suffer from an autoimmune disease, immune-boosting herbs are fantastic at giving your body an extra boost to its own natural defenses.
Early studies indicated a significant boost to white blood cell, hemoglobin, and platelet counts in mice who were given ashwagandha. While the evidence is more-or-less preliminary, studies like this one support the long-standing role of ashwagandha as an immune-boosting herb.
Control and reduce inflammation
Ashwagandha has long been used in Indian medicine to help manage arthritis and joint pain by reducing inflammation. The less swollen and inflamed the joints are, the less pain and suffering usually accompanies them. Initial scientific studies show some promising signs, and more work is being done to explore how ashwagandha reduces inflammation.
In these situations, ashwagandha can be doubly-helpful; it reduces inflammation and also boosts your body’s ability to handle the stress and anxiety caused by dealing with long-term illnesses. Stress can also cause inflammation, so dealing with both issues at once can prove to be a huge benefit.
While ashwagandha is a fantastic all-around stress reliever and inflammation reducer, it also brings some surprising physical benefits to the table.
A herb that reduces stress and also boosts muscle growth? While the result may seem surprising, ashwagandha as a gym supplement makes a bit more sense when you consider its anti-inflammatory properties. Regardless of the exact method, this study indicated that ashwagandha increased muscle growth over the course of an 8-week trial. Even better news? The trial focused on resistance training – so for any gym fanatics who love the bench press, ashwagandha is your new friend.
Male reproductive system health
Formal scientific studies are a bit harder to find to support this one, but it is worth noting that ashwagandha has long been used in Indian medicine to treat erectile dysfunction in men. It also holds a long-standing reputation as an aphrodisiac. There are some preliminary good signs: this study found that sperm counts and quality were increased after treatment with ashwagandha.
Ashwagandha would be a significantly beneficial herb with just the general properties mentioned above, but it does even more than that. You’ll find ashwagandha used quite widely to treat a number of specific ailments, some with surprising success.
TSH is a thyroid-stimulating hormone controlled by your pituitary gland. TSH controls your body’s production of two primary hormones produced by your thyroid gland, T3 and T4. In hyperthyroid problems, your body releases too much TSH and drives up the production of your thyroid hormones. WIth hypothyroidism, the problem is the exact opposite – too little TSH is released and too little T3 and T4 goes into production.
Ashwagandha helps to boost TSH, thereby increasing T3 and T4 levels, making it a promising herb to help manage hypothyroidism. While it has been used that way for years in the ayurvedic tradition, only recently has it attracted any clinical attention. Early results are promising, although more research is needed.
Treatment of seizures
Seizures are notoriously difficult to treat and manage, partly because they have a number of possible underlying causes. Many are rooted in the human nervous system, which itself is incredibly complex and therefore hard to treat.
One promising line of study lies in the role of GABA receptors which help to regulate and control different stimuli in the nervous system. With a long-standing tradition of ashwagandha being used to treat seizures, scientists have begun to explore exactly how the herb works on the nervous system. Early studies show a potential link between ashwagandha and those GABA receptors, though much more study is needed before anything can be shown conclusively.
Reducing stress, relieving anxiety, and boosting energy all help to improve heart health indirectly. But that’s not enough for ashwagandha, which also contains powerful antioxidants. While nothing has been proven conclusively, there’s a surprising body of medical literature that supports the link between ashwagandha and any number of heart health benefits.
Diabetes and blood sugar levels
Multiple scientific studies have noted the link between ashwagandha use and reduced blood sugar levels. Ashwagandha has been long used for these purposes in traditional Indian medicine, so it is no surprise that study after study show that ashwagandha decreases the level of blood glucose and urine sodium, among a multitude of other benefits.
Current studies and the scientific verdict
The studies mentioned above are only a small fraction of the studies available. Unsurprisingly, many of the studies come from medical journals and universities based in India, where the medical significance of ashwagandha has a long-standing tradition.
In general, most of these studies are only early indicators; as far as modern science is concerned, ashwagandha hasn’t undergone many human trials. While there is a broad range of promising studies, there’s little concrete evidence from the scientific side. That evidence will come; the more interest there is in ashwagandha, and indeed in herbal medicine in general, the more incentive there is for scientific research to be done.
And of course, there is always the body of evidence from the ayurvedic tradition itself, and the fact that millions of people rely on herbal medicine each year.
It is worth noting that, like most medicines and herbs, there are possible negative effects of taking ashwagandha. In particular, pregnant women should avoid taking Indian ginseng. People with autoimmune diseases and preexisting conditions should take ashwagandha only under professional advice.
Today you’ll find ashwagandha marketed nearly everywhere, for almost every possible condition. By far the most popular uses are the general ones – as an immune-boosting, anti-inflammatory herb with surprising benefits to mood and energy. In short, the adaptogenic side of ashwagandha is what has led to its current popularity.
In recent years, the physical effects of ashwagandha have also received increased attention, as fitness experts and gym rats have begun to see increased energy and more dramatic muscle growth.
Ashwagandha – continuing a 3000-year history
One thing is for sure; with the continued popularity of ashwagandha and its versatility and use in treating so many different ailments, ashwagandha isn’t going to go away anytime soon. The 3000-year medical history of ashwagandha is set to continue, this time with more and more scientific evidence backing it up.
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