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Ashwagandha: Winter Cherry - Withania Somnifera

by Anne McIntyre(more info)

listed in ayurveda, originally published in issue 77 - June 2002

 

"You Herbs, born at the birth of time,
More ancient than the gods themselves,
O Plants, with this hymn I sing to you,
Our mothers and our gods."

Rig Veda

Amongst the herbs crowding around the statue of Ganesh, the elephant God, in my Ayurvedic garden during the summer is Ashwagandha. Although it may be happier growing as a shrub in its native lands of India, North Africa and the Middle East, it looks vibrantly green and healthy and smells highly aromatic when grown as an annual here in the Cotswolds. And anyway, how could I boast an Ayurvedic herb garden without Ashwagandha?

Traditional Uses

Ashwagandha is one of the most important herbs used in Ayurvedic medicine and is fast becoming popular among herbalists here in the West. Over the last three years, I have found myself using this amazing plant more and more in my practice. Its classical uses over thousands of years are now being understood through a considerable amount of scientific research. In India it is held in as high esteem as ginseng in Chinese medicine and for this reason it has recently been referred to as Indian Ginseng. Its Sanskrit name Ashwagandha literally means 'that which has the smell of a horse', so named because it is said to give the strength and vitality of a horse.

It is renowned in India as the best rejuvenative herb, promoting energy and vitality, and has been used for centuries for its restorative properties to remedy conditions of weakness and debility. When the root is taken as a milk decoction and sweetened with honey or raw sugar, it is used to inhibit ageing and build up strength by catalysing the anabolic processes in the body. It is often prescribed during convalescence, for weakness and emaciation in children and the elderly and for a wide range of problems associated with old age, such as loss of energy, lack of muscular strength, poor memory, weak eyes, rheumatism and insomnia. We now know that Ashwagandha has antioxidant properties, limiting damage caused by free radicals and thereby restraining the aging process.

Ashwagandha is also an exceptional nerve tonic and I have found it to be one of the best remedies for stress. Along with herbs such as ginseng, liquorice and Astragalus, it is classified as an adaptogen, helping to modify the harmful effects of stress on mind and body.

It has been used traditionally to calm a turbulent mind and enhance inner peace and clarity.

Research Findings on its Benefits

Modern research into its calming influence on the brain has indicated that, similar to several significant tranquillizing drugs, it affects the GABA receptors, and also its beneficial effects on memory may derive from the fact that it acts on acetylcholine receptors.[1] With its significant calming and yet strengthening effects, it is excellent for people run down by chronic illness and those suffering from stress, anxiety, overwork, panic attacks, nervous exhaustion and insomnia. From my observation of patients taking Ashwagandha over a period of 4-6 weeks, it certainly helps to enhance energy and positivity, engender calmness and clarity, improve memory and concentration and promote restful sleep.

According to the Ayurvedic system, Ashwagandha is the best herb for balancing Vata in the body. Vata governs all movement in the body, including the movement of nerve impulses throughout the nervous system. When Vata is disturbed, one can feel tense, anxious and fearful, panicky, ungrounded. The mind races and it is hard to relax, let alone sleep peacefully. Ashwagandha is considered Sattwic in quality, which means it has a highly beneficial effect on mind and body, engendering calmness and clarity of mind, and helping to promote wisdom, love and compassion.

Ashwagandha, like ginseng, also benefits the immune system and may have a significant role to play in the prevention and management of cancer. It may be able to limit the actual growth of cancer cells. In addition, research has shown that it can protect the activity of immune cells that are exposed to chemicals that would otherwise inhibit their normal function.[2] This means that Ashwagandha could well reduce the side effects, including the suppression of white blood cells caused by radiation and chemotherapy. Further research has demonstrated that Ashwagandha may increase the sensitivity of cancer cells to radiation therapy.[3] Its significantly beneficial effects on both the nervous system and immune system mean that this is a remedy that is well worth using in the treatment of auto-immune problems such as multiple sclerosis, psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Ashwagandha has an affinity for the reproductive system in both men and women. It is the main rejuvenative of masculine energy used in Ayurveda, improving the quality of reproductive tissues and increasing sexual potency, apparently verifying the ancients' claims by giving the sexual energy of a stallion! It is prescribed as a tonic to the hormonal system and for treating sexual debility, impotence, low sperm count and infertility.

Preparations

Prepared as an oil by infusing it in sesame oil, Ashwagandha can be rubbed into painful arthritic joints, frozen shoulders and used to ease nerve pain such as sciatica, numbness, muscle spasm and back pain. It has a healing effect on the skin and is well worth using for wounds and sores and for dry, itchy skin conditions, including eczema and psoriasis.

Ashwagandha is generally given as a powder and taken 5gms in warm water or milk morning and night, sweetened with honey or raw sugar. It can also be taken as a milk decoction or prepared in ghee. Although it has been traditionally recommended to pregnant women to strengthen the woman and stabilize the embryo, until further studies are done it is best avoided during pregnancy.

References

1. Schleibs R, Liebmann A et al. Systemic administration of defined extracts from Withania somnifera (Indian Ginseng) and Shilajit differentially affects cholinergic but not glutamatergic and GABAergic markers in rat brain. Neurochem Int. 30: 181-90. 1997.
2. Ziauddin M, Phansalkar N et al. Studies on the immunomodulatory effects of Ashwagandha. J. Ethnopharmacol. 50: 69-76. 1996.
3. Devi PU, Akagi K et al. WithaferinA: a new radiosensitizer from the Indian medicinal plant Withania somnifera. Int J Radiat Biol. 69: 193-97. 1996.

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About Anne McIntyre

Anne McIntyre FNIMH MAPA is a fellow of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists and a member of the Ayurvedic Practitioners' Association. She has been practising as a herbalist for 30 years and has also trained in remedial massage, aromatherapy, counselling, homoeopathy and Ayurvedic medicine. She is the author of several books on herbal medicine, including The Complete Woman's Herbal (Gaia), The Complete Floral Healer (Gaia), The Herbal Treatment of Children (Elsevier), The Top 100 Remedies (Duncan Baird), The Complete Herbal Tutor (Gaia) and Healing Drinks (Gaia). Anne's latest book Dispensing with Tradition: A practitioner's Guide to using Indian and Western Herbs the Ayurvedic Way has recently been published. She teaches regularly in the UK and USA and spends as much time as she can in her herb garden which she opens to the public by appointment. She practises at Artemis House, Great Rissington, Gloucestershire, (Tel: 01451 810096) and in London and Wales once a month. She may be contacted on Tel: 01451 810096  www.annemcintyre.com

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