What Is Ashwagandha?

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As an herbalist I believe that the human organism desires equilibrium. Working regularly with healing herbs and foods can help restore balance to our bodies and minds. Sometimes when I say this people hear “We don’t need doctors” and then they call me crazy. I am not opposed to Western doctors, but there’s nothing crazy about desiring the skills and knowledge to take care of ourselves and each other.

Herbalism and science are tools; they are neither in opposition to nor in competition with each other. Most of us already live a life that includes both tools: we go for annual checkups and prepare beautiful, healthful food for ourselves and people we love. Broadly speaking, herbalism is well-suited to promote healing through prevention, while conventional medicine is skilled at heroic interventions — we need both of them.

I have confidence that, for many of us, a commitment to a healthful lifestyle that includes long-term relationships with plants can mean less extreme medical interventions in the future. Every plant we ingest prefers a particular environment, has a special set of skills, and does different things in our bodies. The group of plants that are especially skilled at helping us cope with stress are called adaptogens: they’re relatively non-toxic in a normal therapeutic dose, they increase our ability to deal with stress no matter the source, and have an overall strengthening effect in our bodies. One of these plants, ashwagandha, is experiencing a resurgence right now.

What Is Ashwagandha?

This Ayurvedic medicinal plant has been popular for thousands of years and, while it has only started to grace Gwyneth’s smoothies and made its way into the specialty beverage sector, it never really went out of style.

In Sanskrit ashwagandha means “odor of the horse,” as its roots are quite smelly and have the reputation of bestowing the horse-like qualities of strength and stamina upon the recipient. I personally think they smell fine and I enjoy the bitter quality, but your tastes may differ — you’ve been appropriately warned.

Ashwagandha is a shrub that bears red berries. The berries resemble husk cherries and tomatillos, because they all share the same family (Solanaceae, also known as nightshades). If you are allergic to things like tomatoes, eggplants, or peppers, then you may be allergic to ashwagandha; proceed with caution, but not fear.

Ashwagandha is a common remedy in its native India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka for the stress of daily chores. It appears in folk remedies as an aphrodisiac, diuretic, and in general formulas to increase health and vitality.

How Could Ashwagandha Help Me with Stress?

We all experience stress. One way we do so is through what’s called perceived stress (some examples are staying late at work, arguing with our partners, and being targeted by oppression). It’s called “perceived stress” not because it may or may not exist, but because it changes person to person. Different things are stressful to different people. Over time the cumulative effects of stress can result in anxiety, expressions of other disease, a weakened immune system, and disturbed sleep patterns.

Like other adaptogens, ashwagandha works through the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis (HPA) and the sympathoadrenal system (SAS). These two systems are activated when we’re exposed to stress. An adaptogen supports endocrine function, immune function, and nervous system function through the HPA and the SAS.

The latin name for ashwagandha is withania somnifera — “somnifera” translates to “sleep-inducer.” If you have trouble falling asleep and/or staying asleep, then ashwagandha can help get you back on track. By equalizing your circadian rhythm, ashwagandha can help you to feel awake during the day and to rest at night. But remember that aswhagandha works best when we also commit ourselves to shifting habits around poor sleep.

Ashwagandha’s bitter properties also help stimulate our digestive response. Through the digestive system our blood is improved and our heart supported. Additionally, Ashwagandha helps us to rest and digest, supporting our parasympathetic nervous system. When we are depleted our immune system might overreact or underreact, Ashwagandha can help normalize our immune response. A randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 64 people found that Ashwagandha root extract “improves an individual’s resistance towards stress and thereby improves self-assessed quality of life” by acting directly and indirectly on the bodies response to stress.

Is Ashwagandha Right for Me?

Not every adaptogen is appropriate for every person. You and Gwyneth (and every other person in the history of ashwagandha) are different people; just because a certain adaptogen works for one person does not guarantee it will work for you. Your personality, diet, body type, prescription medications you’re taking, gender, preferences, work schedule, among other factors will impact which plants are appropriate for you. Hippocrates said “It’s far more important to know what person the disease has than what disease the person has.”

Seeking to educate yourself so you can make better choices is a great place to start, but it’s always a good idea to work with an herbalist who you meet with in real life. They can help you lay the foundations for a successful herbal program, which will likely include lifestyle shifts and consuming plants, which may or may not include ashwagandha. Head to The American Herbalists Guild to find a clinical herbalist near you.

I like to work with Ashwagandha when I’ve experienced deep exhaustion accompanied by anxiety. Honestly, these days the anxiety part feels like my baseline, so I’ve formulated an adaptogenic blend specific to my body and my circumstances that I add every morning to my decaf coffee. As a tonifying adaptogen, I commit to working with ashwagandha every day over the course of many months. As part of this long-term program, ashwagandha helps restore vitality to my system while working toward more regular sleep cycles that are also more restful.

Where Can I Buy Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha can be purchased at Mountain Rose Herbs. If you are interested in consuming plants, always consult United Plant Savers, who keeps an up-to-date list of endangered and at-risk plants.

About CC Buckley

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CC Buckley is the herbalist behind Ripe, a site dedicated to practicing herbalism in real life. She is a graduate of Commonwealth Center for Holistic Herbalism. She’s also currently working on a medicinal plants book for Roost. Check out how she starts her herb-filled morning here.

Herbalism 101

Adaptogens are just one method some people use to help themselves feel better. Are they right for you? In this mini series we’re covering the basics of what adaptogens are, what they do, and how you can learn more about them. We’ll also be talking about a few popular adaptogens: tulsi, ashwagandha, and reishi

If you are pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription medications, consult a qualified expert before beginning a new program involving plants. Ashwagandha should be avoided if you have hyperthyroidism or Grave’s Disease. The information in this article should not be used to diagnose, cure, or treat any disease, implied or otherwise.