Updated: Feb 28, 2020
"Until man duplicates a blade of grass, nature can laugh at his so-called scientific knowledge. Remedies from chemicals will never stand in favour compared with the products of nature, the living cell of the plant, the final result of the rays of the sun, the mother of all life."
The above quote by Thomas Edison says a lot about humankind's connection with nature. A connection that seems to have diminished over time, especially since the birth of modern medicine.
Yet within these very herbs and plants of the earth, lay ancient healing wonders. Ancient healing wonders like Ashwagandha, a sacred herb used for centuries, for a variety of conditions.
Traced as far back to 6000 B.C. (1), ashwagandha (latin name: Withania somnifera) has a rich history that has its origins in the traditional system of medicine known as Ayurveda in India, but also extends further south in Africa being used by tribal peoples.
More recently, the Western world has embraced this adaptogen, with science uncovering more and more of its uses, as we’ll explore below.
What is Ashwagandha?
Commonly referred to as “Indian ginseng” by Western herbalists, the medicinal part of the herb used in teas, tinctures, powders, and supplements, is derived from the root of the ashwagandha bush.
To get an idea of what this herb is known for, one should turn to the historic Sanskrit definition of ashwagandha which combines “ashva” meaning horse, and “gandha” meaning smell, to bestow the feeling and vigor of “stallion strength.”
What’s better described as a “calm-energy,” ashwagandha is identified as an adaptogenic herb which means it has both energizing and calming properties that that encourage equilibrium in the body. Stress, which often results in fatigue, can manifest externally through bouts of insomnia and short temperaments.
The calming effect of ashwagandha makes it the ideal herb for addressing internal and environmental stresses at once, which brings about an increase in mental clarity over time.
The Uses and Health Benefits of Ashwagandha
As the herb gains popularity once again, scientists have been taking interest in studying its unique properties. Out of these studies, a number of benefits have been proven in clinical settings.
When the body is under stress, the adrenal glands release cortisol (the “stress hormone”) to help. However in some instances, the levels of cortisol may become elevated on a continuous basis which may lead to high blood sugar and excess fat in the stomach area. This is why some instances of rapid weight gain, especially in the abdomen, can be linked back to increased period of stress in a person's life.
Ashwagandha has been shown to help lower cortisol levels, as seen in a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study (2) conducted on a group of chronically stressed humans. In this study it was concluded that those adults who took an ashwagandha supplement saw an average of 30% reduction in cortisol, as compared to the controlled group.
Another study (3) found the adaptogenic herb likely “improves an individual's resistance towards stress and thereby improves self-assessed quality of life.”
In Canada, it is approved for a number of benefits such as its use in Ayurvedic medicine as a rejuvenative and nervine tonic, a sleep aid, memory enhancement and for increased energy and resistance to stress (e.g. in case of mental and physical fatigue related to stress) (4)
Possibly best known as an anti-anxiety aid, ashwagandha has proven itself useful for reducing symptoms of anxiety and stress through various controlled human studies.
One such study (5) found that a group of employees who received naturopathic care, including ashwagandha prepared from the root; experienced a greater reduction in anxiety as determined by the Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI), which was the primary outcome measure.
Another 6 week study, found that 88% of participants who took ashwagandha, experienced a great reduction in anxiety. In contrast, only 50% of those who took a placebo experienced the same (6).
Improve brain function and memory
One especially interesting, and newer area of study which concerns ashwagandha is that of cognitive and motor performance.
In a study (7) on health human participants, an increase in various performance metrics were observed; namely a significant increase in reaction time, with absolutely no sedative effects.
Although a small sample size, another study (8) showed promise in the application of ashwagandha for memory improvement. Different memory types such as immediate, general, and working memory were tested. The group taking ashwagandha far outperformed the placebo group in test scores. Researchers conducting this study concluded that ashwagandha's sedative qualities may have contributed and been directly involved in the increased memory function of the participants.
Is ashwagandha safe?
I quick Google search will varying opinions. Luckily, Health Canada regulates such things. There are minor cautions here, such as consulting with a health care practitioner if you're pregnant or breastfeeding, avoiding alcohol and exercising caution when operating machinery. (4)
How To Take Ashwagandha: Dosage and Side Effects
Working with a trusted health professional is always best when determining the right dosage of any herb, including ashwagandha. Most scientific studies that have been conducted on healthy humans start with a daily dosage of 100 to 300 mg per day, increasing over time.
Ashwagandha can also be taken in a tea form or tincture, however an ashwagandha supplement offers the most potency and convenience.