Compilation by Armando Gonzalez Stuart, PhD.
Other Common Name:
Withania, “Indian Ginseng”, Winter cherry
Where is it found?
The plant is native to Asia and Africa, but is also cultivated in Israel.
Parts of the plant used:
The root, leaves, fruit, and seeds
How is it used?
The leaves possess a narcotic action and the seeds are used to coagulate milk (Kapoor, 1990). The fruit decocted in water is used externally for eye diseases and the leaves are applied to wounds and skin infections. A paste made from the fresh leaves and roots is applied externally to boils, swelling, and rheumatism (Quattrocchi, 2012). Currently, Ashwagandha is available in commerce in pill or capsule form, alone or in combination with other herbs.
What is it used for?
Ashwagandha has been used in India’s Ayurvedic, Siddha, and Unani-Tibb systems of medicine for thousands of years, mainly as an adaptogen (helps to adapt to stressful situations), as well as to increase libido in both men an d women, improve sperm quality, stimulate growth in children, and to calm the nerves. The plant has also been used for the treatment of debility, emaciation, impotence, and premature ageing. Research undertaken to elucidate its pharmacological actions has shown that the plant possesses antitumor and adaptogenic actions similar to those found in Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng-Araliaceae). For this reason, Ashwagandha is also known in commerce as “Indian ginseng”, although the two species are botanically unrelated (Villaescusa-Castillo and Martín-Lopez, 2016; Khare, 2016, 2007; Bone and Mills, 2013).
Modern research has found that the root extracts have GABA- like activity. Villaescusa-Castillo and Martín-Lopez (2016) mention a study undertaken with rats, aimed at determining Ashwagandha’s usefulness as an anxiolytic (to decrease anxiety), as well as an antidepressant, showed that the root’s bioactive compounds possess am anxiolytic effect comparable to lorazepam. With regard to its antidepressant effects, the same study demonstrated that Ashwagandha can have antidepressant effects similar to those shown by imipramine. This research could justify using products made form Ashwagandha root as mood stabilizers, as well as for the treatment of depression and anxiety.
Ashwagandha root may also improve learning and memory (Bone and Mills, 2013). Although more research is needed to ascertain its clinical effects in humans, its active ingredients may have a role in the treatment of certain cancers, microbial infection, immune-modulation, and neurodegenerative disorders (Dar et al., 2015).
The bioactive phtyochemicals contained in the plant include withanolide A, withanolide D, withaferin A and the withaniamides. All of these play an important part in its pharmacological actions and properties (Dar et al., 2015; Sangwan et al., 2014; Khare, 2016, 2009).
Ashwagandha is a medicinal plant that was found to have anticancer properties more than forty years ago, after the isolation of a crystalline steroidal compound (withaferin A) from the leaves of this shrubby species. Additionally, the root and leaf extracts of the plant have been shown to offer protection against chemically-induced cancers in mice, as well as to retard the growth of xenografted tumors in athymic mice. The anticancer effect of Ashwagandha is usually attributed to steroidal lactone compounds known collectively as withanolides. Within this group of phytochemicals, Withaferin A seems to be the most active against cancer among structurally different withanolides that have been isolated from the leaves or roots (Vyas and Singh, 2014).
Safety / Precautions
- Even though there are contradictory reports as to its effects on pregnancy (Vohora and Vohora, 2016; Gardner and McGuffin, 2013; Kapoor, 1990), it is perhaps best to avoid it during gestation, especially during the first trimester.
- It use during lactation has not been thoroughly investigated, but it is considered to be compatible with breastfeeding, according to Indian traditional medicine (World Health Organization, 1990; Kapoor, 1990.
Before you decide to take any medicinal herb or herbal supplement, be sure to consult with a health care professional first. Avoid self-medication and self-diagnosis: Always be on the safe side!
Bone K, Mills S. Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy 2nd Ed.
London: Churchill Livingstone; 2013; pp. 949-961.
Dar PA, Singh LR, Kamal MA, Dar TA. Unique Medicinal Properties of Withania Somnifera: Phytochemical Constituents and Protein Component. Curr Pharm Des. 2015 Nov 24. [Epub ahead of print]
Gardner Z, McGuffin M (Editors). Botanical Safety Handbook 2nd ed.
Boca Raton, FL; CRC Press; 2013; pp.935-938.
Kapoor Handbook of Ayurvedic Medicinal Plants.
Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 1990; pp. 337-338.
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Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 2016; pp. 584-585.
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Khare C P. Indian Herbal Remedies.
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Quattrocchi, U. World Dictionary of Medicinal and Poisonous Plants (4 vols.).
Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 2012; pp. 783-784.
Sangwan NS, Sabir F, Mishra S, Bansal S, Sangwan RS. Withanolides from Withania somnifera Dunal: development of cellular technology and their production.
Recent Pat Biotechnol. 2014; 8(1):25-35.
Villaescusa-Castillo L, Martín-López T. Fitoterapia para el insomnio, la ansiedad y el nerviosismo. Capítulo 13. En: Castillo-Garcia E. and Martínez-Solís I. (Editoras).
Manual de Fitoterapia 2da ed. Barcelona: Elsevier España; 2016; p. 204
Vohora D, Vohora S. Safety Concerns for Herbal Drugs.
Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 2016; pp. 94-95.
Vyas AR1, Singh SV. Molecular targets and mechanisms of cancer prevention and treatment by withaferin a, a naturally occurring steroidal lactone. AAPS J. 2014; 16(1):1-10. doi: 10.1208/s12248-013-9531-1.
World Health Organization. The Use of Traditional Medicine in Primary Care.
New Delhi, India: WHO Regional Office for Southeast Asia; 1990; pp. 96-97.