Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), also known as Indian Ginseng and Winter Cherry, is an herbal rejuvenative tonic and adaptogen that’s been prized for over 6,000 years in Ayurveda (the ancient Hindu system of medicine), and continues to be used as a household remedy in India. Ashwagandha is revered for various actions, including to revitalize, relieve stress, improve endurance and stamina, promote longevity, improve immunity, enhance memory and cognition, reduce inflammation and support sexual function. It’s no wonder Ashwagandha is one of the most important herbs in Ayurveda, a Sanskrit word meaning "the scripture for longevity".
A small, woody shrub in the nightshade family, Ashwagandha is most widely cultivated in central and northwestern India.
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The Ayurvedic system of medicine claims that Ashwagandha promotes stress relief, health and longevity by enhancing the immune system, restoring balance in the body and increasing resistance to physical, emotional and psychological stressors. These adaptogenic effects have been evidenced in a number of clinical trials, which demonstrate that standardized Ashwagandha extract safely and effectively reduces both perceived and biochemical indicators of stress.(1, 2) Withanolides are the bioactive compounds considered to be predominantly responsible for the medicinal properties of Ashwagandha.
Ashwagandha is a calming adaptogen, so while other plants may offer similar adaptogenic benefits, Ashwagandha is best suited for those disposed to nervousness or anxiety.
Ashwagandha is a well known Ayurvedic rasayana (rejuvenative tonic), and belongs to a sub-group of rasayanas known as medhyarasayanas, referring to the mind and mental capacity. It's traditionally used to promote learning and enhance memory, and this historical use is supported by clinical research. A 2017 study showed that Ashwagandha may be effective in enhancing both immediate and general memory, as well as improving executive function, attention and information processing speed.
Also revered as a general tonic, Ashwagandha is considered beneficial to the brain and nervous system as a whole. Stress can be damaging to the nervous system, and research shows that Ashwagandha protects against wasting away of nerves and brain cells, which is considered the major cause of cognitive impairment in patients with neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. In animal studies, it has been shown that withanolides and withanosides are among the key compounds in Ashwagandha responsible for reducing the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease, including reversing behavioral deficits and clearing toxic amino acid chains from the brain. Further, Ashwagandha contains potent antioxidants that fight free radicals and help prevent oxidative damage to the brain.
This strong smelling super-herb’s Sanskrit name, ashvaganda, literally translates to "odor of the horse". It’s also been appropriately proposed that the Sanskrit name could be interpreted to mean "horse essence", suggesting that it provides the strength and stamina of a horse to those who take it.
Ashwagandha’s history of traditional use for strength and stamina is also clinically supported. Studies show that ashwagandha supplementation is associated with significant increases in muscle mass and strength, enhanced recovery, increased body fat metabolism and cardiorespiratory endurance (including maximal aerobic capacity and time to exhaustion), suggesting that it may be a useful athletic support supplement, particularly in connection with resistance training and endurance training.(1)(2)(3)(4)
Ashwagandha is commonly used in Ayurveda to enhance immunity, believed to correct imbalances and weakness in the immune system. It is referred to as a "rasayana", an elixir that works in a nonspecific, global fashion to increase human health and longevity.
Clinical research in human and animal studies supports this traditional practice, showing that Ashwagandha improves the body’s ability to combat disease by increasing white blood cells in the body, the cells of the immune system that are involved in defending against both infectious disease and foreign invaders. Due to its immunomodulating properties, its use has also been suggested for cancer patients, who are at a particularly high risk of lowered immunity.
Ashwagandha is an anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic super-herb commonly used in Ayurveda to treat arthritic conditions. A paste made by crushing the roots with water is also traditionally applied externally to reduce inflammation at the joints and treat ulcers and painful swelling.
This herb’s anti-inflammatory potential has been demonstrated in a number of animal studies, as well as human studies on patients with osteoarthritis and knee joint pain. In a recent study, Ashwagandha also helped to alleviate pain and tenderness and swelling of the joints and improve physical function in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
Withanolides, a key group of active compounds contained in Ashwagandha, have been shown to play a key role in Ashwagandha's anti-inflammatory activity.