Ashwagandha is a powerful adaptogen and one of the most important in the Ayurvedic healing tradition. What are ashwagandha's benefits?April 27, 2022 4:52 pm June 15, 2020 10:00 am
What is ashwagandha?
Aswagandha, also known as Indian winter cherry or Indian ginseng, is the king of Ayurvedic herbs. Despite the name, it is not actually related to the ginseng we know and love. Although the two share the ability to energise us, they’re different plants altogether.
The ashwagandha plant has an understated beauty, with its yellow-green leaves and bright orange berries. It looks as though it would be at home in a UK garden, but it actually hails from India and North Africa. Its name comes from the Sanskrit words for horse (‘ashwa’) and smell (‘gand’); early users thought it had a whiff of the equine about it!
The Latin name, Withania somnifera however, gives us more of a clue as to ashwagandha’s medicinal properties. While ‘withania’ simply refers to the family of plants, ‘somnifera’ translates to ‘sleep-inducing’.
Nowadays, it is grown in many climates around the world. When it comes to ashwagandha’s healing properties, we’re primarily interested in the root. However, the leaves, berries and seeds can also be used for various other medicinal purposes.
Ashwagandha belongs to the rejuvenating branch of Ayurveda, known as Rayasana. This branch is concerned with foods, herbs and practices which rebuild and restore.
Scientists have identified special plant steroids in ashwagandha which they have linked to its healing powers. These are called withanolides, and they are thought to be effective against stress.(1)
As with many herbal remedies, more scientific research is needed to back up traditional knowledge of ashwagandha. However, many scientists have investigated ashwagandha and come up with some rather interesting insights.
Ashwagandha may reduce anxiety and lessen depression
While they’re often linked together, anxiety and depression are not the same thing.
Anxiety refers to a large group of mental health conditions, while depression refers to a single illness. Symptoms of depression include continuous low energy, trouble making decisions, low self-belief and impatience with others.
Anxiety and depression are both internal responses to external stress. Stress is inevitable, but we can influence how we respond to it. Ashwagandha may be of some use here.
For instance, in survey of 75 people with anxiety, the group taking ashwagandha had a decrease in anxiety symptoms of around 56.5%.(2) This is significantly more than reported by the control group.
A different study also found that ashwagandha benefits brain neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters relay messages in the brain, and problems with them contribute to anxiety and depression.
There is also evidence that ashwagandha can improve sleep. People with anxiety and depression often report difficulties with poor sleep, and it can exacerbate their symptoms.(3) So, having a safe, natural way to gently encourage better sleep is hugely useful in the treatment of these disorders.
Another study compared ashwagandha to a widespread pharmaceutical anti-depressant in the treatment of clinical depression. The treatments had comparable results.(4)
While encouraging, there are a few caveats to these results. Many of the results would need to be replicated at a wider scale before the scientific community considers them to be conclusive.
Further, some of the studies were performed with specific compounds isolated from ashwagandha. Meanwhile in Ayurveda and naturopathic medicine, the whole plant tends to be used as it’s thought to be a more holistic remedy.
However, this kind of research is a very useful tool to understand how ashwagandha might work in the context of the modern world.
Ashwagandha benefits our stress response
Ashwagandha also works directly on stress.
Our normal stress response can become chronic stress if it is continuous and prolonged. Chronic stress can lead to any number of long-term problems, including cognitive deficiencies.
As we discussed in our article on the health benefits of adaptogens in general, the stress hormone, cortisol, plays an important role in setting off our ‘fight or flight’ response in times of stress. In the context of real danger, cortisol is incredibly useful, allowing us to react effectively when we’re under threat.
However, these days stress is more likely to be caused by a sudden influx of work rather than a hidden predator. Thus, the ‘fight or flight’ response isn’t quite so useful.
If we are able to lessen the release of cortisol, we also reduce the strength of the ‘fight or flight’ response. That gives us more energy to concentrate on restoring ourselves.
A study looking at people suffering from chronic stress found that taking ashwagandha daily reduced both cortisol concentration and feelings of stress.(5) Another study backs up these results. Ashwagandha benefits resistance to stress, which in turn enhances our quality of life.(6).
Ashwagandha may reduce inflammation
Inflammation is similar to stress in that it is a normal physical response. When we suffer an injury or disease, lots of white blood cells rush to fight off invading pathogens.
However, sometimes there isn’t actually any threat to the body but inflammation continues. The white blood cells start to target healthy tissue, producing chronic inflammation.
Like chronic stress, it may lead to diseases such as heart disease and stroke among others.