The ultimate guide to Ashwagandha: Benefits, uses, how it works

For thousands of years, various herbs have played vital roles in traditional medicinal systems across the globe, providing natural remedies for a myriad of health conditions. 

One such herb is Ashwagandha, a cornerstone of Ayurveda, one of the world’s oldest holistic healing systems that originated in India. 

In this ultimate guide, we will explore the fascinating world of this ancient herb. From its origins and botanical description to its nutritional profile and traditional uses, we’ll uncover the profound significance of Ashwagandha. 

We’ll also go deep into the modern scientific research surrounding this amazing herb, giving the nod to its acclaimed benefits, possible side effects, and the necessary precautions.

What is Ashwagandha?

The plant called Ashwagandha, or Withania somnifera, is a small woody plant that originally comes from North Africa and India. 

It’s a critical herb in Ayurvedic medicine, revered for its wide-ranging health benefits. 

The name ‘Ashwagandha’ translates from Sanskrit as ‘smell of the horse,’ referencing its unique aroma and the ancient belief that consuming the herb might confer the strength and vitality of a stallion [1].

It has been used as a medicinal herb for over 3,000 years, making it one of the oldest known herbs with medicinal properties. Primarily found in the dry regions of India, the Middle East, and parts of Africa.

Historically, all parts of the plant, including the root, leaves, and berries, were used for different health purposes.

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How are ashwagandha plants grown?

Ashwagandha is a hardy perennial shrub that thrives in dry and semi-arid regions, symbolizing its resilience and adaptability. 

While this herb can grow in various soils, it prefers well-drained, sandy or rocky terrains. This drought-tolerant shrub can withstand temperatures up to 40 degrees Celsius, making it suitable for cultivation in harsh environments [2].

The plant typically reaches a height of 1.5 to 2 meters when mature. It has simple, green, elliptical leaves. 

It produces small, bell-shaped flowers that later develop into vibrant orange-red berries enclosed in a calyx, a feature distinctive to the Solanaceae family.

How are ashwagandha plants grown?
Photograph: wirestock/Envato

Sustainability and ethics of ashwagandha cultivation

Traditional cultivation and its impact

The herb is typically grown in dry and semi-arid regions where few other crops can thrive [3]. As a result, it’s a vital source of income for many farmers in these areas.

However, overharvesting, especially of wild Ashwagandha, has led to its status as a threatened species in some regions.

Sustainable cultivation practices

To protect the plant and its native habitats, sustainable cultivation practices are being implemented. 

These include organic farming methods, crop rotation, and controlled harvesting to ensure the plants are not overharvested. 

Moreover, many cultivators turn to seed-saving and propagation techniques to maintain the crops’ genetic diversity and resilience.

Fair Trade and ethical sourcing

This involves ensuring that the workers involved in Ashwagandha cultivation are paid fair wages and work in safe conditions. 

Fair Trade-certified companies adhere to strict standards that support sustainable farming and provide better trading conditions for farmers and workers.

The future of Ashwagandha cultivation lies in balancing the increasing global demand with sustainable and ethical practices. 

Through the combined efforts of farmers, businesses, researchers, and consumers, we can ensure the continued availability of this remarkable plant for generations to come.

How to identify ashwagandha plants?

Identifying this herb can be challenging for the untrained eye due to its similarities with other plants in the Solanaceae family. 

However, certain characteristics make it stand out. Its leaves are dull green, covered with fine hairs, and have a rough texture. 

The flowers are inconspicuous, green or yellowish, and grow in clusters. What gives away Ashwagandha the most is its berries. 

Once the flowers mature, they produce bright orange-red berries enclosed in inflated, papery calyxes [4]. While the root is most commonly used for medicinal purposes. 

It is long, tuberous, and can be distinguished by its whitish-brown color and its horse-like aroma when fresh, a feature that led to its name.

What is ashwagandha made of?

Active compounds

Ashwagandha is highly prized for its rich profile of bioactive compounds, each contributing uniquely to the plant’s overall therapeutic properties. 

The primary active components are alkaloids and steroidal lactones, collectively known as withanolides. 

Scientists have extensively studied the potential health benefits of compounds like Withaferin A and Withanolide D.

Additionally, the herb contains other beneficial substances, including flavonoids, amino acids, fatty acids, and various sugars. 

These compounds all come together, creating a complex mosaic of nutrients contributing to Ashwagandha’s multifaceted health benefits.

Nutrient contents

Besides the bioactive compounds, Ashwagandha also provides essential nutrients. It is a source of iron and contains other minerals like calcium, magnesium, and zinc, albeit in smaller amounts. 

Moreover, it’s a good source of antioxidants, protecting our cells against damage.

How does Ashwagandha work?

In Ayurvedic medicine, health is seen as a balance of three life forces, or doshas: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. 

These doshas represent combinations of the five fundamental elements (earth, water, fire, air, space) and govern the body’s physiological and psychological functions. 

Ashwagandha is considered a “Rasayana,” a rejuvenating tonic that promotes longevity and vitality by balancing these doshas, particularly Vata and Kapha.

How to take Ashwagandha?

The appropriate dose of this herb depends on several factors, including the user’s age, health, and the specific reason for use. 

Generally, for stress, anxiety, and balancing overall health, a common recommendation is 200-600 mg of high-concentration Ashwagandha extract once or twice a day [5].

A healthcare professional may suggest a higher dosage for more specific health conditions. 

However, it’s crucial to always consult with a healthcare provider or a certified herbalist before starting any new supplement regimen, especially at higher doses.

Ashwaganda preparation and dosage

Historically, different plant parts have been used for various therapeutic purposes. 

The roots are dried and ground into powder mixed with water, milk, ghee (clarified butter), or honey. 

The typical dosage varies depending on the condition being treated, but a common range is 1 to 6 grams of powdered root daily.

Timing and regularity of intake

Ashwagandha is a versatile supplement that can be taken at any time of the day. However, if you experience stomach upset, it may be beneficial to take it with meals.

It will be beneficial to take it in the evening for sleep and relaxation benefits.

Consistency is key with this herb. To fully benefit from it, consuming it regularly for an extended period is recommended.

Ayurvedic formulations with ashwagandha

The herb is often used in conjunction with other herbs in Ayurvedic formulations. One example is “Chyawanprash,” a traditional Ayurvedic jam made with various herbs and spices, where Ashwagandha plays a vital role. 

Another is “Ashwagandhadi lehyam,” an herbal blend popular for its restorative and rejuvenating effects.

In Ayurveda, Ashwagandha is highly respected for its adaptogenic properties – its ability to help the body adapt to stress and promote overall well-being. 

Ashwagandha health benefits and uses

1. Stress relief and mental well-being

One of Ashwagandha’s most well-known benefits is its ability to support stress management and promote mental well-being. 

Its adaptogenic properties help the body adapt to physical and mental stress, reduce anxiety symptoms, and improve mood.

Stress relief and mental well-being
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2. Cognitive function and memory

Research suggests that Ashwagandha might enhance cognitive function and memory. It has been associated with improvements in attention, information processing speed, and overall mental ability. 

The antioxidant properties of Ashwagandha may also protect against neurodegenerative conditions.

3. Physical performance and recovery

Ashwagandha has traditionally been used to enhance strength and stamina. Modern science backs this up, with studies showing it can improve resistance to physical stress, enhance muscle mass and strength, and boost post-exercise recovery.

4. Longevity and life expectancy

The potential of Ashwagandha to promote longevity is linked to its rich antioxidant content, which counteracts oxidative stress, a major contributor to aging. 

Preliminary research shows promise in this area, suggesting that the herb may extend cellular longevity [6]. However, more studies are needed to confirm these effects.

5. Immune support

Ashwagandha has been traditionally used to boost immunity, and modern research supports this. 

It can enhance the activity of natural killer cells, the body’s primary defense line, and increase the production of important immune cells.

6. Thyroid health

Some studies suggest that Ashwagandha may help regulate thyroid hormones, which are crucial for maintaining metabolism, heart rate, and body temperature.

7. Sexual health and fertility

Traditionally, Ashwagandha has been used to improve sexual function and fertility for both males and females.

Clinical trials have shown it can improve sperm quality in men and may relieve PCOS symptoms in women.

As we have seen, this plant has a myriad of potential benefits. However, as with any supplement, it’s important to consider possible side effects and interactions. 

How to incorporate ashwagandha into your diet?

Ashwagandha can be incorporated into your routine in several ways, including in capsule or tablet form, as a powder mixed into drinks and food, or as tea. 

It’s important to find a method that suits your lifestyle and preferences to ensure consistency.

However, please remember that while this supplement has a good safety profile for most people, some may experience side effects or interactions with other medications. 

Always start with a lower dose to assess tolerance, and consult a healthcare professional if you have any concerns. 

Here are some ways you can incorporate ashwagandha into your diet: 

1. Ashwagandha in smoothies

Another popular way to consume it is by adding it to smoothies. It pairs well with fruits like bananas, berries, and peaches. 

Combining it with some yogurt, milk, or a plant-based milk alternative can give you a nutritious, stress-busting start to your day.

2. Cooking with ashwagandha

Ashwagandha’s earthy, slightly pungent flavor can complement many recipes. You can add the powdered root to soups, stews, or sauces. 

Some people also use it as a seasoning for meats and vegetables.

3. Ashwagandha in tea

Ashwagandha tea can be made by boiling the roots in water. Add other herbs, spices, or honey for a more flavorful brew. 

Drinking this soothing tea in the evening may promote relaxation and better sleep.

4. Ashwagandha supplements

For those who prefer a more straightforward approach, you can easily incorporate this potent herb into your daily routine. 

These are typically available in capsule, tablet, or tincture form.

As always, consult with a healthcare professional before adding any new supplement to your diet, especially if you have any pre-existing health conditions or are taking other medications.

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How to choose the right ashwagandha supplements?

Ashwagandha supplements come in various forms including capsules, tablets, powders, and tinctures. 

Your choice depends on your personal preferences, convenience, and lifestyle needs.

Factors to consider when choosing an ashwagandha supplement

  • Quality and purity: Choose a product tested for quality and purity. It should be free from fillers, additives, and harmful contaminants.
  • Standardization: Look for a supplement that specifies the content of withanolides, the active compounds in Ashwagandha. A higher concentration usually indicates a more potent product.
  • Origin: Prefer products sourced from regions where Ashwagandha is traditionally grown, such as India, as these are more likely to be cultivated under ideal conditions.

Certifications to look out for in ashwagandha supplements

Certifications can provide further assurance of quality. These may include: 

  • Organic certification: This certification indicates that the product is free from synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
  • Non-GMO certification: This assures that the product does not contain genetically modified organisms.
  • Fair Trade certification: This certification certifies that the product was produced under fair labor conditions and sustainable farming practices.

Where to buy ashwagandha

Ashwagandha supplements can be purchased from a variety of sources. Here are some options:

  • Health food stores: Many health food stores carry a wide range of herbal supplements, including Ashwagandha. You’ll likely find it in capsule, tablet, powder, or tincture form.
  • Pharmacies: Some larger pharmacies may carry Ashwagandha in their supplement section.
  • Online retailers: Numerous online retailers offer Ashwagandha supplements. This includes general e-commerce websites like Amazon and specialized health and wellness retailers. When purchasing online, check reviews and ratings for the product and the seller to ensure you’re buying a quality product.
  • Ayurvedic or natural health shops: Stores specializing in Ayurvedic or natural health products will likely carry Ashwagandha.
  • Direct from supplement manufacturers: Some supplement manufacturers sell their products directly from their websites. This can be a good way to ensure you get a genuine product.
Where to buy ashwagandha
Photograph: Zinkevych_D/Envato

When buying Ashwagandha, look for products from reputable brands that do third-party testing for quality and purity. 

The product should ideally be organic, non-GMO, and free from unnecessary fillers or additives. 

Always read the label for dosing instructions, and consult with a healthcare provider if you have any questions about starting a new supplement regimen.

Is Ashwagandha dangerous?

While Ashwagandha is generally considered safe for most people when used appropriately, some individuals may experience side effects. 

These may include stomach upset, diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting, particularly at higher doses. 

In rare cases, some people may experience more serious effects like allergic reactions.

Medicine interactions 

Ashwagandha may interact with certain medications. For instance, its potential to lower blood sugar levels may enhance the effect of diabetes medications, leading to hypoglycemia. 

Similarly, its potential effect on blood pressure could amplify the effects of antihypertensive drugs. It may also enhance the sedative effect of certain drugs. 

Therefore, if you’re on any medication, it’s important to consult with a healthcare professional before starting Ashwagandha.

Special precautions to consider before taking ashwagandha

Pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid using Ashwagandha, as there isn’t enough reliable information about its safety during these periods. 

People with autoimmune diseases, like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, should use Ashwagandha cautiously as it might cause the immune system to become more active.

Remember, while this supplement has numerous potential benefits, it’s not a substitute for a balanced diet, regular exercise, adequate sleep, and other healthy lifestyle habits. 

The best approach is to use it as a complementary tool within a comprehensive wellness strategy.

Modern scientific research on ashwagandha

Research suggests that Ashwagandha may enhance brain function, improve memory and cognition, and have neuroprotective properties. 

The potential effects are believed to be due to withanolides’ capacity to modulate neurotransmitters’ production and activity and promote nerve cell growth.

1. Ashwagandha and stress relief

Ashwagandha is recognized for its adaptogenic properties, which help the body manage stress. 

Studies have demonstrated that it can lower cortisol levels, the body’s primary stress hormone. 

Regular intake of Ashwagandha has been associated with reduced symptoms of stress and anxiety disorders.

2. Ashwagandha and physical performance

Clinical trials have shown improvements in strength, muscle mass, and recovery in individuals supplementing with Ashwagandha. 

These effects may be particularly beneficial for athletes or those engaged in regular physical activity.

3. Ashwagandha and longevity

Ashwagandha has generated considerable interest in the realm of longevity and life extension. 

It’s believed that its rich antioxidant content can help counteract cellular damage caused by oxidative stress, one of the key contributors to aging. 

Some research indicates that Ashwagandha might increase the activity of telomerase. This enzyme maintains the length of telomeres, the protective ends of chromosomes that shorten as cells divide over time. 

Longer telomeres are associated with increased cellular longevity, although more research is required to confirm these findings.

4. Other promising research areas

Other emerging research areas include the potential benefits of Ashwagandha in improving immune function, supporting thyroid health, enhancing sexual function, and even exhibiting anti-cancer properties. 

However, while the preliminary findings are promising, more comprehensive studies are required to fully understand and validate these effects.

While the growing body of scientific research on Ashwagandha provides exciting insights into its potential benefits, it’s important to remember that research is ongoing and findings should be interpreted with caution.

Closing thoughts

Ashwagandha is a fascinating plant with a long history of use in Ayurvedic medicine and an exciting array of potential health benefits.

From promoting mental well-being and enhancing cognitive function to potentially supporting longevity, this versatile herb offers numerous ways to support overall health.

However, while the body of scientific evidence supporting Ashwagandha’s benefits is growing, it’s crucial to approach it as a supplement to a balanced lifestyle that includes a healthy diet, regular physical activity, and adequate sleep. 

It’s evident that Ashwagandha’s future is as promising as its rich past, and we’re only just beginning to unravel its full potential.

FAQs

What happens when you take ashwagandha daily?

When taken daily, ashwagandha has several potential effects on the body and mind due to its adaptogenic properties. Some benefits include reduced stress and anxiety, improved cognitive functions, enhanced physical performance, improved sleep and increased immunity. 

Is it safe to take Ashwagandha every night?

Yes, it is generally safe to take Ashwagandha every night for most people. It’s known to have calming effects, which can help prepare your body for a restful night’s sleep.

Is Ashwagandha FDA approved?

No, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve dietary supplements in the same way they approve drugs.

Who should not take Ashwagandha?

While Ashwagandha is generally safe for most people when taken in moderation, certain individuals should avoid it or use it cautiously. These include pregnant and breastfeeding women, people with autoimmune diseases, those scheduled for surgery, those taking specific medications, and those with thyroid disorders and GI issues.

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[1] https://chopra.com/articles/what-is-ashwagandha 
[2] https://www.washcoll.edu/learn-by-doing/food/plants/solanaceae/withania-somnifera.php 
[3] https://www.agrifarming.in/ashwagandha-cultivation 
[4] https://www.banyanbotanicals.com/info/blog-the-banyan-insight/details/co-creating-health-with-ashwagandha/ 
[5] https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318407 
[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4117092/

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