Ashwagandha: for Health and Longevity

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an herb native to India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. It is in the Solanaceae family, which also contains eggplant (Solanum melongena), belladonna (Atropa belladonna), cayenne pepper (Capsicum spp.), and tomato (Lyco-persicon esculentum).

In India, ashwagandha has been used medicinally for more than 3,000 years. Ayurvedic medicine recommends it alone and in combination with other herbs for musculoskeletal conditions and as a tonic to increase energy, improve overall health and longevity, and prevent disease. Research shows that ashwagandha possesses anti-inflammatory, antitumor, antistress, antioxidant, immunomodulatory, and rejuvenating properties.

An Adaptogen
Adaptogenic herbs are believed to help the body adapt to stress by supporting the adrenal glands and the endocrine system. Several popular herbs are considered adaptogens, including Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), rhodiola (R. rosea), and ashwagandha.

Many people suffer the effects of chronic stress, and ashwagandha may be an important herb for helping protect the body. One small, double-blind clinical trial with healthy women shows this herb to be superior to Asian ginseng on a number of cognitive tests. In another study, animals were given 100 mg/kg ashwagandha extract and then subjected to a stress test. Animals that received ashwagandha performed significantly better than those that did not. Another study involving the same dosage of ashwagandha not only confirmed the positive effects of the previous study but also showed that glycogen stored in the heart was significantly greater than before the experiment. Glycogen is the form of stored sugar that is used before fats during exercise, which might explain why the animals taking ashwagandha showed increased stamina.

Corticosterone is a hormone released by the adrenal glands in response to stress. In a study evaluating ashwagandha for its ability to decrease the release of this hormone under stressful conditions, rodents received 100 mg/kg ashwagandha orally per day for seven days, before a stress test. Animals given ashwagandha had near normal levels of corticosterone compared to control rats. Additional studies confirm these positive effects of ashwagandha on stress.

Immune Modulation
Ashwagandha has been used historically to help improve immune function, and modern research verifies this ancient knowledge. Studies provide additional support for the adaptogenic properties of ashwagandha, as the herb appears to have a normalizing effect on the immune system.

Immune suppression is a side effect of radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatments for cancer. In a study where mice received the immunosuppressive drug cyclophosphamide for 10 days with or without concomitant administration of ashwagandha, those given ashwagandha showed greater bone marrow cellularity (an indicator of the bone's ability to produce oxygen-carrying red blood cells and immune-enhancing white blood cells), increased body weight, and normal intestinal cells compared with those mice treated just with cyclophosphamide. Human studies are lacking, but if ashwagandha proves to have similar positive effects in people undergoing cancer treatment, this herb may be an important addition to conventional cancer regimens.

Herb-Drug Interactions
Since ashwagandha can increase immune system function, anyone on immune-suppressive therapies (e.g., prednisone, cyclosporine) should not take this herb. If you are taking any medications, consult a healthcare professional knowledgeable in herb-drug interactions. Allergies to any plants in the Solanaceae or nightshade family increase your risk for allergic reactions to ashwagandha.

Dried root: 3 to 6 grams per day

Root extract standardized to 1.5 percent with anolides: 300 to 500 mg per day

1:2 fluid extract: 6 to 12 ml per day.

"Ashwagandha root," edited by Roy Upton, American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, 4/00 Desk Reference to Nature's Medicine by Steven Foster and Rebecca L. Johnson ($40, National Geographic, 2006) "Monograph: Withania somnifera," Altern Med Rev, 6/04 "Scientific basis for the therapeutic use of Withania somnifera (ashwagandha): A review" by L. Mishra et al., Altern Med Rev, 2000

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