We know that yoga helps reduce stress and fatigue, yet how many times have we felt so washed out that even the thought of doing gentle stretches seems like too much effort? For this and similar energy-related predicaments, many people turn to ashwagandha, an Ayurvedic herb increasingly known as the "Indian ginseng." Ashwagandha, or "winter cherry," provides energy and a rejuvenating lift while at the same time offering a calming effect. The chemical components in ashwagandha are remarkably similar to those found in ginseng, and yet studies have demonstrated its superiority in stress-relieving abilities when compared to its Chinese cousin. Ayurvedic healers have long prescribed the herb to treat exhaustion caused by both physical and mental strain, and scientific research has recently borne out this practice. A double-blind study found that ashwagandha prevented stress-related ulcers and vitamin C deficiency, and increased energy and endurance when under stress.
The key to ashwagandha's benefit lies in its action as an adaptogen, or substance that helps the body become more flexible and capable of handling change. This applies especially to the muscles. As Suhas Kshirsagar, medical director of the Maharishi College of Ayurvedic Medicine in New Mexico, explains, "Ashwagandha strengthens and gives more flexibility to the heart muscles, for instance, and is also useful for treating uterine and menstrual conditions involving the muscles, such as menstrual cramps."
Indeed, the herb's adaptogenic effect has far-reaching implications. Ashwagandha enjoys the reputation in the West as an aphrodisiac, a use supported by a recent study in which more than 70 percent of men reported increased libido and sexual function after taking the herb.
Unlike ginseng, however, this marvelous herb comes with some caveats. It increases a heating quality in the head and heart called sadhaka pitta, which affects both body and emotions. Ayurvedic doctors therefore recommend formulas that combine ashwagandha with cooling herbs, such as licorice, for instance. Or take ashwagandha with cooling foods, such as ghee, raw sugar, milk, and rice. Kshirsagar recommends a daily dose of three to six grams of ashwagandha powder, for a maximum period of six months.