Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a small evergreen shrub found in areas of India, the Middle East, and parts of Africa. The plant has small, green flowers and fruit that turn orange-red when ripe. In Sanskrit, “ashwagandha” translates to “smell of the horse,” which is thought to be a result of its strong, “horse-like” odor, or its invigorating properties. It is also known as Indian ginseng, poison gooseberry, or winter cherry, and is a member of the nightshade family — botanically related to eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes.
Ashwagandha has been used in traditional African medicine for a variety of illnesses, and in Ayurvedic medicine as an adaptogenic herb (adaptogen) — an herb that is believed to promote balance, vitality, and the ability to adapt to new and stressful situations. Today, ashwagandha is orally used for a variety of ailments including arthritis, mental disorders, cancer, tuberculosis, chronic liver disease, diabetes, and conditions associated with aging. It is also used orally for immunomodulatory effects, cognitive function, inflammation, aging, infertility, athletic performance, and insomnia. Topically, ashwagandha is used for treating ulcerations and backaches.
Research has found ashwagandha may be effective in assisting with stress. A clinical study reported that when adults with chronic stress consumed ashwagandha daily for 60 days, perceived stress levels decreased by 30% to 44%, and cortisol levels decreased by 22% to 28%, when compared to the control group. In addition, the root extract also has been found to prevent stress-related weight gain when compared with a placebo.
Chemical constituents, including alkaloids, steroidal lactones, and saponins, have been identified in ashwagandha and may be responsible for its calming properties. However, further research is needed to confirm. Although various studies have suggested additional benefits of ashwagandha, currently there is insufficient evidence to determine its potential effectiveness for additional ailments and disease states. Additional research is required.
Ashwagandha is available in extract form in capsules, as well in as teas and powders. It is generally thought to be safe and well-tolerated, however large doses may cause gastrointestinal (GI) upset, diarrhea, and vomiting. Pregnant women should avoid ashwagandha as it may affect hormone levels and may have abortifacient effects. Those with an allergy or sensitivity to the nightshade family should also avoid taking it.