If you’re familiar with Eastern medicine, like Ayurveda and Chinese traditional medicines or simply love researching natural remedies such as herbs, super nutrients and adaptogens, you have probably already encountered Ashwagandha on your path. And if you have never heard of it, you’re about to find out a lot more about this incredibly powerful plant.
WHAT IS IT?
Ashwagandha is an important medicinal plant in Ayurvedic medicine and has been used for eenturies in India, as it has significant anti-stress, immunomodulatory, anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects that soothe the nervous system from pain response. It is classified as an adaptogenic herb, meaning it helps to maintain homeostasis or balance within the body by supporting our response to any outside stressors and normalising physiological functions. Recently there have quite a few clinical trials on Ashwagandha showing very positive results.
WHAT DO I USE IT FOR?
There are many uses for this plant but two of the main ones that it is primarily utilised for are:
- as an aid to lower inflammation
- as a tool to help ease stress and anxious states
The main active compounds in Ashwagandha, called withanolides and withaferin A, were identified as agents that suppressed inflammatory pathways in the body and are shown to prevent mast cells from releasing histamine and other inflammatory mediators and chemicals that initiate inflammatory responses. Ashwagandha also has immunomodulating properties, meaning that it can either stimulate or suppress the immune system depending on what the body needs, encouraging the action of anti-inflammatory immune cells that help to protect against inflammation-based illness including arthritis, asthma or hypertension.
In Ayurvedic medicine as well as modern medicine it has been found especially effective as a remedy to reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis because of the potent anti-inflammatory effects. Pain and swelling seem to be reduced as inflammation is controlled. And it doesn’t seem to have the same side effect that long term use of common analgesics such as ibuprofen and paracetamol seem to have. As much as they provide short term relief they can often cause issues like stomach pain, ulceration, heartburn, allergic reactions, liver problem, kidney problems and elevated blood pressure when taken for along period of time.
You’ll usually find ashwagandha as a capsule, tincture, powder or in root form but also topical application in the form of a paste made from the roots and leaves mixed with water, can be used to ease joint and muscle inflammation. Plus, as withanolides have an estrogenic action they seem to help reduce the risk of low bone density and be protective towards bone health, aiding the maintenance of normal bone integrity and structure.
But Ashwagandha is not only great to lower inflammation, it’s also widely used to reduce stress levels in the body and ease states of anxiety promoting relaxation.
Inflammation and stress are tightly linked as when the stress response becomes chronic, the levels of stress hormones in our blood remain continually elevated. Continuous high concentrations, especially of cortisol (the main stress hormone in the body), lead to increased blood pressure and blood sugar, elevated heart rate and decreased immune function which may increase our susceptibility to illnesses by reducing sensitivity of the immune system and interfering with the natural inflammatory response. Prolonged elevated cortisol can in fact create long-term fatigue, brain fog, impaired memory and low mood. Ashwagandha is able to modulate and reduce circulating cortisol levels and the immunosuppressive effects that chronic stress causes by supporting adrenal function and consequently thyroid function as the two are closely linked together. It helps to alleviate the damaging effects of stress by restoring the proper hormonal balance of the nervous system, which then strengthens the immune system and further reduces inflammation. Withanolides are able to act as precursors to the hormones that regulate our stress and relaxation responses and Ashwagandha was found to have the ability to lower serum levels of cortisol, reduce anxiety, promote feelings of calm and mental relaxation and improve fatigue.
Since this plant acts as an adaptogen, Ashwagandha can not only suppress stimulatory hormones when stress is too high, but it can also mitigate the central nervous system, promoting relaxation and aiding sleep. The botanical name “somnifera” means this herb induces sleep and in fact one of the alkaloids in Ashwagandha, called somniferin, aids relaxation and sleep, relieving insomnia and anxious feelings. This is why it has been long used as a remedy for anxiety, stress and sleep issues, thanks to its ability to support adrenal, immune and nervous system functions.
HOW DO I TAKE IT?
If you’d like to try the calming, anti-inflammatory and nourishing effects of this plant on yourself, look for ashwagandha root extracts that contain at least 5% to 8% withanolides. It can be taken as a capsule, in tincture form, as a tea or as powder, that can be easily mixed into smoothies, yogurt or porridge.
As always though, refer to a practitioner that can see if this adaptogen could be suitable for yourself and your state of health. We are all extremely unique and even something that could hugely benefit one person, may not be the right pick for someone else.