The Healing Powers of Ashwagandha, Then and Now
Ashwagandha is one of Ayurveda’s oldest and versatile herbs. In Sanskrit, ashwa means horse, and gandha means smell, which in turn translates the name of one of the wellness world’s most potent super herbs to “smells like a horse.”
Long considered the “ginseng” of Ayurvedic medicine, Ashwagandha is known to increase virility and physical energy, or, more in line with its translation, give you the strength of a horse. Its botanical name is Withania Somnifer: winter cherry.
The plant grows to be about 5 feet tall, and yet the root is most commonly used for medicinal purposes. The fruit and the leaves of the Ashwagandha plant have healing qualities as well.
It grows throughout hot climates all over the world, often overcoming harsh conditions, and although most commonly attributed to India, Ashwagandha is now used in many countries for its various health benefits– including increased energy levels, bolstered mental fortitude, physical rejuvenation, and longevity.
In Ayurveda, Ashwagandha is categorized as a ‘rasayana’– a category of rdejuvinative herbs, fruits, and spices that negate the effects of old age. As such, the majority of this herb’s benefits relate to its revitalizing, anti-oxidation effects and its ability to calm the body’s physiological and nervous systems in periods of stress. The herb lowers cortisol levels, balances the thyroid, and helps build immunity to stave off colds and infections.
As a known anti-inflammatory, Ashwagandha can be prescribed for musculoskeletal conditions such as arthritis and rheumatism, and it’s also beed associated with increased bone density in women.
Katie, the founder of Wellness Mama, included it in the list of herbs she used in her recovery from adrenal fatigue (an auto-immune disorder that results in excessive tiredness, salt cravings, and a compromised immune system).
“Although most commonly attributed to India, Ashwagandha is now celebrated in many countries for its various health benefits– including increased energy levels, bolstered mental fortitude, physical rejuvenation, and longevity.”
Ashwagandha is most often prepared in a powdered form or taken as a tincture. The best way to take it is to mix the powder with warm milk. Another common way to consume this herb is by mixing it with equal parts ghee or honey (1 tsp of each).
It’s recommended to take it 2-3 times a day for desired effects, but newcomers to the supplement should always start small: make sure you don’t have any known allergies, then start with the smallest effective dose (just a pinch in your drink or smoothie).
Ashwagandha is also commonly used as a sedative, an anti-stress agent, and a sleeping aid (Pukka, the tea company, uses it in their Night Time Herbal Blend). It can be consumed as a tea by steeping the root in boiling water. It’s also included in chyawanprash, a traditional Ayurvedic digestive that uses amla and honey.
In the Ayurvedic tradition, Ashwagandha is categorized as a “bitter” and “astringent”, though the herb itself has a sweet aftertaste. This makes it ideal for stimulating energy in the body, and pacifying the Kapha (earth) and Vata (air) doshas. On the other hand, it may overstimulate or aggravate the Pita (fire) dosha if it’s already off-balance.
Because of this unique combination of tastes, the herb can be used to help reduce sweet cravings. (If supplemented for this purpose, one would roast an ounce of Ashwagandha and then mix it together with ghee and a natural sugar like maple syrup or date sugar. Then, take a teaspoon in the morning or in the midst of a sugar craving.)
In the last 20 years, Ashwagandha has gained recognition in Western medicine, with several studies being published on its healing properties– particularly the uses and potential applications for cancer prevention. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Integrative Medicine Services includes the herb in their catalog of over 30 studies in which the herb is referenced and researched.
Researchers do, however, warn against taking it if you are pregnant because– like most unsupervised herbal supplements– misuse could induce miscarriage. They also dis-advise supplementation for those taking sedatives, as it may increase the side effects of these drugs.
Otherwise, Ashwagandha has been shown to increase fertility and is considered an aphrodisiac. According to Sloan Kettering, it “may also improve sexual performance in adults and be useful in the treatment of male infertility.”
Apart from the field of Western medicine, the herb is also incorporated into several contemporary natural health and wellness brands product lines. Liquiteria, the NYC-based cold-press juice company, includes Ashwagandha as one of their supplements for smoothies and juices.
Amanda Chantal Bacon, the founder of L.A.’s cult-adulated Moon Juice, uses it in many of her shop’s healing tonics. (For her clients Bacon recommends an Elevating Adaptogenic Latte— a healing latte made with an almond milk base, Ashwagandha, cacao powder, cinnamon, and shilajit. The beverage is named after the fact that Ashwagandha (and shilajit) are considered adaptogens– herbs known to give adaptive reactions that help the body stave off disease while increasing its resistance capacity and immunity.
Ashwaghanda has also recently made its way into beauty and skin care products. (Dr. Alkaitis, for example, uses it in his Organic Ageless Facial Elixir and Nourishing Oil Treatment, where it improves dryness of the skin. With potent skin-healing benefits, Ashwagandha’s powder form can also be mixed into face-wash as a cleanser.)
In hair products like shampoo, it increases stimulation in the scalp and relieves dandruff and grease. (You could also add it to your shampoo for the same effects, ala the face cleanser.) According to Hair Buddha, “The powerful antioxidants in Ashwagandha fight the free radicals that are usually responsible for hair greying.”
Here and in nature, Ashwagandha’s ability to withstand and flourish in harsh climates make it an exceptional herb for increased vitality, strength, and immunity– a tradition born centuries ago that continues into the present day.