The herb of Ashwagandha is popular as Indian Ginseng. It is a Winter cherry; a stout shrub reaching a height of approximately 165 cm. Ashwagandha is native to India where it has been used in treating several health ailments especially issues with mental and reproductive system. The herbal plant is cultivated mainly in drier region of Indian territories. In the biography of Alexander the Great, Robin Lane Fox claims that in ancient times, the roots of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) were used making wine more effective and healthy (1).
Ayurveda, the ancient most medicinal science of India quotes Ashwagandha as one of the best rasayana herbs. Rasayana literally means nonspecific property of herb that helps maintaining the longevity and virility of a person (2). Ashwagandha is rarest among other adaptogenic herbs that are nontoxic (3). Regular use of Ashwagandha supplements in proper dosage normalizes physiological functions by restoring the HPA (Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis and neuroendocrine system.
Ashwagandha is composed of two Sanskrit words; ashwa means horse and gandha means odor. Said this, Ashwagandha is ‘horse’s smell’ as ancient sages might have considered its smelling root to name it. Ashwagandha’s root smells like a sweaty horse.
Medicinal Properties of Ashwagandha
The term somnifera in Withania somnifera means ‘sleep bearing’ in Latin. This indicates that the herb has natural sedative action but in Ayurveda Ashwagandha has been used widely to enhance the sexual vitality (virility). Also, as said in Ayurvedic texts, having Ashwagandha consumed, a man can work like a ‘horse’, untired and flawless (4).
Some experts, especially fraternity from Chinese Medicines refer Ashwagandha to Indian Ginseng as stated above. This is because Ashwagandha has similar action to that of Chinese herb Ginseng. Ashwagandha is extensively used in treating memory loss, anxiety, low libido (men), premature ejaculation, erectile dysfunction and urinary problems.
The New England Deaconess Hospital has taken a patent on an Ashwagandha formula claiming that it can successfully reduce the symptoms of osteoarthritis (5).
The main contents of the herb Ashwagandha are steroidal lactones and alkaloids (6). Furthermore, among other alkaloids, Withanine constitutes the major part of it that is believed to possess all medicinal properties that Ashwagandha show. The roots of Ashwagandha contain flavonoids and other active ingredients belonging to withanolide class.
In Charaka Samhita, Ashwagandha is mentioned as one of the ingredients of formula (to be taken with honey and ghee) used in treating hiccups, asthma and cough (7).
Ashwagandha’s use in modern world
Though Ayurveda describes Ashwagandha as potent aphrodisiac and rasayana herb, modern health experts have found out its unique properties of alleviating stress (8). Today, Ashwagandha is considered probably to be the most effective antipsychotic herb available to the mankind. It is used in case of dyskinesia, the major complication of chronic neuroleptic treatment. In proper dosage, Ashwagandha supplements help improving the cognition and behavior of a person taking antipsychotic drugs since long (9).
Ashwagandha is also found to have powerful antioxidants, the components that help keeping most of the ailments at bay. Nevertheless, ancient texts like Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita written thousands of years back already mentions properties of Ashwagandha as rasayana (rejuvenating and revitalizing) and jivaniya (herb that offers longevity).
According to one research in Germany, the herb of Withania somnifera improved memory and enhanced cognition in animals and humans (9).
Also, a 2000 study with rodents revealed that the herb of Withania somnifera possesses anti-anxiety and anti-depression effects (9).Also, the herb of Ashwagandha is useful in treating stress related male infertility. Ashwagandha supplements improve the semen quality and enhance the virility (10) .
1. Alexander the Great, by Robin Lane Fox, Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-303513-4
2. RASAYANA: Ayurvedic Herbs of Rejuvenation and Longevity. Puri, H.S. (2003) Taylor & Francis, London, (ashwagandha pages 46-58).
3. Winston, David & Maimes, Steven. Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief, Healing Arts Press, 2007.
4. Dravyaguna Vigyana by Dr. Priyavritt Sharma
5. Ashwagandha next on patent hunters list, Hindu Vivek Kendra archive of the Times of India May 16, 2001
7. Charaka Samhita Chikitsasthana Chapter 17, Shloka 117