Ashwagandha, Withania, Indian Ginseng, Winter Cherry; all different names for the same herb with one beautiful action - adaptogenic.
Adaptogenic herbs help to restore and revitalise the body, improving our ability to cope with stresses, both mental and physical. Ashwagandha has been used for centuries in traditional Ayurvedic medicine and is a gentle all-rounder when it comes to stress-related afflictions. Its action isn’t limited to stress though; Ashwagandha is known for a number of effects and has a long history as a therapeutic herb.
An ancient herbAshwagandha is a Sanskrit word meaning “horse-like-smell”. According to some sources, this doesn’t just refer to the smell of the herb, but also it’s strengthening qualities<1>. Its use dates back to 6000BC, so needless to say, it’s been helping with human health for a long time.
Some traditions claim Ashwagandha as an aphrodisiac and its use varies across continents. It’s most commonly cultivated in India, where it’s been used for centuries as part of Ayurvedic medicine. It’s also found in China, Nepal and Yemen<2> and even grows in Australia and Africa, and its use as a medicinal herb is internationally recognised.
In Ayurvedic medicine, the herb is regarded as a tonic for anyone who’s been “under the weather”, particularly emaciated children and the elderly. It’s frequently used for joint inflammation, low energy, insomnia and nervous conditions. It’s also thought to help with anxiety, memory loss and even to increase sperm count!<3>
In traditional medicine, Ashwagandha root and leaves are both used, and it can be applied topically to aching joints as well as ingested as a herbal infusion.
Modern useThere’s a lot to be said for traditional medicine, and in the case of Ashwagandha, its modern use isn’t hugely different from Ayurvedic practice. We do have the benefits of science nowadays to back this up, and there are now several main functions which we know this popular herb can be used for.
- Adaptogenic (modulates the stress response) Probably the best known use for this herb, Ashwagandha is capable of protecting us against the negative effects of stress. It works on our adrenal and nervous systems, and can help with both chemically and physically induced stress. It’s the perfect herb for those of us who are overworked, tired and stressed-out. While nothing is going to replace proper rest and relaxation, this herb can certainly help you to cope as you introduce much needed changes to your diet and lifestyle.
- Insomnia Ashwagana is great for insomnia, and its Latin name actually means “sleep inducing”<4>. Some herbalists describe this herb as the equivalent of a gentle hug; it helps to regenerate and calm you while you rebuild your strength.
- Supports and protects the nervous system Ashwagandha contains choline, an amino acid which is needed for our nervous system function. The herb has been shown to improve memory and can also help to protect the nervous system as a whole.
- Improves the immune system We know that stress can impede the proper function of your immune system, and this clever little herb not only helps you deal with stress, but it also improves the function of your white blood cells, which are crucial to fighting infections. It’s also thought to be both antibacterial and antifungal.
- Reduces inflammation Ashwagandha has been shown to be anti-inflammatory, which aligns well with its traditional use for joint inflammation. As so many inflammatory conditions are aggravated by stress, this herb can often be found as part of a broader treatment for inflammation.
Let’s face it, none of us lead stress-free lives, and anything which can help us to sleep better, relax and deal with the pressures of life can only be a good thing.
<1> Braun, L., & Cohen, M. (2005). Herbs & natural supplements (1st ed., pp. 437-440). Sydney: Elsevier Mosby.