Ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera)
History: Ashwagandha gets its name from the fact that it is thought to instill the vigor of a horse (ashwa) and has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for up to 6000 years according to ancient medical texts of India.
The traditional belief in ayurvedic medicine is this plant imparts the strength of a horse to the user. The root is mainly used for overall nervous exhaustion, health conditions that come about due to high stress, sexual issues related to stress, chronic inflammation and for boosting a weak immune system. I like to think of Ashwagandha as a great tonic herb for helping the body adapt to stress, meaning that it needs to be taken daily and consistently to see the cumulative benefit. Overall the effect of Ashwagandha is on the calming side so it is suited to stress induced anxiety and nervous overstimulation over longer periods of time.
Ashwagandha is one of the key adaptogenic herbs, the class of herbs that is used to help the body adapt to stresses of all kinds, whether physical or mental. Over time these herbs have a tonifying effect on the neurohormonal system and provide increased resistance and recovery from stresses and bring life back to those that have become imbalanced through chronic stress. This includes the chronic stress that occurs from chronic illness as inflammatory pathways trigger the HPA axis in much the same way as mental and physiological stresses.
Because it is mainly an herb used in India for countless centuries, there is little background information about this plant from the western herbal tradition, so I rely mostly on current research and personal experience to express its effects and benefits for mental health.
A 2019 double blind placebo-controlled trial (the gold standard in medicine research) showed that Ashwagandha was about 20% more effective in reducing anxiety and improving mood than placebo. But what was really significant in this study is that it showed that morning cortisol levels lowered in those that took 240mg of ashwaganda extract daily for 2 months (typical studies use 600mg of extract so the effect perhaps could have been greater with a higher dose). So for those that wake up feeling overly stressed, or who wake up early in the morning and cannot go back to sleep though they feel tired, ashwaganda can be considered a specific. The study came to the conclusion that the effects of this herb were likely attributed to effects it had on the HPA axis, and it is well known that those with depressive/anxiety disorders that the cortisol secretions are increased as compared to healthy patients.
Link to full research study on Ashwagandha for cortisol lowering and anxiety reduction here.
Another 2019 Study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology showed that Ashwagandha and Mucuna Pruriens (a bean that contains L-dopa-the precursor to dopamine) could increase serum testosterone and improved sperm counts, whereas many of the other “male herbs” were not shown to change testosterone levels as is commonly claimed. This research seems to support the traditional usage of ashwagandha as a vitality, virility and aphrodisiac plant as testosterone increases lean muscle mass and sexual desire in both males and females. It is no wonder that ashwaganda is sometimes called “Indian ginseng” as ginseng is another adaptogenic herb that is commonly used as an aphrodisiac, vitality booster and stimulating herb for athletes.
Link to this study on Ashwaganda increasing serum testosterone and increasing sperm counts here.
Ashwaganda is specific as a Rasayana tonic in Ayurvedic medicine, meaning that is held to support vitality, promotes healthy mental state and held to increase longevity and adaptation to stresses.
It is specific for lowering cortisol levels in the chronically stressed, has purported muscle boosting effects for those doing physical training and leads to increased endurance.
It is specific to a weakened nervous system, especially in the young or elderly.
Some research even suggests that ashwaganda has neuroregenerative effects through its effects on BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor) a key bodily chemical in regrowing neurons.
Biochemical Constituents: “The biologically active chemical constituents of are alkaloids (isopelletierine, anaferine, cuseohygrine, anahygrine, etc.), steroidal lactones (withanolides, withaferins) and saponins. Sitoindosides and acylsterylglucosides in Ashwagandha are anti-stress agents. Active principles of Ashwagandha, for instance the sitoindosides VII-X and Withaferin-A, have been shown to have significant anti-stress activity against acute models of experimental stress.”
1) Medical Herbalism, David Hoffman, 2003, Healing arts press
2) The Earthwise Herbal: A complete guide to New World Medicinal Plants V2, Mattew Wood, North atlantic books, 2009
3) Herbal Medicine from the Heart of the Earth, Dr. Marie Tilgner, Wise acres LLC 2009
4) The Energetics of Western Herbs Volume 2. Peter Holmes, Snow Lotus Press 1994