Ashwagandha; withania somnifera

 

Ashwagandha, withania somnifera


A complete in-depth look into the herbal ally, Ashwagandha.

 

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Ruling Planet: Sun

Ruling Element: Earth

Taste: Bitter, Pungent, Sweet (post digestive/nutritive)

Energy: Drying, Warming

Dosha Effect: VK - P, Ojas Building

Tissue State: Atrophy, Tension

Common Name: Ashwagandha, Winter Cherry, Withania, Indian Ginseng

Family: Solanaceae (nightshade)

Ayurvedic Name: Asgandh

Parts Used: Root, sometimes leaves + fruit.

Native Region: India, Africa

Ruling Chakra: Root

Botanical Description: Ashwagandha is a woody shrub that grows up to 2’-4’ in height, but varies in location and climate. The leaves are a dull green hue, and are considered ovate and alternate. Amazingly, this plant also produces stunning red berries that also share little medicinal value. You can replant Ashwagandha by harvesting its bright yellow seeds in the Spring, but they must be dried out. The root systems of Ashwagandha are outstanding, and is where the medicinal value is majorly harvested and used. When the flowers bloom, they will have an ombre-effect of green/yellow.

Key Constituents: Alkaloids, Iron, Potassium, Steroidal Alkaloids, Tannins

Actions: Adaptogen, Anti-Inflammatory, Antispasmodic, Antioxidant, Aphrodisiac, Immunomodulant, Nevine, Sedative, Tonic

Sustainability + Ethics: Some studies indicate that Ashwagandha is a threatened plant species, but not all scientists are eager to list it as such quite yet. However, I personally see Ashwagandha as an overly cultivated plant. We can see this in modern capitalism, and it’s important to note here to understand where you are sourcing your yield from, the ethics of the company and the labor practices. With all plants, we should be mindful of any and all key ethic boundaries and take only what we need. However, it is easy to harvest because it only takes 1 year to come into full maturity for root harvest.

Affininites: Endocrine, Immune System, Nervous System, Reproductive System

Harvesting: The roots are harvested in Autumn once the plant has established a full year of maturity. Fruit harvesting also tends to follow the same guidelines. The root systems can be used fresh or dried, but will need different alcohol strengths for tincture preparations, which is mentioned later on.

Uses: Ashwagandha is often referred to as: Horse Power or The Smell of a Horse. Simply put, Ashwagandha is known to give its users stamina like that of a horse, and also the libido of one. The strong odor of this herb is also where the “Smell of A Horse” context comes into play, as it’s incredibly earthy. Which is also one small reason why some coin it to be ruled by the Earth element, but we will dive more into the grounding qualities of withania later. Some debate the action classification of it being an aphrodisiac, but rather a tonic to be used over time as a slow burner to reduce levels of stress that may inhibit the lack of sex drive. I would personally argue that if a plant allows for libido to come into balance, it’s not harmful to treat it as a mild aphrodisiac. For backstory, Ashwagandha is a native shrub to India and Africa, and is a popular herb in the world of Ayurvedic Medicine. Not to mention, it’s grown immense popularity over the course of the last 5-10 years due to mainstream media because of its adaptogenic properties. Which, we can understand because modern society’s stress levels are at an all time high, and because of this simple stress modulating claim, everyone has jumped on board because we could all use a little bit of adapting to stressful situations. Once again the capitalist marketplace has made adaptogens fit within a square medical allopathic model. We will dig into this more as we move through this plants uses’ as there’s more to be said.

The classic action of Ashwagandha is its adaptogen action, which are herbs that have a non-specific action that stabilizes the body’s reaction towards stressors. Like most adaptogens, Ashwagandha also acts as an immunomodulant by preventing white blood cell depletion. It stimulates the thyroid and is rich in iron. These stressors are not limited to daily tasks or troubles, but also to environment or internal discomforts caused by diets and exercise. Most often, Ashwagandha is used in moderate doses for long term periods to achieve strength, vitality and overall well being, although this is relatively vague and we will dive more into dosing and contradictions further on. Another similar action of that we see Ashwagandha take on in relation to its adaptogenic properties is it’s immunomodulating action, which specifically targets the immune system and once again allows for stability and regulation. Those who tend to have an immense weak immune system tend to lean heavily on this plant ally. We will talk more about it’s quality of being mildly oily as well below, but it’s great to mention here because our nervous system reacts well oils as it cuts through the sharpness that comes with being overly anxious, and allows one to feel as if there’s fluidity in their system, which again helps aid in libido. Again, we see its adaptogenic properties play hand in hand with all of the great balances to come when we come into company with it.

Ashwagandha is a heavily tonifying herb that is used to strengthen the nervous system, which is how we know its nervine action comes to play. When we contrast the adaptogen properties with the nervine properties, we are mostly looking at the nervous system specifically, rather than an overall system balance which is why adaptogens are non-specifics. Because this herb is a nervine, we come to seek support when we are lacking sleep, our anxiety feels uncontrollable and panic attacks come often. Ashwagandha is great in these cases because it soothes the nerves and allows one to feel more grounded and not as if they are constantly running on energy that feels high-strung and uncontrollable. In Ayurveda, we view Ashwagandha as being sattvic in nature, which is indicated as being uplifting, empowering and glowing. I also wouldn’t hesitate as classifying it as Ojas building, which is expressed as vitality, endurance, fertility and patience- all of which are grounded qualities of Kapha, and stabilizing for Vata + Pitta. Ojas is the subtle essence related to health and well-being. It makes you peaceful and patient.

Ashwagandha has a strong affinity for the reproductive system, mentioned earlier, as it increases one’s desire to have vitality, energy, get the juices flowing and rejuvenate ones will to explore their sexual desires more often. I like to think of this affinity more of a bonus reaction because mainly this plant addresses fatigue and the feeling of being withdrawn or scattered, and because its adaptogenic action takes part in that, I feel as if it naturally brings one to want to have more sexual play with themselves and others. We see this plant have an oily quality, which further addresses a dry system mostly correlating with the reproductive system to get it lubricated. Furthermore on the topic of reproduction, Ashwagandha in a study has been proven to increase sperm count, because it’s antioxidant properties inhibited lipid peroxidation and the protein carbonyl, which in return, also furthers the conversation of creating life.

Because we see Ashwagandha as a plant with warming qualities, a representation of the fire element and the sun, we use this plant for those who come off as cold, damp and weak. The warmth of Ashwagandha is not stabbing, it’s quite subtle and pleasant. Unlike our friend Cayenne, we don’t see its sharp and sweaty qualities here. Think of ashwagandha as a fleece blanket, rather than an electric blanket. For anyone who feels too drawn-within, the Sun represented in Ashwagandha pulls one out from the dark, allows them to bloom and feel rejuvenated. However, when noting a ruling element to represent Ashwagandha, I noted it to be an Earth ruler and not Fire specifically. One tends to weigh heavier for me, and I see Earth in the medicine of its roots, the way its actions bring one down to the ground and to stabilize. While I would associate Fire with heat, and Ashwagandha’s ability to give energy, the Earth element represents stability, and I feel that this element shows up as a primary in this herb and the way it supports a person.

I believe that Ashwagandha pacifies all 3 doshas, because it’s an herb that tends to play well for most. If you are a warm Pitta, even then we can notice this plant bringing stability to an overzealous and overworked constitution. I say this because Pitta’s are warm constitutions that rule the fire element, and often times we look to support opposing elements, but that’s not always linear. I tend to think of panic attacks for example as being more on the warm side from an energetic viewpoint, which is why I believe that even though we are using a warm herb for a warm constitution, it’s more fluid to say that its nervine action soothes what tends to be too hot. In popularity however, Ashwagandha is indicated for anyone with a strong Vata because we notice dampness, cold and depletion come from these dosha types. For Kaphas, it’s a great ally as well because excess Kaphas can definitely show signs of lethargy, not wanting to move, be lazy and lose interest, which is addressed by this plant as it allows the body to regain momentum in areas that are depleted. Thus, I find it to work well for all doshas, but favor the spacey and airy Vata.

A great accomplishment that Ashwagandha has been noted for, is benefiting those in the treatment of hypothyroidism, which in layman’s terms is a condition in which the thyroid gland is not able to produce enough thyroid hormone. Ashwagandha brings immense support to the symptoms that come along with hypothyroidism such as low energy, fatigue, coldness and a low metabolic rate. Studies have shown Ashwagandha to stimulate the thyroid, although we see Ashwagandha as contradictory to those who have hashimoto’s disease, which is an autoimmune disease causing chronic inflammation and failure of the thyroid gland, but more specifically the nightshade family list of plants triggers those with this disease and it’s not limited to Ashwagandha.

A note on adaptogens:

With that said, I’d like to take some time to talk the other side of adaptogens, especially here on an Ashwagandha monograph because it appears to be one of the most utilized and given adaptogenic herbs to date, and I wanted to take the time to open up this dialogue here. May I preface by saying, adaptogens are not a one-size-fits-all. I see too often adaptogens being given out or sold to market as a: “this is all you’ll ever need” herb. Let’s take a step back, and explore this more.

Adaptogens can and will inflict harm if not used properly. Adaptogens are known to accompany us during times of stress, but many adaptogens impact the HPA, or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. However, because we are talking about Ashwagandha it’s important to circle back around and mention that this plant reduces the activation of HPA and the release of cortisol. If you can take away anything from the classification of adaptogens, it’s that not all of them work in the same way. You must think this way about any classification of herb, but not all adaptogens support stress or anxiety in the same way. In some cases, using adaptogens without a fuller context of the system you are trying to support can cause harm.

Most adaptogens should be indicated for those who have experienced long term fatigue, although this isn’t black and white. This would further be indicated for anyone who has experienced long months to years of prolonged insomnia, anxiety, stress, low libido, slow digestion, a shot nervous system and generalized weakness. While Ashwagandha is generally safe, it’s best to understand that not all adaptogens play nicely in the same way. My goal to briefly bring up adaptogens here is not to cause fear, but to bring to light just how much we must understand about the person taking an herb. Ashwagandha is represented by the Sun, and the Sun represents the vital force, it’s also further indicated for those who truly have been depleted by their own vital force. We wouldn’t want to administer an adaptogen for long periods of time specifically to someone who appears to just be losing sleep the past couple of nights all of a sudden, or having anxiety after an acute onset of a randomized stressful situation that typically isn’t the norm for the one seeking support for their acute stress. Adaptogens may not always be the best herb for acute conditions, as I believe some herbs can tackle that better and be less strenuous.

Specific Indications:

  • Anemia, Anxiety, Asthma, Bronchitis, Constipation, Diarrhea, Dry Tongue, Emphysema, Fatigue, Fever, Insomnia, Joint Pain (fibromyalgia +rheumatoid arthritis) Muscle Tension, Low Libido, Low Pulse, Stagnant Digestion, Stress, Weakness.

Safety: Avoid in those who are pregnant as it may cause abortifacient properties, especially in large doses. It may also interfere with fertility treatments. Avoided in those who take sedatives, anxiolytics, or for those with stomach ulcers. Relatively safe when taken in the recommended dosage. Large doses, however, tend to show causes of gastrointestinal upset, diarrhea, and vomiting. Stop immediate use if these symptoms occur. Avoided with prescribed thyroid medications so it does not interfere. Also, it is avoided in cases of hemochromatosis and hyperthyroidism. It’s also generally avoided for those with Hashimoto's disease because it is considered nightshade.

Adult Dose:

  • Tincture: Dried root tincture in 50% alcohol, or fresh root in 70-80% alcohol. 1:5 extract ratio, 2/4 mL 3x’s per day.

  • Decoction: 1:8:32 (herb, milk, water). *recommendation from Sajah Popham from Evolutionary Herbalism

  • Powder: 3-5 grams daily with water. *recommendation by Vassant Lad.

Preparations: Tincture, Decoction (w/milk), Powder

 
The Herbarium by the Herbal Academy

 

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References

  1. The Herbarium by The Herbal Academy (paid membership)

  2. Materia Medica Monthly, Evolutionary Herbalism (paid membership)

  3. SCIRP, Current Status of Withania Somnifera

  4. The Herbal Academy, The Beginner’s Guide To Ashwagandha

  5. The Herbal Academy, Intermediate Herbalism

  6. Herbal Therapy and Supplements by David Winston & Merrily A. Kuhn

  7. Adaptogens by David Winston & Steven Maimes.

  8. Case Study: Pacifying Vata, Digestive Discomfort, The Herbarium by The Herbal Academy (paid membership)

  9. Rethinking Adaptogens by Naomi Ullian

  10. The Complete Book of Ayurveda by Hans H. Rhyner