As the coronavirus pandemic continues to rule our lives, building immunity has assumed special if not primary significance in our everyday lives. Consequently, you might have heard of ashwagandha.

Ashwagandha is a special herb used extensively in Ayurveda that is known to boost immunity. Perhaps your neighbourhood uncle or auntie has suggested that you include this amongst your daily supplements. Do you know why? 

Let’s find out all about ashwagandha: what it is, where it is grown, what its uses and benefits are, and in what form we should take it. Also, are there side-effects and precautions you should know about?

What is Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha, also called Indian ginseng and winter cherry, is a small evergreen shrub. It grows in India, the Middle East, and parts of Africa. The root and berry of this plant are used to make medicine.

Its scientific name is Withania somnifera. It is used as a tonic or rasayana in Ayurvedic medicines, meaning that it helps rejuvenate you physically and mentally. 

Feel as fit as a horse!

Etymologically, ‘Ashwa’ means ‘horse’ and ‘gandha’ means ‘smell’. So, ashwagandha means ‘the smell of a horse’, i.e. the roots of this herb smell like a horse. Not a very inviting thought, is it?! But don’t worry, it is available as powders and capsules so you need not worry about how you will ingest it!

It was actually said that if you consume this herb, it will make you as sturdy and fit as a horse.

How to take Ashwagandha

  1. Normally, the Ashwagandha plant’s roots and leaves are dried, powdered and then used in extracts to treat ailments. The powder is used as a churna (mixture of powdered herbs) that can be consumed along with water and ghee (clarified butter) or honey. 
  2. Since it is made from the roots of the plant, it tastes bitter. So, it would be a good idea to mix it in a smoothie and then drink it. You can mix it in a glass of almond milk with spices like cinnamon for added flavor. 
  3. Root extract capsules are also available here.

Benefits of Ashwagandha:

Are you also wondering about what are the benefits of ashwagandha. Here is list of some known benefits of Ashwagandha for health:

  1. Stress buster: There could be no better introduction for a medicinal herb than this especially in these ‘viral’ times! By controlling the cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’) levels in the body, ashwagandha helps reduce stress, according to this 2012 research study, published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine.
  2. Boosts immunity: Ashwagandha helps in increasing the number of White Blood Cells (WBCs), the body’s inbuilt defence mechanism, according to findings by a team of Portland (USA) medical researchers. These can help the body fight infections by making antibodies and destroying foreign substances.
  3. Boosts energy: This herb can help boost energy levels, lifting both your stamina and endurance abilities, giving you the vitality of a horse!
  4. Helps lower sugar levels: Ashwagandha is a must-have for diabetics as it helps reduce fat and blood sugar levels by increasing the production of insulin in the body. 
  5. Helps treat Vata imbalances: Since this plant calms the nervous system, and eases anxieties and relieves stress, (all symptoms of Vata imbalance), it is a good supplement to add to your diet to balance those with Vata constitution.
  6. Controls hormone imbalances: This herb can help boost thyroid hormone levels.  It can also control hormone imbalance in the endocrine system, which leads to mood swings during menopause.
  7. Promotes health Weight loss : Ashwagandha helps support your exercise and diet regimen. Both these tend to increase stress and anxiety which this herb can control by reducing the cortisol levels in the body. It also balances your mood, preventing binge eating. Also, by promoting good sleep, it saves you from night time snacking.
  8. Lowers blood pressure: This makes ashwagandha ideal for those with hypertension, helping to control heart diseases and ailments.
  9. Helps control inflammation: The leaves of the ashwagandha were traditionally placed on part of the body where there was inflammation. It helps relieve joint pain also because of which it is considered for the treatment of arthritis. A pilot study in 2015 has suggested that Ashwagandha can be used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.
  10. Helps prevent sleeplessness: This herb is a blessing for insomniacs as it helps soothe the nervous system. A glass of warm milk with ashwagandha powder at night can help treat sleeplessness. 
  11. Acts as an anti-ageing agent: Ashwagandha increases the antioxidants in the body, promoting the secretion of healthy oils that keep the skin glowing and radiant. The harsh exposure to various outside elements such as the ultraviolet rays of the sun can damage the skin. Ashwagandha protects the skin from drying out, keeping it supple and yet firm. This is why it is considered an anti-ageing agent.
  12. Helps improve concentration and memory functions: With its powers of improving memory, Ashwagandha can help treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative disorders according to this 2011 research study published in the African Journal of Traditional, Complementary, and Alternative Medicines.
  13. Boosts functioning of reproductive organs: This herb acts as a stimulant restoring your natural drive. The reduced stress levels also are a factor here. It also helps increase testosterone levels in men enabling better productivity. Ashwagandha keeps the reproductive hormones in balance in women also by regulating the thyroid and adrenal glands.

This herb is best described as an adaptogen as it regulates the highs and lows of your body’s vital stats.

Are there any precautions you should be mindful of when using Ashwagandha?

It is important to note that many of the studies conducted with Ashwagandha were with lab animals. So, more human testing is required before more conclusive evidence of its uses are established. However, these studies demonstrate that there is a definite and growing interest in this multifaceted herb.

At the same time, it would be a good idea to adhere to some precautions:

  • Always consult an Ayurvedic doctor rather than self-prescribe Ashwagandha, so that intake of it does not interfere with any existing medications for say diabetes and blood pressure. 
  • Pregnant women should avoid these herbs.
  • Those who take medicine for boosting their thyroid levels should take into consideration that these herbs will also boost thyroid levels. 
  • Those who have a history of auto-immune diseases, as Ashwagandha can cause the immune system to become more active.

It always helps to follow healthy practices. You can help yourself by maintaining regular and normal hours of night sleep (say 11 PM to 7 AM); follow a balanced diet and ensure you get regular physical exercise like walking, swimming, jogging, or yoga not to mention mental exercises like meditation. 

If you would like to delve deeper into better health, to make your body and mind strong, you could explore the Wellness Program here. 

Written with inputs from Dr. Anjali Asok, Ayurveda physician, Faculty, Art of Living

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