What is Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha is an herb that has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. In Sanskrit, the word "ashwa" means "horse," while "gandha" means "smell."
The translation of Ashwagandha is roughly "the smell and strength of a horse," which alludes to its traditional use to support vitality and a healthy libido.* Once ground, the herb smells like a horse and was thought to impart the power of one, too.
Its species name, somnifera, means "sleep-inducing" in Latin. Somnifera indicates its traditional Ayurvedic use for supporting somnolence, or sleepiness.* Ashwagandha's Hindi name is "asgandh," another nod to its potent odor that's reminiscent of horse sweat.4,12
Origins of the Ashwagandha Herb
The Ashwagandha plant (scientific name Withania somnifera) is a small evergreen shrub that is short and squat with velvety leaves and bell flowers that contain orange berries similar in appearance to small tomatoes.
Ashwagandha is native to the Indian subcontinent, specifically the drier areas of India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. It also grows in parts of Africa, and it can grow in temperate climates, including Western North Carolina, where Gaia Herbs is located.
We grow Ashwagandha on our 350-acre Certified Organic farm in Brevard, North Carolina, and we also source it from India. The root of the plant is the part we use in our herbal products, and we harvest Ashwagandha root in fall when the plants’ beneficial phytochemicals are at their peak.
Ashwagandha as an Adaptogen
Ashwagandha is considered an adaptogen, meaning it promotes balance in many different systems of the body.*14
Adaptogens are herbs that meet three specific criteria developed by Russian scientist N.V. Lazarez (who is best known for discovering other adaptogens such as Siberian Ginseng, and teaching renowned adaptogen research scientist Israel Brekhman).
According to Lazarez, adaptogens have to:
- Be non-toxic
- Reduce and regulate stress by helping the body adapt*
- Benefit overall well-being*
Ashwagandha meets all of these criteria.
The History of Ashwagandha in Ayurveda
In Ayurveda — Traditional Indian Medicine — Ashwagandha is a rasayana, or a plant that promotes longevity, vitality, and happiness.*8,12,14
Rasayanas are traditionally given to small children and the elderly as a tonic to support overall well-being.* The root is often dried and ground, then given as a powder mixed with ghee, honey, and milk as Ashwagandha can often have a bitter taste. This warm beverage is often consumed before bedtime.14
Ashwagandha is included in our Golden Milk to help support a feeling of relaxation.*
Ashwagandha is one of the most commonly used herbs for the "Vata" constitution, which is associated with air and space. Balanced Vata energy helps maintain supple skin and joints, a healthy body weight, vitality, healthy cognitive function, and a healthy nervous system.6
Ashwagandha is also used traditionally as a tonic for memory, vitality, and hormonal function, which supports balanced Vata energy.*14
It is also used to support sleep quality, and the ground powdered root can be applied topically to help maintain healthy, comfortable joints.* 12
It should be noted that Ashwagandha impacts the Ayurvedic mind-body type called Sadhaka Pitta, which has an effect on body and emotions.*
According to Divya Alter, chef and owner of Ayurvedic restaurant Divya’s Kitchen, “If you are of high Pitta (fiery) constitution or have accumulated acidic toxins, taking Ashwagandha alone in tablet or powder form will be too heating; you may feel hot flashes and irritation in your stomach or liver.”* 15
Ayurvedic practitioners recommend combining Ashwagandha with cooling herbs, such as Licorice, or mixing Ashwagandha with cooling foods, such as ghee, raw sugar, milk, or rice.16
Ashwagandha has been extensively studied over its four millennia of use.
This herb offers support similar to the adaptogens Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus, sometimes called Siberian Ginseng) and Ginseng (both Panax ginseng and Panax quinquefolius) for a healthy stress response.*
Because of this, it is sometimes known as “Indian Ginseng," although it is unrelated to the Ginseng species. Ashwagandha provides calming and nourishing stress support, while Ginseng supports energy and stamina.* 12
Dr. Mary Bove, previously the Director of Medical Education at Gaia Herbs and currently a member of the Gaia Herbs Scientific Advisory Board, considers Ashwagandha to be:
Traditional Ashwagandha Health Benefits
As we’ve mentioned, Ashwagandha is a powerful adaptogenic herb that can help your body in many ways, including:
- Adapting to stressful conditions*14
- Supporting the nervous system and the endocrine system*
- Supporting cardiovascular and immune health*3,4,8,14
Let’s take a look at its traditional health benefits in more detail.
1) Stress and Anxiousness
Cortisol is a stress hormone released from the adrenals that has evolutionarily helped the body to mobilize a "fight or flight" response to a perceived imminent danger, freeing up resources for a vigorous fight against an intruder or flight from danger.
Cortisol naturally follows a daily rhythm, rising in the morning to help mobilize the body's forces for the daily needs and lowering in the evening to allow the body to sleep and perform restorative processes.3
Between constant deadlines, financial pressures, and a steady stream of negative news, the chronic stress of modern human culture regularly activates the cortisol stress response, which can impact nervous system function. 3,4
Ashwagandha has been shown to promote healthy levels of cortisol and the healthy inflammatory processes that are stimulated in the response to stress.*
Because stress is at the heart of many health conditions, helping the body adapt better benefits every bodily system including, healthy function of the immune, cardiovascular, and nervous systems, as well as the brain, muscles, and joints.*
Healthy, normal cortisol output also supports the adrenal glands, which naturally allows the body to focus on reproductive health.7
2) Nervous System
The nervous system impacts every breath, feeling, decision, and experience in our lives and is vital for overall health and well-being.
Ashwagandha has been shown to support the structure and function of the nervous system, and it is also considered to be a neurosupportive and nootropic herb.* Nootropic herbs are those that promote healthy cognitive function.*12
Ashwagandha supports healthy nervous system function by providing antioxidant support and naturally supporting the pathways in the brain for Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that's responsible for sustaining calmness and maintaining muscle tone.*2,7,8
Ashwagandha also supports a calm and stable mood because it helps regulate natural cortisol rhythm, so it has traditionally been used as a supplement for people coping with adrenal fatigue.*
3) Reproductive Health
In the endocrine system, the adrenals play a "starring" role; their functions are necessary for our survival while reproduction is not.
As such, the HPA axis and the stress response are naturally connected to sperm production and fertility in men, and hormonal balance and fertility in women.
The body produces cortisol from the same precursors used to make reproductive hormones, and, under stress, the body will preferably produce cortisol instead of testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone.7,14
Ashwagandha can assist by helping to maintain already healthy cortisol levels, so the body can free up those resources to be used for reproductive hormones.*
4) For Men
In untrained healthy men performing resistance training for eight weeks, consuming Ashwagandha root showed that it supported healthy muscle strength and recovery.*13
This may be because Ashwagandha promotes healthy levels of creatinine kinase, which reduces the natural muscle damage that happens from exercise and supports muscle recovery.*13
In men, Ashwagandha has also been shown to support a healthy stress response, healthy sperm levels, and normal levels of testosterone.*7,13
Metabolically, Ashwagandha seems to have an overall anabolic action, supporting weight gain during the natural growth phase.*
Ashwagandha-fortified milk given to children has been shown to support a healthy weight, as well as healthy total plasma proteins and hemoglobin levels.*
It has also been shown to support normal lean body weight and fat-to-muscle ratios.*10,13
Ashwagandha may also support healthy fat oxidation and support healthy blood glucose and blood lipid levels within already normal, healthy ranges.*3,10
6) Joint Health
Ashwagandha root has been studied for its support of a healthy inflammatory response and joint health.* It has been shown in some studies to support occasional joint pain, stiffness, swelling, and discomfort in healthy men and women due to normal wear and tear.*8.9
This may be because, as shown in human studies, it seems to naturally mitigate levels of C-reactive protein, which is a systemic marker for the body's inflammatory response.*3
A good night's sleep is a key part of living a healthy life. Known for its grounding and recuperative properties, several studies have shown that Ashwagandha supports healthy sleep.2,3,4,7.10
This is why Ashwagandha is included in some of our most popular supplements to support sleep, including Gaia Herbs SleepThru® and Gaia Herbs Adrenal Health® Nightly Restore.*
Adrenal Health® Nightly Restore also nourishes the adrenal glands, which influence the body's sleep patterns, stress response, and more.*
Ayurvedic practitioners have long believed that Ashwagandha is one of the most powerful herbs for immune-system support for young and old alike.*
One animal study found that Ashwagandha strengthened the immune systems of mice by promoting an increase in white blood cells.*22
While more studies are needed to substantiate Ashwagandha’s role in immune support in humans, an increase in white blood cells of this type could, theoretically, help humans maintain their health longer.*
9) Heart Health
Heart health is one of the most-asked-about wellness concerns of the 21st century and many people are looking for natural ways to support their heart.
One study noted that Ashwagandha offered antioxidant support to the heart, which could potentially help protect it against free radicals in the blood.*23
In addition, Ashwagandha may potentially provide anti-inflammatory benefits that make it easier for the heart to work efficiently.*23, 24
The same study also noted that Ashwagandha supported healthy cholesterol and triglyceride levels — two major factors in stroke, heart attack, and other cardiovascular problems.*23, 24
In fact, the group taking the highest dosage of standardized Ashwagandha extract experienced — on average — a 17% decrease in LDL (bad) cholesterol and an 11% decrease in triglycerides.*23