Ayurveda is India’s ancient medical system, over 3000 years in the making; Ayur for life and Veda for knowledge. A guiding principle of the practice is the recognition that mind and body are inseparably interconnected and that the mind can be a powerful force in transforming and healing the body.1 Health, in this system, is not merely the absence of a negative, like disease, but an affirmation of the positive—a state of dynamic harmony with oneself and one’s environment.
Stress, which in modern times is largely mentally triggered (that 5pm deadline isn’t going to eat you like a tiger would), wreaks havoc throughout our body when it becomes habitual. Cortisol, the “stress hormone”, becomes elevated during chronic stress, leading to decreased cognition and immune function, increased risk of depression and mental illness, and much much more.
It seems fitting that one of Ayurveda’s premier herbs, ashwagandha, is a true powerhouse when it comes to de-stressing, re-vitalizing and bringing balance back to our bodies and minds. Celebrated for its unique capacity to energize and relax at the same time, it’s no surprise that ashwagandha is the most popular medicinal herb in India.2
Steeped in Tradition
While ashwagandha has only recently made inroads in the US, the herb has been cherished in Ayurveda for thousands of years. Ashwagandha translates from Sanskrit as "smell of horse", not only describing the scent of the fresh root, but also the belief that the root imbues consumers with the strength and vitality of a stallion. The species part of the scientific Latin name Withania somnifera comes from somnus, meaning “sleep”, honoring its traditional use to support restorative rest.
In Ayurveda, the dried root is used for a wide range of reasons, including enhanced cognition and performance, as an aphrodisiac, and for conditions such as arthritis, asthma, and ulcers.3 Many people don’t know that ashwagandha is also native to parts of the Mediterranean and Africa. Many tribes across Africa, including the Sotho, Xhosa, and the Masai, employ ashwagandha in their medicinal toolkits for lack of libido, chills and colds, infections and more.4
Though the main active constituents in ashwagandha appear to include steroidal lactones (notably withanolides like withaferin A) and alkaloids (tropine and cuscohygrine), the exact mechanisms of action are not yet fully understood. Whether it is one or several of these compounds or a synergy of them all in their naturally occurring ratios—we don’t know. Lucky, we don’t have to have all the chemicals identified and isolated to confidently take an herb that’s been used successfully for thousands of years. In addition, ashwagandha taken whole or as a full spectrum extract has undergone toxicity studies and is considered completely safe in normal dosages.5
With almost 1000 studies on ashwagandha to date, modern research is starting to give us some real insight into this Indian adaptogen. Many studies have corroborated the capacity of ashwagandha to stabilize the body during extreme stress and offset adverse biological changes like elevated blood sugar, adrenal fatigue and high cortisol levels Studies have also confirmed the performance enhancing, neuro- and liver-protective, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of the root.6
A 2012 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study looked at ashwagandha’s ability to reduce stress and anxiety in adults with a history of chronic stress. Participants took a full spectrum extract twice a day for 60 days and exhibited significant (P<0.0001) reduction in stress, subsequently reporting an improvement in overall well-being and quality of life. Perhaps the most telling result of the research was that serum cortisol levels were reduced by almost 30% over the course of the study!
A full list of studies can be found at Pubmed, though I recommend starting at Examine.com, which has the research broken down into categories, level of evidence and magnitude of effect, making it much easier to grasp.
Many adaptogens are powerful because they specialize in surviving cold, high-altitude, high-radiation environments like Siberia that push them to produce impressive levels of protective compounds that humans can then benefit from as well. Ashwagandha is somewhat unique in that its protective compounds come from the unforgivingly hot and dry Indian landscapes in which it thrives. While many adaptogens are wild-crafted, ashwagandha is cultivated in India due to growing international popularity and high domestic demand. Over ten million pounds of ashwagandha are consumed yearly just in India alone!7
Ashwagandha’s tolerance for heat is good, but the fact that it requires very little attention and no irrigation is better. If that sounds like the perfect crop, for many Indian farmers it is. Not only is it easy to grow and easy on water, but cultivating ashwagandha for the herbal market is also more profitable for small farmers than alternatives like rice and green coconuts.8 At Taproot Adaptogen Tea, we support sustainable farming practices by sourcing organic ashwagandha from northern India.
While the majority of the world’s ashwagandha is grown in India, the plant can be extremely hardy almost anywhere. I grew a plant in Colorado and was amazed when it survived a very snowy winter at high altitude in the mountains!
Create a Ritual
So how do you include this super herb in your diet? While many great full-spectrum extracts are now available, a more traditional form of delivery is as a tea or decoction, prepared by boiling the powder in hot water or milk. Mixing the powder with ghee and honey is also a very traditional preparation. I love making a delicious ashwagandha laddu with almond butter, ghee, cardamom and honey! Create, our very own ashwagandha tea, blends other Ayurvedic herbs like ginger, cinnamon and licorice to support and enhance the star adaptogen.
To sum it all up:
May all be happy, may all be healthy, and may all have the strength—but not the smell—of a horse!
1 What Is Ayurveda? (2017, May 23). Retrieved June 10, 2017, from http://www.chopra.com/articles/what-is-ayurveda#sm.000000b26vj6va5d8otxxfrkbtsed
2 Kilham, C. (2004). Hot plants: natures proven sex boosters for men and women. New York: Griffin.
3 Winston, D., & Maimes, S. (2007). Adaptogens: herbs for strength, stamina, and stress relief. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.
5 Yance, D. R. (2013). Adaptogens in medical herbalism: elite herbs and natural compounds for mastering stress, aging, and chronic disease. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.
7 Engels, G., & Brinckmann, J. (2013). Ashwagandha. Herbalgram, (99), 1-7.
8 Kilham, C. (2004). Hot plants: natures proven sex boosters for men and women. New York: Griffin.