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Ashwagandha, or withania somnifera, is an ancient medicinal herb that has gained mainstream popularity in recent years for its “stress-busting” properties. From gummies to drink mixes and beyond, you’ll find plenty of ashwagandha-based products that promise to reduce stress, promote better sleep, and boost your brain power.
But what ashwagandha, exactly? And is it really the super herb that these products claim? As an Ayurvedic wellness educator, I’ve seen firsthand how people blindly take certain herbs and adaptogenic mushrooms without having a true understanding of their properties and effects.
Here, I explain more about ashwagandha from an Ayurvedic perspective, so you can make an informed decision on whether you should add it to your health and wellness routine.
The origins of ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is a shrub that grows in India, the Middle East, parts of Africa, and Western China. It has been used medicinally for centuries. The medicinal part of the plant is the root, which has traditionally been used for teas or applied topically in a paste for relief from pain and inflammation. Ashwagandha roots are said to smell like a horse (ashwa in Sanskrit) and give you the stamina and power of the equine animal, which is how this adaptogen got its name. The use of ashwagandha root has been documented in various traditional Ayurvedic texts, the oldest being the Kasyapa Samhita from 600 B.C.
The plant is considered to be a rasayana in Ayurvedic tradition—or an herb that contains rejuvenating properties and restores youthfulness in the body and mind. In modern terms, ashwagandha is considered to be an adaptogen—one of about 70 types of herbal plants which are thought to have certain health benefits, such as helping your body adjust to physical, chemical, or biological stress. But that’s not all that ashwagandha is known for.
What are the benefits of ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha has become one of the most popular herbs used around the world—and for good reason. As an adaptogen, the plant will adapt to what your body is needing and when. It’s a great option for those who are experiencing high levels of stress, as well as those who are having trouble maintaining their energy levels throughout the day and falling into restful sleep at night—common symptoms of someone who is chronically stressed or suffering from anxiety.
Other benefits of ashwagandha include:
- Protecting against and relieving stress and anxiety.
- Promoting sustained energy throughout the day.
- Lowering blood sugar, triglycerides, and low-density lipoproteins (LDL).
- Encouraging restful and deep sleep.
- Decreasing inflammation.
- Increasing muscle strength and lowering body fat.
- Improving sexual function. Ashwangandha is considered an aphrodisiac for both men and women and is thought to nourish the shukra, or reproductive tissues, that are responsible for sexual health.
- Pacifying vata imbalances and combating vata-dominant diseases like emaciation and anxiety.
- Boosting memory and cognition and improving focus and attention.
How should ashwagandha be used—and when should it be avoided?
While ashwagandha has many scientifically proven benefits, Ayurveda does not recommend that everyone take this adaptogen all of the time and for any reason. It’s always advised to consult a physician or Ayurvedic practitioner before starting any supplement, including ashwagandha.
Individuals who are pregnant or breastfeeding, immunocompromised, or suffer from autoimmune or thyroid disorders should not take ashwagandha. Those who have a pitta imbalance may also want to be cautious, as this adaptogen is known to occasionally cause excess heat in the body. Those who are trying to lose weight should also weigh the benefits of ashwagandha before adding it to their regime. Some possible side effects of taking ashwagandha can include stomach upset, nausea, or diarrhea. If you are on medication, consult your doctor before using ashwagandha.
What should I look for in an ashwagandha product?
There is an abundance of ashwagandha products sold everywhere from apothecaries to your local grocery stores and pharmacies. But is all ashwagandha created equal? When choosing your supplement, it’s imperative that you ensure that what you’re consuming is not only effective, but also safe.
I advise people to stay away from ashwagandha that is sold in obscure forms or from brands that do not specialize in selling herbal and Ayurvedic products. For me this includes many gummies, flavored tablets, and other products that advertise containing ashwagandha at grocery stores and pharmacies.
Instead, purchase powdered forms of ashwagandha root, capsules of the powder, or the fresh root to make your own tea. Try to find ashwagandha sold by reputable herb and supplement distributors, ideally Ayurvedic companies. Check to make sure that the supplements are USDA-certified organic, sustainably sourced, and that there is information on the distributors’ site on where and how their herbs are sourced and obtained. I often recommend Athreya Herbs and Banyan Botanicals, which are trustworthy sources of organic and quality-tested Ayurvedic herbs and products.
Ashwagandha is a wonderful plant that has many uses to benefit the mind, body, and spirit. It is important however, to be well informed about what you are putting in your body, where it came from, and if it is right for you. Always take the time to educate yourself and find reputable sources before experimenting with any herb, then enjoy adhwagandha’s healing effects and horse-like power.