Known as a multipurpose herb and “rejuvenator” used in ancient Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for thousands of years, ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a plant native to India with a host of bioactive functions. Ashwagandha is a member of the Solanaceae family along with eggplant and tomato. It bears light green flowers that evolve to bright red fruit and is able to survive extreme temperatures and widely varying altitudes.
In Sanskrit, the word ashwagandha means “odor of a horse.” The likeness refers not only to the odor of the plant’s root but the essence of strength it’s said to deliver. It’s a powerful adaptogenic herb, meaning it helps your body manage and adapt to stress by balancing your immune system, metabolism and hormonal systems.
Ashwagandha also has natural pain reliever (analgesic) properties, can help increase physical strength, and its rejuvenating effects can promote general health when used regularly. While some adaptogens are stimulants in disguise, this is not the case with ashwagandha. It can give your morning exercise routine a boost, and when taken prior to bed it can help you get a good night’s sleep as well.
Flavonoids and other compounds are the active ingredients that give ashwagandha its many powerful properties. In one study, bioactive withanolides — naturally occurring steroids — in ashwagandha were identified as agents that suppress pathways responsible for several inflammation-based illnesses, including arthritis, asthma, hypertension, osteoporosis and cancer. Withanolides in ashwagandha also have immunomodulating properties, described as substances that can either stimulate or suppress your immune system to help fight infections, cancer and other diseases.
The Many Health Benefits of Ashwagandha
In Ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha is classified as “Rasayana,” a type of essence that helps in the healing of the body and the lengthening of life, and when you consider the many varied health benefits of this herb, it’s easy to see how it might influence longevity.
Importantly, a number of studies have shown this exotic herb can treat several diseases and disorders better than medications — without all the side effects. Ashwagandha has also been shown to:
- Support healthy levels of total lipids, cholesterol and triglycerides that are already in the normal range
- Enhance radiation therapy effects by reducing tumor GSH levels. It also reversed paclitaxel-induced neutropenia (low neutrophil count, a type of white blood cell) in mice
- Counteract osteoporosis(reduced bone density)
- Protect your brain from oxidative stress, and lower your risk of Alzheimer’s
- Stimulate proper thyroid function and treat subclinical hypothyroid
- One of the alkaloids in ashwagandha, called somniferin, helps promote relaxation, sound sleep and relieves restless leg syndrome.
- Reduce blood pressure
- Inhibit inflammation — In animal studies, ashwagandha was found to be more effective against inflammation than phenylbutazone or hydrocortisone
- Protect nerve function and oxidation
- Provide natural pain relief
- Combat insomnia and promote relaxation
- Nourish and protect your liver
- Increase red blood cell production
- Improve adrenal function
- Lower irritability, edginess and anxiety
- Increase energy and endurance
- Promote healthy immune function
- Treatment aid for ADHD
- Improve incontinence
- Treatment aid for Type 2 diabetes
- Improve conjunctivitis
- Treatment aid for vitiligo
- Ease symptoms of Parkinson’s disease
- Improve hyperglycemia
- Improve memory and cognitive function by slowing down the deterioration of brain cells, repairing brain cell damage and rebuilding neuronal networks and synapses
- Improve cardiovascular health — Ashwagandha helps maintain your heart health through its regulation of blood circulation. It helps prevent blood clots, and helps keep blood pressure levels within the normal range, which prevents the stress from burdening your heart
- Maintain youthful appearance of skin — Ashwagandha increases your estrogen levels, which in turn triggers the production of collagen. This allows the skin to keep its youthful appearance and helps in the production of natural oils. It also fights off free radicals that cause wrinkles, dark spots and blemishes
- Aid wound healing — Ashwagandha root powder can be used topically as a poultice to help treat wounds. Mix the powder with water to make a smooth paste and apply to the wound. It will help fight off bacteria, alleviate pain and speed up the healing process
- Treat arthritis — Ashwagandha has been noted in Ayurvedic manuscripts as well as modern medicine as being an effective remedy for both rheumatoid arthritis (Amavata) and osteoarthritis (Sandhi-gata Vata).
- As an adaptogen, ashwagandha is frequently used to support healthy adrenal function, which can be adversely affected by persistent stress, be it physical or psychological. Research shows the root reduces cortisol levels, restores insulin sensitivity and helps to stabilize mood.
- Ashwagandha can also help boost testosterone levels in men, which can have a beneficial effect on libido and sexual performance. In women, ashwagandha’s ability to rebalance hormones (including thyroid hormone, estrogen and progesterone) has been shown to improve polycystic ovary syndrome and relieve symptoms associated with menopause.
Possible Ashwagandha Side Effects and Contraindications
While generally safe, well-tolerated and nontoxic, side effects can still occur. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center cites case reports showing side effects from ashwagandha may include:
- Nausea, headache, stomach irritation and loose stools
- Overactive thyroid
- Burning, itching and discoloration of skin/mucous membrane
- Irregular heartbeat, dizziness
Ashwagandha is also contraindicated for, and should not be used by pregnant women, as it may induce abortion; breast-feeding women, as it may have an effect on the child; and people taking sedatives, as ashwagandha may augment the sedative effects. While ashwagandha appears to be beneficial for thyroid problems, if you have a thyroid disorder, use caution and consult with your doctor, as you may need to tweak any medications you’re taking for it.
Beware of Adulterated Ashwagandha Products
Needless to say, making sure you’re getting a high-quality product is of utmost importance. To ensure effectiveness, I recommend using 100 percent organic Ashwagandha root, free of fillers, additives and excipients. Unfortunately, adulterated ashwagandha products have been found on the market, so buyer beware.
A bulletin by the Botanical Adulterants Prevention Program reveals many ashwagandha root powders and root extracts manufactured in India are being adulterated by adding leaves, stems and aerial parts of the plant, without declaring this on the label. In some tests, up to 80 percent of products were found to be adulterated in this manner.
This fraudulent addition on undeclared plant material is a cost-saving strategy that results in an inferior product with questionable efficacy. As noted in the bulletin, the price difference between roots and leaves is significant, with high-quality roots selling between $2.46 and $3.56 per metric ton, compared to just 34 to 82 cents per metric ton for dried leaves.
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Author Bio: Dr. Mercola finished his family practice residency in 1985 but was trained by the conventional model. In his first years of private practice, he treated many symptoms with prescription drugs and was actually a paid speaker for the drug companies. But as he began to experience the failures of this model in his practice, he embraced natural medicine and has had an opportunity over the last thirty years to apply these time tested approaches successfully with thousands of patients in his clinic. Over 15 years ago he founded Mercola.com to share his experiences with others. The site is the most visited natural health site in the world for the last seven years with nearly two million subscribers. He’s also written two NY Times bestselling books, and has had frequent appearances on national media including the Dr. Oz show and major news channels.