What is ashwagandha?
An IMPORTANT remedy in Ayurvedic healing, ashwagandha is planted whose roots and berries are used for medicinal purposes. Also known as Indian ginseng, the traditional medicine can purportedly treat a laundry list of injuries, ailments, and diseases. According to historical records, ashwagandha has been around for over three millennia now. With that said, it was not subjected to rigorous testing until recently.
Considered a wonder drug in Hindu traditional medicine, ashwagandha has been used to treat all of the following diseases and disorders:
- Liver disease
- Menstrual problems
- Minor aches and pains
- Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- High cholesterol
- Parkinson’s disease
Does it work?
If we were to believe those claims, ashwagandha could help treat everything from aging to cancer, making it the most miraculous medicine in history. But because it is impracticable to test an herbal remedy for all of its alleged benefits, researchers have restricted clinical trials to the claims they believe they can prove. Since it is a known adaptogen, much of the scientific research on ashwagandha has focused on its anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) properties.
Testing on Withania somnifera, the Latin name for ashwagandha, has revealed that its two main chemical constituents are alkaloids and steroidal lactones. In fact, the plant’s scientific name came from the first withanolide to be isolated from the plant, withaferin A. These naturally occurring compounds have proven anti-inflammatory effects. The combined benefits of the two constituents also have a positive impact on mental health, in particular on elevated anxiety levels.
Two major clinical trials of W. somniferous found that ashwagandha compared favorably to psychotherapy in its ability to reduce stress and anxiety levels in some patients.It included positive benefits to their mental concentration, self-esteem, energy, and overall quality of life. The results were similar to those of traditional prescription antidepressants such as Paxil and Zoloft. Some other studies have corroborated those findings, showing that ashwagandha is effective at reducing both psychological and physiological stress in some subjects.
How does it work?
One of the issues researchers invariably encounter with herbal remedies is that plant compounds tend to work in subtle ways that may differ from person to person. Although it has been thoroughly tested, ashwagandha’s ability to help balance the body’s physiology, resulting in a reduction of stress and anxiety, remains a mystery. Researchers suspect that the phytochemicals, the alkaloids, and lactones, act as hormonal precursors that block excess stimulation when activity rises and increases stimulation when activity falls. Of course, this is only a hypothesis and one that is not yet supported by scientific evidence.
Due to its growing popularity, some clinical studies of ashwagandha have been completed of late. One 2012 study asked volunteers to take either a placebo or Ashwagandha twice a day for two months. The group that was given ashwagandha ingested capsules that contained concentrated extract made from the root of the plant, which is the most common form of the supplement available today.
The Ashwagandha group reported significantly lower anxiety scores than the placebo group without any notable side effects. But since researchers needed more than feelings to support their theories, they tested the subjects’ serum cortisol levels. (One of the main stress hormones in human beings, cortisol is secreted whenever we feel anxious, fearful, or upset.) The numbers confirmed exactly what the subjects had expressed, that they were less anxious than those on the placebo, evidently because their serum cortisol levels were significantly lower!
Additional studies have been completed on women with adrenal hyperplasia (enlarged adrenal glands) showing reductions in cortisol, progesterone, and pregnenolone levels. These reductions helped stressed-out subjects manage their anxiety while receiving treatment for a serious medical condition. Similar benefits have been observed in studies of men with anxiety-related fertility issues.
Dosage and best usage
Most clinical trials of ashwagandha involve 300-500mgs of the root extract taken twice daily with meals. High dose ashwagandha may result in gastrointestinal (GI) tract issues such as stomach aches, which are the most common side effects of the herbal supplement. It should be noted that Hindu herbalists often recommend ingesting the remedy once a day with breakfast. Who should take it?
As we mentioned, when sold in the West, ashwagandha is offered as a powerful adaptogen that can ease stress and anxiety. Since there is no shortage of either in America, most of us can benefit from the natural supplement. There is also compelling evidence that ashwagandha can help control stress-related hormonal imbalances in both women and men.
As a member of the nightshade family of plants, many users worry about the toxicity of ashwagandha, and rightfully so! The plant itself is poisonous if ingested in its natural form, but the extract is harmless. In fact, there has only been one reported case of an adverse reaction ostensibly caused by toxicity in its 3,000-year history. As a result, the popular adaptogen is considered quite safe by most medical professionals.
A promising alternative to prescription antidepressants, ashwagandha has lived up to the hype in early testing. The ancient herbal remedy appears to have remarkable stress-relieving properties without the risk of addiction or overdose most prescription drugs carry with them. Widely available for sale on the internet, ashwagandha works best for those who struggle with the oppressive effects of anxiety and stress.