What is Ashwagandha?

What is Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), also known as Indian ginseng or winter cherry, is an ancient Ayurvedic herb. It belongs to a class of medicinal herbs known as adaptogens and has been used for more than 3,000 years to help reduce stress, improve stamina and increase concentration levels. 

In Sanskrit, ashwagandha means “smell of the horse,” which may be applied to its unique smell and its ability to increase strength.

What is Ayurveda?

Ayurveda — a Sanskrit term meaning “knowledge of life” — is an ancient Indian system of natural medicine. The practice is based on the concept that disease is caused by an imbalance in a person’s overall being. Ayurvedic practitioners offer natural therapies and interventions to help patients regain balance within the body, mind, spirit and environment. About 240,000 American adults use Ayurvedic medicine, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

What are the benefits of Ashwagandha?

Studies have shown that ashwagandha can help improve sleep and reduce stress. Many of ashwagandha’s health benefits are attributed to its high levels of withanolides, hormone precursors that can convert into human physiological hormones to help bring balance to the body. 

In an overview of ashwagandha in the African Journal of Traditional. Complementary and Alternative Medicines, the authors write, “Ashwagandha is commonly available as a churna, a fine sieved powder that can be mixed with water, ghee (clarified butter) or honey. It enhances the function of the brain and nervous system and improves the memory.”

“It improves the function of the reproductive system promoting a healthy sexual and reproductive balance. Being a powerful adaptogen, it enhances the body’s resilience to stress. Ashwagandha improves the body’s defense against disease by improving the cell-mediated immunity. It also possesses potent antioxidant properties that help protect against cellular damage caused by free radicals.”

Research: Effects of Ashwagandha on Anxiety and Stress

In one review, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, ashwagandha was shown to outperform psychotherapy in reducing anxiety in a group of subjects by 56.5% compared to only 30.5% in the psychotherapy group.

In another study, published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, researchers evaluated the safety and efficacy of a high-concentration extract of Ashwagandha to see whether it could reduce stress and anxiety and improve the general well-being of 64 adults with a history of chronic stress. 

The findings show that participants who received the high-concentration full-spectrum ashwagandha root extract exhibited a significant reduction in scores on all the stress-assessment scales on Day 60, compared to the placebo group. 

According to the study authors, “Ideally, an adaptogen should: a) decrease stress-induced damage, b) be safe and produce a beneficial effect even if the number of administrations is more than required, c) be devoid of any negative effects such as withdrawal syndromes and d) not influence the normal body functions more than necessary. Ashwagandha is one adaptogen that possesses all of the characteristics listed above.”

Swimming Endurance Study on Rats

In one study, researchers looked at the ability of ashwagandha to increase stamina among swimming rats. 

They write, “Ashwagandha was shown to increase swimming performance in rats as judged by [an] increase in swimming time during [the] physical endurance test.”

“Ashwagandha treated animals showed a significant increase in the duration of swimming time as compared to control. The control group of mice swam for a mean time of 385 minutes, whereas the drug-treated animals continued to swim for a mean duration of 740 minutes. Thus, the swimming time was approximately doubled after Withania somnifera (WS) treatment.”

Study: Anti-Anxiety Effects of Ashwagandha on Rats

In a review looking at the effects of ashwagandha on rat anxiety, the authors write, “Ashwagandha induced a calming anxiolytic effect that was comparable to the drug Lorazepam in all three standard Anxiety tests: the elevated plus-maze, social interaction and the feeding latency in an unfamiliar environment.”

“Further, both Ashwagandha and Lorazepam, reduced rat brain levels of tribulin, an endocoid marker of clinical anxiety, when the levels were increased following administration of the anxiogenic agent, pentylenetetrazole.”

“Ashwagandha also exhibited an antidepressant effect, comparable with that induced by imipramine, in two standard tests, the forced swim-induced ‘behavioral despair’ and ‘learned helplessness’ tests. The investigations support the use of Ashwagandha as a mood stabilizer in clinical conditions of anxiety and depression.”

Research: Effects of Ashwagandha on Neurodegenerative Disease

Neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s diseases, are characterized by the progressive breakdown of the structure and function of the central nervous system. 

Today, 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease; 1 million from Parkinson’s; 400,000 from multiple sclerosis (MS); 30,000 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), and 30,000 from Huntington’s disease, according to Harvard NeuroDiscovery Center.

Since neurodegenerative diseases strike primarily in mid- to late-life, the prevalence is expected to soar as the population gets older. (By 2030, as many as 1 in 5 Americans will be over the age of 65.) If left unchecked 30 years from now, more than 12 million Americans will suffer from neurodegenerative diseases, according to Harvard.

In the brains of patients suffering from neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease, the atrophy of neurites has been observed as a significant part of the disease. 

According to a review, the authors write, “There are dozens of studies that show that Ashwagandha slows, stops, reverses or removes neuritic atrophy and synaptic loss. Therefore Ashwagandha can be used to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and other neurodegenerative diseases at any stage of the disease, even before a person has been diagnosed and is still in the state of mild forgetfulness, etc.”

Who should not take ashwagandha?

It is recommended that pregnant and nursing women not take ashwagandha, as well as those with hyperthyroidism. There is some evidence that ashwagandha can cause miscarriage. The herb may also interact with sedatives or certain medications.

How to take ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is not known for its pleasant taste, so it’s a good idea to mix the powdered root with fruit juice or another strong drink to help it go down. The “toss and wash” method may also work for some people.

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