Latin Name: Withania somnifera
Herb Class/Action: Adaptogen, Immune Modulating Support, Nervine, Healthy Inflammatory Response Support, Yang Tonic, Alterative
Parts Used: Root
Flavors: Bitter, acrid, sweet
Energetics: Neutral to mildly warming
Traditional Benefits: Adrenal support, nervous system support, stress support, sleep support, brain support, cognitive support, mood support, immune support
Ashwagandha is a grounding Ayurvedic adaptogen and nervine that assists healthy thyroid and adrenal function, supports mental and physical stamina, and promotes a healthy response to occasional stress.*
With a history dating back more than 6,000 years ago (literally, before even writing or the wheel were invented), Ashwagandha is one of the most traditionally used herbs in Ayurvedic medicine.
Ashwagandha is largely considered a traditional Indian herb for its prevalence in the country, but it also grows wild throughout Africa—where it’s also known as Ubuvumbha (Zulu) or Ubuvuma (Xhosa)—and in very southern parts of Europe.
The herb’s many uses and widespread availability have kept it a staple in traditional medicine—and what I like to call a classic adaptogen.
Adaptogens are phenomenal multitaskers for human health. Not only known for their ability to encourage healthy physical stamina and mental alertness, they deeply support recovery amidst occasional times of stress. There are two parts to this word: ADAPT (which means to change something so that it functions better despite tough circumstances) and GEN (a substance that generates). Adaptogens help us generate a greater sense of resilience in order to adapt to the occasional stress in our lives in a healthy way.
In my teacher Richard’s words: “Adaptogens support non-specific resilience to stressors and reestablish our intrinsic physical, mental, and emotional adaptive capacity.” They have a modulating, normalizing, or regulating effect (in particular on the nervous, endocrine, and immune system or the “HPA axis” where all three interact).
Adaptogens are the main tools that herbalists use to reset someone’s circadian rhythm, support parasympathetic mode (the opposite of fight-or-flight), and regulate the HPA axis. And if you’ve ever felt overworked or burnt out, it’s important to understand exactly what your HPA axis is.
“HPA” stands for Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal, but is sometimes extended to encompass the Ovaries and Thyroid as well. This HPAOT axis is quite literally our built-in “stress response system” and functions on a negative feedback loop, meaning all glands and organs involved are constantly speaking to each other in order to control and adjust their hormonal output. When dealing with occasional stress, your body aims to protect you from the effects of exposure to stress hormones. Thus, your brain (the HP part), can downregulate the entire HPA axis which can make us feel tired during the day, but sometimes wired in the evening. Adaptogens, which help normalize and regulate the healthy function of this feedback loop, can assist not only healthy energy levels, but support our circadian rhythm which is crucial for aligning our waking and sleeping rhythms so that energy is smooth and stable when it needs to be.
Most commonly, we harvest and ingest Aswagandha’s adaptogenic roots to ease occasional, minor tension, stress, and help with mood regulation. Other notable uses include balancing temporary, activity related inflammation, supporting immune function, and regulating energy levels. In many different countries within Africa, Ashwagandha leaves are used topically to aid in rejuvenation and support healing. The vibrant orange fruits of the plant were once used to adorn coffins of royalty in ancient Egypt.
More recently, Ashwagandha has been studied in Western medicine primarily for its effect on stress and its ability to balance occasional, minor anxiousness. With energetics that are slightly warming, it’s traditionally used to support cognitive health by promoting healthy peripheral blood flow to the brain where it’s needed most.
Note: Ashwagandha is sometimes referred to as the “Ginseng of India,” as both Ginseng and Ashwagandha are used to rejuvenate sexual, adrenal and overall endocrine health. However, the two have some major, distinct differences and should not be confused. Most notably—Ginseng supports energy levels, while Ashwagandha is calming.*
Ashwagandha quite literally translates to “smells like a horse,” but I think it has more of a pungent, earthy scent (not necessarily a bad thing but can certainly be strong for some). If you’re sensitive to smells, I should note that it’s almost always encapsulated in supplement form. My teachers believe that this may actually refer to, gives the “strength of a horse,” referring to its adaptogenic properties.