Ancient Herbs Ashwagandha

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In a certified-organic field in Ramganj Mandi, India, the soil is arid and hasn’t seen water in months. This is exactly how the prolific crop growing there likes it best. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), the jewel in the crown of the 5000-year-old system of Ayurveda – which means science of life – thrives in dry, waterless soil, turning a bright green and flourishing where other plants would wither and die. But now the ashwagandha is yellowing, signaling the commencement of this year’s harvest. Women in the field are hard at work, pulling up whole ashwagandha plants, revealing the roots, which are employed for a plethora of health purposes.

Among the approximately 7,500 plants employed in the world’s most ancient system of health care, Ashwagandha root sits at the top of the pile, in popularity, in benefits, and in status as a health-imbuing herb of inestimable value. It is called a rasayan, a life-extender, and is revered. The root and its extracts, rich in a group of novel natural compounds called withanolides, also demonstrate a high degree of safety. One Indian medical doctor said ashwagandha is the one plant that he can give to anyone, in any condition, without concern.

In the Indian Materia Medica, ashwagandha is listed as a tonic, an aphrodisiac, and strength-giving, and is purportedly useful for all cases of debility, nervous exhaustion, and low energy, brain fog, and loss of strength. The plant also enjoys use as a topical aid for the relief of a variety of skin disorders, and applied as a paste to the eyes to treat vision disorders. In ancient texts, Ayurvedic scholars recommend cooking ashwagandha root in fatty milk, no doubt to efficiently extract the resinous and fatty compounds in the root.

But we are a long way from the days of boiling pots of buffalo milk infused with ashwagandha root. Today the herb is extracted using high-tech methods developed by the pharmaceutical and chemical industries, transforming an ancient health aid into a standardized extract used in tablets and capsules, pastes and drinks. At the same time, human clinical studies continue to drive ashwagandha forward in the global health market as a superb adaptogen, an elite botanical that enhances energy, endurance, stamina, and various paramaters of mental function, while reducing stress hormones in the blood and promoting a healthy night’s sleep.

One 2015 study of ashwagandha root extract focused on cardiorespiratory endurance in 50 healthy, athletic adults. A group that took 600 milligrams of ashwagandha root extract daily and a group that received a placebo were followed and tested over a period of 12 weeks, for overall endurance and oxygen consumption during exertion. The ashwagandha group scored higher in endurance and oxygen efficiency than those who took the placebo.

A remarkable 2015 pilot study of women’s sexual function found that among 50 women, those who took ashwagandha root extract experienced improved sexual function, easier arousal, easier lubrication, better orgasms, and improved sexual satisfaction overall. While pharmaceutical companies continue to throw themselves at a “female Viagra,” ashwagandha seems to live up to its reputation, checking off all the boxes.

A 2016 study of body weight management followed 52 subjects under chronic stress. Half the group received ashwagandha root extract and half received a placebo. Over 8 weeks both groups were assessed for food cravings, serum cortisol, body weight and body mass index. The ashwagandha group showed improved scores in all categories, while the placebo group did not, suggesting that ashwagandha may be beneficial in a weight management program.

Lastly, a 2017 study of 50 adults examined the safety and efficacy of ashwagandha in memory improvement and cognitive function. While the placebo group showed no particular improvement in cognitive function, the ashwagandha group tested better in immediate and general memory, improved executive function, attention and information processing speed.

At the National Institute of Ayurveda in Jaipur, professor Sanjeev Sharma explained the many ways that ashwagandha is used in natural medicine today. At an eye clinic , the root is applied as a topical treatment for glaucoma, while at another ashwagandha extract is mixed with oil and massaged deeply into tissue to alleviate nerve problems. We see voucher samples of the root in the herbarium, and watch capsules of ashwagandha root being produced in the institute pharmacy. At the National Institute of Ayurveda, researchers bridge a system that has its origins in antiquity, while employing modern scientific methods.

The ashwagandha plant, one of the most powerful herbs in Ayurvedic medicine, has been used since ancient times for a wide variety of conditions. It is most well-known for its restorative and rejuvenating benefits. In Sanskrit ashwagandha means “the smell of a horse,” indicating that the herb has the potential to impart the vigor and strength of a stallion. The ashwagandha root is also reported to have a smell reminiscent of horse sweat.

Traditionally, organic ashwagandha has been prescribed as a nerve tonic and adaptogen—an agent which helps the body adapt to various emotional and physical stressors. It has classically been used in India for nearly 5,000 years for conditions such as failure to thrive in children, weakness and debility in old age, rheumatism, constipation, insomnia, nervous conditions, chronic stress, goiter, joint inflammation, parasites, hormone balance, and more. A paste made from the ashwagandha root powder can be applied topically to treat boils, ulcers, and other skin irritations and infections.

Ashwagandha is known to help people strengthen their immune system health after illness, chemotherapy, or surgery. It is a highly effective, evidence-based remedy to help reduce stress levels and anxiety—by lowering cortisol levels and mimicking the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA.

Ashwagandha is frequently referred to as “Indian ginseng” because of its rejuvenating properties, even though botanically, ginseng and ashwagandha are unrelated.

Belonging to the same nightshade family as the tomato, organic ashwagandha is a plump shrub with oval leaves and yellow flowers. It bears red fruit about the size of a raisin. This adaptogenic herb is native to the dry regions of India, northern Africa, and the Middle East, and today is also grown in more mild climates, including the United States.

Why Use Ashwagandha?

Do any of these common symptoms sound familiar?

  1. Stress
  2. Fatigue
  3. Difficulty concentrating
  4. Poor memory
  5. Trouble sleeping
  6. Low libido
  7. Frequent illness or disease
  8. Anxiety
  9. Low endurance (mentally or physically)
  10. Joint pain
  11. Neurological condition

The use of ashwagandha can work as an herbal medicine to help alleviate these symptoms and support a boost in energy levels and a rejuvenating sense of well-being.

Ashwagandha Benefits and Healing Effects

Ashwagandha contains many useful medicinal chemicals, including withanolides (steroidal lactones), alkaloids, choline, fatty acids, amino acids, and a variety of sugars. While the leaves and fruit have valuable therapeutic properties, the organic ashwagandha root of the ashwagandha plant is the part most commonly used for treatment in Western herbal medicine remedies because of the effects of ashwagandha are manifold.

Medical researchers have been studying ashwagandha for years with great interest and have completed more than 200 studies on the healing benefits of this botanical. Some key examples of Ashwagandha health benefits are:

  1. Protects the immune system
  2. Helps combat the effects of stress
  3. Improves learning, memory, and reaction time
  4. Reduces anxiety and depression without causing drowsiness
  5. Helps reduce the potential of neurodegenerative disease and improve cognitive function
  6. Stabilizes blood sugar levels
  7. Helps lower cholesterol levels
  8. Offers anti-inflammatory and analgesic benefits
  9. Contains anti-malarial properties
  10. Enhances sexual potency for both men and women
  11. May be an effective anti-tumor agent
  12. Promotes new nerve growth
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