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Your Guide to Ashwagandha: Understanding the Potential Uses and Benefits

May 25, 2019

Uses and Benefits Of Ashwagandha

Long before the advent of modern pharmaceuticals, humans relied on the natural world to supply medicines and treatments. Willow bark was used to alleviate headaches. Ginger offered an energy boost as well as antibacterial properties. Many other herbs and plants were used for everything from combatting depression to treating sexual health issues.

Today, those holistic treatments are still available, and as scientific studies reveal the deleterious effects of pharmaceutical drugs, more people are turning to organic, natural solutions to stay healthy. One that has gained a great deal of notoriety in recent years is ashwagandha, which has an extensive range of applications and a long history of use.

Within this guide, we will explore what ashwagandha is, delve into its history, and consider its uses, as well as exploring pros and cons to using this natural treatment.

What Is Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha is a vital component of traditional Ayurveda, India’s longstanding traditional form of alternative medicine. The botanical name given to the small, woody shrub is Withania somnifera, which gives the nod toward some of its traditional uses (somnifera being Latin for “sleep-inducing”). The common name, ashwagandha, is loosely translated as “the smell of the horse,” which is an apt description for the pungent odor released when the roots and leaves of the plant are crushed. You may be more familiar with it as “Indian ginseng” or winter cherry.

A Description of Ashwagandha

The ashwagandha shrub is native to the Indian subcontinent and can be found throughout India, Pakistan, and other nearby areas. It is also native to North Africa, and can also be found throughout the Middle East, China, and Nepal. However, due to its use as an alternative health treatment, as well as its uses in food preparation, it has been exported around the world. The shrub thrives in dry, sunny locations where temperatures do not get very cold and are adapted for humid conditions. It grows best in well-drained soil with minimal watering.

The shrub is short, growing no more than 36 inches in height, and has a low growing habit. The leaves are yellowish green and elliptical. The flowers are bell-shaped, and, after pollination, transform into red-orange berries. Do not be fooled by the Indian ginseng moniker, however. This plant has no relation to ginseng at all. It is more closely related to tomatoes, potatoes, and deadly nightshade.

Other Names for Ashwagandha

While ashwagandha is the most commonly used name for this herb, there are numerous others used around the world in various cultures. Some names are used within specific industries, as well. Some of the other names applied to ashwagandha include:

  • Ajagandha
  • Kuthmithi
  • Asana
  • Asgand
  • Ayurvedic ginseng
  • Kanaje Hindi
  • Asoda
  • Asundha
  • Ashwanga
  • Ghoda asoda
  • Indian ginseng
  • Clustered winter cherry
  • Peyette
  • Orovale
  • Strychnos
  • Withania somnifera
  • Withania

Note that this list is not exhaustive. There are other names used for this supplement, albeit infrequently. Additional names and derivatives may be used in proprietary packaging by supplement developers, as well.

A Brief History of Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha has played a central role in Ayurvedic treatments for many thousands of years. Throughout its history, the herb has been used to improve quality of life, increase lifespan, and rejuvenate the mind and body. Of course, to truly understand the history of ashwagandha, it is necessary to understand a bit more about Ayurveda and its traditions.

What Is Ayurveda?

Ayurveda is India’s alternative health tradition, which dates back many thousands of years. Translated, it means “knowledge of life” or “science of life.” It is essentially a collection of healing practices recorded over the millennia. It is one of the oldest healing systems in the world, and it is still practiced.

Ayurvedic thought hinges on how the five elements (space, air, fire, water, and earth) combine within the body to create the three doshas or life forces. These are Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. The three doshas each control specific bodily functions, and if the doshas are significantly out of balance, it can lead to illness and disease.

There are eight specific branches of Ayurvedic medicine, each focused on preventative care and disease treatment for a specific area. Kaayachikitsa focuses on internal medicine, while baalachikitsa deals with pediatrics. Bhuta Vidya focuses on psychiatry, while shalakya tantra focuses on ear, nose, and throat health. Shalya Tantra involves surgical treatments, and vishagara vairodh tantra handles toxicology. Jarachikitsa deals with geriatric and rejuvenation treatments, and vajikarana touches on conception, fertility, and aphrodisiac therapy. Finally, panchakarma deals with cleansing the body and rebalancing the doshas.

The ancient texts documenting Ayurvedic healing practices are called “Vedas,” and all focus on a holistic approach to life by balancing the mind, body, and spirit in harmony. Achieving that balance is done through practices like yoga, and by following the right diet, but also by consuming particular herbs, including ashwagandha.

Several different Vedas mention the herb categorically, including the Rig Veda, although with different focuses. For instance, the herb is variously described as being an aphrodisiac, as a means of enhancing strength, and for improving overall health when taken as a tonic, or Rasayana.

Traditional Ashwagandha Consumption

Ashwagandha has been consumed in many different forms within Ayurvedic tradition. However, root powder made by first drying and then crushing or grinding the roots is perhaps the most common. This powder could be added to foods, made into tinctures and tonics, added to topical applications, and used in many other ways. The leaves of the plant are also traditionally used similarly.

What Are Traditional Ashwagandha Uses?

In Ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha has many traditional uses. It is thought to help improve:

  • Sleep quality
  • Immune system function
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Low testosterone levels in men
  • Stress
  • Nervous system conditions
  • Cardiovascular health conditions
  • Cognitive conditions

You will find that the herb is still used to treat many of the same conditions, as well as several others. Within this guide, we will explore the broad range of potential treatment options, how does ashwagandha work and how it might be able to help.

Ashwagandha Today

While ashwagandha has been used for thousands of years, it remains a vital component of alternative medicine in India and many other nations. As science gains a greater understanding of herbal treatments, and more clinical studies are conducted, herbs like ashwagandha are being used by a much wider audience.

Today, ashwagandha is still used as it has been for thousands of years, but it is also available in highly concentrated, purified forms that deliver more excellent performance and increase the potential for improved health and healing. Below, we will discuss several areas where ashwagandha shows promise and has been clinically studied by scientists and medical professionals.

Sleep Health

We tend not to think much about our sleep, other than to wish we had gotten more of it as we are yawning during the morning meeting at the office, or struggling to stay awake after wolfing down a meal on our lunch break. However, sleep and its lack can have a significant impact on our health. Taking ashwagandha for sleep problems could provide numerous benefits.

One of the most traditional uses for ashwagandha is as a sleep aid. It’s even right there in the scientific name of the plant, as we discussed earlier in this guide. This is due to two different actions the herb creates in the body.

First, in medical studies involving animals, the herb was able to act as a tranquilizer, calming the body and suppressing the central nervous system. Note that this study did not include human subjects. Second, ashwagandha may be able to reduce the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the human body, thereby helping you relax and achieve a deeper level of restorative sleep.

And sleep is a critical element of human health and one that we overlook all too often. Ashwagandha for sleep could help improve a broad range of health conditions related to poor quality sleep or a lack of sleep. What does poor sleep cause to the human body, though? If you have not been keeping up with emerging science, some of this information may be shocking.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health in the US, “Sleep plays a vital role in good health and well-being throughout your life. Getting enough quality sleep at the right times can protect your mental health, physical health, quality of life, and safety.”

A lack of sleep, or low-quality sleep, can result in a wide range of negatives. For instance, it can increase your risk for cardiovascular disease, including suffering from a heart attack or stroke. It can cause an irregular heartbeat, increase your blood pressure, and even lead to heart failure.

Sleep deprivation and poor-quality sleep can also lead to an inability to concentrate, problems with short and long-term memory, irritability, significant mood swings, difficulty learning and mastering concepts, an inability to perform in your work and personal life, and much more.

It is not just about physical health, or your ability to be alert and aware, either. Poor-quality sleep can have a dramatic impact on your emotional and mental health. For instance, a lack of sleep can impair your problem-solving abilities, control your behavior, and more. It has been linked to depression and even suicide.

Daytime performance suffers significantly with poor-quality sleep. For instance, you become sluggish, less confident, and less able to make informed choices and decisions. Even activities as mundane as driving a car become life-threatening. The US government estimates that sleep deprivation plays a role in 100,000 car accidents per year and 1,500 auto-accident related deaths every year.

The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development sums it up well, “Sleep deprivation can noticeably affect people’s performance, including their ability to think clearly, react quickly, and form memories. Sleep deprivation also affects mood, leading to irritability; problems with relationships, especially for children and teenagers; and depression. Sleep deprivation can also increase anxiety.”

How can Ashwagandha help with sleep and sleeplessness?

Taking ashwagandha for sleep could improve your mental, emotional, and physical health while ensuring that you get the quality sleep necessary for alertness and performance.

Anxiety and Stress

Anxiety and stress go hand in hand and can have a profoundly negative impact on a person’s quality of life, even on their ability to experience intense emotions. Ashwagandha for anxiety may be able to help. It may also be able to help provide relief from stress. In this section, we will explore both anxiety and stress, their impacts on the body, mind, and emotions, and how this herbal supplement might be able to provide relief.

Anxiety

Anxiety is normal, at least to some extent. Everyone feels anxious from time to time. However, some individuals face significant anxiety on an ongoing basis. Dubbed “anxiety disorder,” patients experience “intense, excessive, and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations,” according to the Mayo Clinic. It is also more widely experienced than you might realize.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA):

  • Up to 40 million adults in the US are affected by an anxiety disorder.
  • Less than 40% of affected individuals find treatment.
  • There are multiple subtypes of anxiety disorder that affect Americans, including:
    • Generalized anxiety disorder
    • Panic disorder
    • Social anxiety disorder
    • Agoraphobia
    • PTSD
  • Sufferers with an anxiety disorder are up to six times more likely to be hospitalized for a psychiatric disorder than those who do not have anxiety.

Anxiety disorders present with a wide range of different symptoms, including feeling tense or nervous, rapid breathing, trembling, sweating, increased heart rate, difficulty controlling worry, difficulty sleeping, and difficulty concentrating. In some instances, an anxiety disorder can be related to another medical condition, such as heart disease or diabetes. However, there is often no other correlating condition.

Suffering from anxiety disorder means that patients experience an even broader range of health impacts – it’s not just about the symptoms of chronic anxiety. Those with this disorder will suffer from headaches, fatigue, muscle pain, insomnia, overwhelming self-consciousness, feelings of terror or impending doom, obsessive thoughts, and more. These individuals are at higher risk for developing heart disease, as well as chronic respiratory disease.

Ashwagandha for anxiety may be able to help individuals control their emotions and even alleviate the physical symptoms of the disorder.

Stress

Stress is part and parcel of daily life, today more so than ever before. The US National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus publication defines stress as “a feeling of emotional or physical tension. It can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous.”

While stress has always been part of human existence, or hectic modern lifestyles have raised stress levels to incredible heights. MedlinePlus goes on to say, “Stress is your body’s reaction to a challenge or demand. In short bursts, stress can be positive, such as when it helps you avoid danger or meet a deadline. But when stress lasts a long time, it may harm your health.”

Acute stress is short-term. It occurs in response to a particular stimulus, and then it goes away. However, chronic stress lasts for a long time and can have a significantly negative impact on your mind and body. Symptoms of chronic stress include:

  • Low energy levels
  • Headaches
  • Tense muscles
  • Insomnia
  • Lowered immune system
  • Chest pain
  • Stomach upset
  • Loss of sexual desire

In addition to those symptoms, sufferers of chronic stress are at risk for a wide range of additional medical conditions. For instance, chronic stress has been linked with high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, anxiety, menstrual problems, and even eczema and acne.

How does Ashwagandha help for Anxiety and Stress?

While studies have not been conclusive and additional trials are needed, ashwagandha has been shown to reduce both stress and anxiety in animal trials as well as human studies. In one study that included 64 individuals for a total of 60 days, patients taking ashwagandha for anxiety and stress reported a reduction in symptoms by 69%. Several other studies have also shown similar promise.

Depression

Depression is a terrible affliction that takes a massive toll in quality of life and even lives. As our understanding of depression and overall mental health improves, we have come to realize just how widespread this condition truly is. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Major depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. For some individuals, major depression can result in severe impairments that interfere with or limit one’s ability to carry out major life activities.”

Statistics from 2017 show that an estimated 17.3 million US adults suffered at least one major depressive episode. Statistics also show the incidence of major depression is highest in individuals ages 18 through 25 and is higher in women than in men. 35% of those suffering from significant depression receive no form of care at all. Of the remainder, 6% turn to medication without any form of counseling, 15% seek counseling only, and 44% use both medication and help from a health professional.

Symptoms of major depression are often misunderstood and misdiagnosed. While classic signs are certainly to be watched for, many individuals who struggle with depression are not so prominent. Some of the less well-known signs and symptoms include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Feelings of pessimism
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Loss of interest in activities or pastimes
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Digestive problems
  • Recurring headaches
  • Restlessness

Depression often leads to actions like alcoholism or drug use, as well as to suicide. However, it can also lead to many other negative health impacts. Some of these include increased risk of heart disease, inflammation within the body, chronic pain, weight gain (or loss), and an increased risk of cancer, and many more.

How Might Ashwagandha Help with Depression?

Taking ashwagandha for depression may be able to alleviate some symptoms. Note that only limited human studies have been carried out in this area, but those that were have shown promise. One study covered 64 adults suffering from stress and who suffered from depression for 60 days. During that period, participants who consumed ashwagandha reported a 79% reduction in severe depression.

However, note that because only one participant had a history of depression, the results of the study are unclear. Several other studies have shown that ashwagandha may help those with depression, though additional studies are required to understand the mechanism of action.

Fitness and Physical Health

Today, too many of us lead sedentary lives. We work a desk job for eight or nine hours, then commute back to our homes where we sit down for an evening of television watching before going to sleep so we can wake up and do it all over again. This lifestyle has had an incredibly negative impact on our fitness level and physical health as a nation.

According to MedlinePlus, “In the United States and around the world, people are spending more and more time doing sedentary activities. During our leisure time, we are often sitting; while using a computer or other device, watching TV, or playing video games. Many of our jobs have become more sedentary, with long days sitting at a desk.”

When you have an inactive lifestyle, you burn fewer calories, which leads to weight gain. A sedentary lifestyle also leads to a loss of muscle mass and stamina. It may even lead to bone density loss, meaning that minor accidents could cause significant injuries. Living a sedentary lifestyle has also been linked to poor blood circulation, lowered immune system function, increased inflammation overall, and even hormone imbalances.

A sedentary lifestyle has farther-reaching repercussions than those discussed above, as well. It leads to obesity, which increases your chance for diseases like diabetes, as well as for heart disease and stroke. A sedentary lifestyle can also lead to metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, and in some cases, will affect mental health, leading to depression and anxiety.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services:

  • Under 5% of US, adults exercise for 30 minutes or more per week
  • Over 80% of US adults fail to meet aerobic and muscle-strengthening guidelines.
  • Children spend up to 7.5 hours in front of a screen of some type.
  • 80.2 million people in the US are physically inactive
  • One-third of high school students play digital games (video or computer) for at least three hours per day.
How Might Ashwagandha Help Improve Fitness and Physical Health?

While there have only been a handful of studies conducted on the relationship between ashwagandha and physical health/fitness, the few that have been showed a promising correlation. For instance, one study that covered a group of healthy men for 30 days showed that taking a dosage of ashwagandha root every day helped them gain muscle mass. A second study showed that those who took an ashwagandha supplement enjoyed more significant muscle mass gains while simultaneously helping to shed almost twice as much body fat as those taking a placebo.

While it remains unclear how, taking ashwagandha may be able to help reduce body fat, improve overall body composition, improve fitness, and boost muscle mass gained from exercise. Before you start taking ashwagandha in any form, it is crucial to know how should ashwagandha be taken? If you are seeking medication for any chronic disease, then it is advised to check with your doctor for the recommended dosage.

Continue reading to know about the uses and benefits of Ashwagandha for sexual health, diabetes, joint health, inflammation, cognition, and cancer treatment. 





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