lifestyle

The Essential Guide to Ashwagandha, Everything You Need to Know

The Essential Guide to Ashwagandha, Everything You Need to Know
The Essential Guide to Ashwagandha, Everything You Need to Know

Ashwagandha is not a plant that’s commonly used in the kitchen, so you may not be very familiar with it. However, it has received a good bit of attention for its health benefits when used as an herbal supplement: Ashwagandha promotes stress reduction and can help bring your body into balance.*

In this article, we discuss everything you need to know about this helpful herb—from its origins and history to its benefits and uses—so you can decide for yourself if Ashwagandha is right for you.

What is Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha herb plant

The Ashwagandha plant (scientific name Withania somnifera) is a small evergreen shrub that is short and squat with velvety leaves and bell flowers that contain orange berries similar in appearance to small tomatoes.

Ashwagandha root has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for at least 1,500 years. In Sanskrit, the word "ashwa" means "horse," while "gandha" means "smell."

In other words, “Ashwagandha” translates roughly to "the smell and strength of a horse," alluding to its traditional use to support vitality and a healthy libido.* Once ground, the herb could be said to smell like a horse and was thought to impart the power of one, too.

Its species name, somnifera, means "sleep-inducing" in Latin. Somnifera indicates its traditional Ayurvedic use for supporting somnolence, or sleepiness.* Ashwagandha's Hindi name is "asgandh," another nod to its potent odor that's reminiscent of horse sweat.4,12

Origins of the Ashwagandha Herb

Ashwagandha is native to the Indian subcontinent, specifically the drier areas of India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. It also grows in parts of Africa, and it can grow in temperate climates, including Western North Carolina, home to Gaia Herbs.

We grow Ashwagandha on our 350-acre Certified Organic farm in Brevard, North Carolina, and we also source it from India. We use the root of the plant in our herbal products, and we harvest Ashwagandha root in the fall, when the plants’ beneficial phytochemicals are at their peak.

We believe that the quality of an herbal supplement can only be as good as the quality of the herbs that go into it.

This is why we grow herbs for our products on our own farm, where we can cultivate them exactly the way we want and allow each plant to flourish in the sun until the perfect moment to harvest.

Of course, our farm can’t produce all of the wonderful herbs that we use in our products. So, for the herbs and mushrooms that we cannot grow on our own farm or in the quantity that we need (such as Ashwagandha), we turn to our network of organic and sustainable communities across the country and around the globe.

They allow us to source herbs from where they grow best and where conditions are ideal to produce the highest possible level of botanical compounds.

To learn more about the herbs in your specific product, turn to meetyourherbs.com, the world’s first herb traceability platform. Here, you’ll discover the origin of your herbs; learn how they were grown, harvested, and extracted; and see validation of your product’s level of purity and potency.

Ashwagandha as an Adaptogen

Ashwagandha is considered an adaptogen, meaning it promotes balance in many different systems of the body.*14

Adaptogens are herbs that meet three specific criteria developed by Russian scientist N.V. Lazarez (who is best known for discovering other adaptogens such as Eleuthero and teaching renowned adaptogen research scientist Israel Brekhman).

According to Lazarez, adaptogens have to:

  • Be nontoxic
  • Reduce and regulate stress by helping the body adapt*
  • Benefit overall well-being*

Ashwagandha meets all of these criteria.

The History of Ashwagandha in Ayurveda

Ashwagandha powder

In Ayurveda—the traditional medicine system of India—Ashwagandha is a rasayana, or a plant that promotes longevity, vitality, and happiness.*8,12,14

Rasayanas are traditionally given to small children and the elderly as tonics to support overall well-being.* The root is often dried and ground, then given as a powder mixed with ghee, honey, and milk, as Ashwagandha can often have a bitter taste. This warm beverage is often consumed before bedtime.12

Ashwagandha is included in Gaia Herbs Golden Milk to help support a feeling of relaxation.* Our Golden Milk is an Ayurvedic cup of calm to help support both your body and mind as you sip your way into serenity.*

The formula is based on the traditional recipe that has been used for centuries and contains a delicious blend of Turmeric, Ashwagandha, Dates, Cardamom, and Vanilla. This powder can be mixed into any warm beverage—dairy milk, non-dairy milk, or even your cup of morning joe.

Woman drinking coffee with ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is one of the most commonly used herbs for the Vata constitution, which is associated with air and space.

This herb is also used traditionally as a tonic to support memory, vitality, and healthy hormonal function, which supports balanced Vata energy.*14 It is also used to support sleep quality.*12

It should be noted that Ashwagandha impacts the Ayurvedic mind-body type called Sadhaka Pitta, which has an effect on body and emotions.*

According to Divya Alter, chef and owner of Ayurvedic restaurant Divya’s Kitchen, “If you are of high Pitta (fiery) constitution… taking Ashwagandha alone in tablet or powder form will be too heating; you may feel hot flashes and irritation in your stomach or liver.”* 15

Ayurvedic practitioners recommend combining Ashwagandha with cooling herbs, such as Licorice, or mixing Ashwagandha with cooling foods, such as ghee, raw sugar, milk, or rice.16

Ashwagandha Uses & Traditional Health Benefits

Ashwagandha Plant

Ashwagandha has been extensively studied over its millennia of use.

This herb offers support similar to the adaptogens Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus) and Ginseng (both Panax ginseng and Panax quinquefolius) for a healthy stress response.* Because of this, it is sometimes known as “Indian Ginseng," although it is unrelated to the Ginseng species.

Dr. Mary Bove, previously the Director of Medical Education at Gaia Herbs and currently a member of the Gaia Herbs Scientific Advisory Board, considers Ashwagandha to be grounding, calming, and restoring.

As we’ve mentioned, Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb that can help your body in many ways, including:

  • Adapting to stressful conditions*14
  • Supporting the nervous system and the endocrine system*
  • Supporting cardiovascular and immune health*3,4,8,14

Let’s take a look at its traditional health benefits in more detail.

1) Stress and Anxiousness

Cortisol is a stress hormone released from the adrenals. It has evolutionarily helped the body to mobilize a "fight or flight" response to a perceived imminent danger, freeing up resources for a vigorous fight against an intruder or flight from danger.

Cortisol naturally follows a daily rhythm, rising in the morning to help mobilize the body's forces for the daily needs and lowering in the evening to allow the body to sleep and perform restorative processes.3

Between constant deadlines, financial pressures, and a steady stream of negative news, the stress of modern human culture regularly activates the cortisol stress response, which can impact nervous system function.3,4

Ashwagandha has been shown to promote healthy levels of cortisol and smooth out the body’s stress response cycle.*

Because stress is an everyday occurance, helping the body better adapt benefits every bodily system including the immune, cardiovascular, and nervous systems, as well as the brain, muscles, and joints.*

Healthy cortisol output also supports the adrenal glands, which naturally allows the body to focus on reproductive health.7

Due to Ashwagandha’s ability to help the body cope with stress in a healthy way, we’ve created an herbal supplement that contains only Ashwagandha.*

Gaia Herbs Ashwagandha Root is a customer favorite to help those dealing with ongoing stress find balance and embrace tranquility.* All you have to do is take one liquid capsule twice a day.*

 Gaia Herbs Ashwagandha Root

And you can rest assured that our products are 100% vegetarian and tested to be free of heavy metals, pesticides, and microbes. Our Liquid Phyto-CapsⓇ offer a concentrated liquid in the convenience of a capsule.

Another way to use Ashwagandha for stress support is to take Gaia Herbs Adrenal Health® Daily Support, which is crafted with a synergistic blend of adaptogenic and nervine herbs like Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, Holy Basil, and Schisandra.*

This formula helps sustain healthy energy and stress levels, support adrenal function, and maintain well-being.* It’s perfect for times when you feel stressed, overworked, and overwhelmed.*

2) Nervous System

The nervous system impacts every breath, feeling, decision, and experience in our lives and is vital for overall health and well-being.

Ashwagandha has been shown to support the structure and function of the nervous system, and it is also considered to be a neurosupportive and nootropic herb.* Nootropic herbs are those that promote healthy cognitive function.*12 You can read more about them here.

Ashwagandha supports healthy nervous system function by providing antioxidant support and naturally supporting the pathways in the brain for gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that's responsible for sustaining calmness and maintaining muscle tone.*2,7,8

Ashwagandha also supports a calm and stable mood because it helps regulate natural cortisol rhythm, so it has traditionally been used as a supplement for people coping with adrenal fatigue.*

3) Reproductive Health

In the endocrine system, the adrenals play a "starring" role; their functions are necessary for our survival while reproduction is not.

As such, the HPA axis and the stress response are naturally connected to sperm production and fertility in men and hormonal balance and fertility in women.

The body produces cortisol from the same precursors used to make reproductive hormones, and, under stress, the body will preferably produce cortisol instead of testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone.7,14

Ashwagandha can assist by helping to maintain already healthy cortisol levels, so the body can free up those resources to be used for reproductive hormones.*

4) Men’s Health

In untrained healthy men performing resistance training for eight weeks, consuming Ashwagandha root showed that it supported healthy muscle strength and recovery.*13

This may be because Ashwagandha promotes healthy levels of creatinine kinase, which reduces the natural muscle damage that happens from exercise and supports muscle recovery.*13

In men, Ashwagandha has also been shown to support a healthy stress response, healthy sperm levels, and normal levels of testosterone.*7,13

5) Fitness

Man running outside

Metabolically, Ashwagandha seems to have an overall anabolic action, supporting weight gain during the natural growth phase.*

Ashwagandha-fortified milk given to children has been shown to support a healthy weight, as well as healthy total plasma proteins and hemoglobin levels.*8 It has also been shown to support normal lean body weight and fat-to-muscle ratios.*10,13

Ashwagandha may also support healthy fat oxidation and support healthy blood glucose and blood lipid levels within already normal, healthy ranges.*3,10

6) Joint Health

Ashwagandha root has been studied for its support of joint health.* It has been shown in some studies to support occasional joint pain, stiffness, swelling, and discomfort in healthy men and women due to normal wear and tear.*8,9

This may be because, as shown in human studies, it seems to naturally mitigate levels of C-reactive protein.*3

If you’re on the lookout for another herb to help you stay active and reduce occasional inflammation due to normal daily wear and tear, turn to Turmeric.* Read more about this vibrant yellow herb here.

7) Sleep

Man sleeping

A good night's sleep is a key part of living a healthy life. Known for its grounding and recuperative properties, several studies have shown that Ashwagandha supports healthy sleep.2,3,4, 7, 10

This is why Ashwagandha is included in some of our most popular supplements to support sleep, including Gaia Herbs SleepThru® and Gaia Herbs Adrenal Health® Nightly Restore.*

Sleep Thru promotes restful sleep for occasional sleeplessness with soothing Jujube, Magnolia, and Passionflower.* It also contains Ashwagandha to provide adaptogenic support for a healthy stress response.* After all, when you’re stressed, sleep may not come easily.

With even more adaptogens, including Reishi and Cordyceps mushrooms, Adrenal Health® Nightly Restore also nourishes the adrenal glands, which influence the body's sleep patterns, stress response, and more.*

8) Immune Health

Ayurvedic practitioners have long believed that Ashwagandha is one of the most powerful herbs for immune system support for young and old alike.*

One animal study found that Ashwagandha strengthened the immune systems of mice by promoting an increase in white blood cells.*20

While more studies are needed to substantiate Ashwagandha’s role in immune support in humans, an increase in white blood cells of this type could, theoretically, help humans maintain their health longer.*

9) Heart Health

Heart health is one of the most-asked-about wellness concerns of the 21st century, and many people are looking for natural ways to support their heart.

While more studies are needed to substantiate Ashwagandha's benefits for heart health, preliminary research suggests it may offer antioxidant support and other benefits for the heart.* Not to mention, helping the body cope with stress in a healthy way also helps the heart.*

How to Take Ashwagandha

As you can see, Ashwagandha is a powerful herb with many potential benefits. The only problem is that it’s not particularly tasty. Unlike delicious culinary herbs like Rosemary or Ginger, which are also used in supplements, Ashwagandha isn’t a plant you’ll want to cook with.

Instead, we recommend that you turn to potent herbal supplements.

Supplements With Ashwagandha

The easiest way to take Ashwagandha is through a supplement. We’ve mentioned several Gaia Herbs Ashwagandha products throughout this article, including:

Here are some other Gaia Herbs formulas that contain this revered herb.

Thyroid Support

Thyroid Support herbal supplement

Our Thyroid Support contains a synergistic blend of herbs—including Ashwagandha and Schisandra—traditionally known to support healthy metabolic balance.* Available in Liquid Phyto-Caps, Thyroid Support offers a convenient way to help you stay feeling your best.*

Adaptogen Performance Mushrooms & Herbs

Adaptogen Performance supplement

If you’re an athlete or a weekend warrior, try Gaia Herbs Adaptogen Performance Mushrooms & Herbs as a way to support healthy energy levels.*

This unique formula contains Ashwagandha and Cordyceps to help combat the typical go-go-go lifestyle that makes it easy to become tired and rundown.* As with Thyroid Support, the Liquid Phyto-Caps make it easy to get the Ashwagandha you need to keep going.*

Everyday Adaptogen™ Mushrooms & Herbs Powder

Everyday Adaptogen supplement

If you want to add Ashwagandha to your balanced diet without taking a capsule, try Gaia Herbs Everyday Adaptogen. The easy-to-mix powder can be added to a smoothie, dairy or non-dairy milk, or any other beverage of your choice.

This combination of six adaptogens, including mushrooms and an energizing blend of herbs, supports the health of physically active individuals and is a simple way to help you maintain peak performance.*

Ashwagandha and the Synergistic Approach

You can take Ashwagandha by itself, but most Ayurvedic practitioners recommend using a synergistic approach.

“Synergistic” refers to the interaction or cooperation of two or more substances to produce a combined effect that is greater than the sum of their separate parts.

So, while you might experience benefits from Ashwagandha alone, the synergistic approach offers even more benefits when you take several herbs together.

That’s why the majority of our Ashwagandha products contain complementary herbs such as Cordyceps, Rhodiola, Holy Basil, and Schisandra.

We recommend consulting a certified Ayurvedic practitioner or an herbalist for more details and personal recommendations.

Talk to Your Doctor About Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha can interact with other medications you may be taking, so it’s important to talk to your doctor before adding Ashwagandha to your diet.*

Additionally, Ashwagandha is a member of the nightshade family. If you are allergic to other members of the nightshade family—tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, or potatoes—you may potentially be allergic to Ashwagandha.

That said, because most Ashwagandha supplements are made from the root of the plant rather than the berries, you may be able to tolerate it better.*

Again, be sure to talk to your doctor before adding Ashwagandha to your daily wellness routine.

Ashwagandha for Health and Wellness*

Couple walking through nature

As we’ve explored in this article, Ashwagandha offers all sorts of potential health benefits like brain and cognitive support, stress support, energy support, immune support, and sleep support.*

And since this adaptogenic herb isn’t one that you’ll be adding to your favorite recipes, you can take a potent dose with herbal supplements like Gaia Herbs Ashwagandha Root, Adrenal Health® Daily Support, or Golden Milk.

With all that Ashwagandha can do for your body, it’s a well-loved herb for health and wellness, and we think you’ll love it, too.* 

REFERENCES:

1 Ahmad, Mohammad Kaleem, et al. Fertility and sterility (2010): 989-996.

2 Andrade, Chittaranjan, Aswath A, et al. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 2000, 42 (3), 295-301.

3 Auddy, Biswajit, et al. J Am Nutraceutical Assoc (2008): 43-49.

4 Chandrasekhar K, Kapoor J, & Anishetty S. Indian J Psychol Med, 2012 Jul-Sep; 34 (3): 255-262.

5 Choudary B., Shetty A., & Langade D. Efficacy of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera [L.] Dunal) in improving cardiorespiratory endurance in healthy athletic adults. Ayu 2015. Jan-Mar; 36(1): 63-68.

6 Dass, Vishnu. "Ayurvedic Herbology-East & West: A Practical Guide to Ayurvedic Herbal Medicine." Lotus Press, Twin Lakes, WI.

7 Mahdi AA, Shukla KK, Ahmad MK et al. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine Volume 2011, article ID576962, 9 pages. Doi: 10.1093/ecam/nep138.

8 Mishra, Lakshmi-Chandra, Betsy B. Singh, and Simon Dagenais. "Scientific basis for the therapeutic use of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha): a review." Alternative Medicine Review (2000): 334-346.

9 Ramakath GSH, Kumar CU, Kishan PV, & Usharani P. J Ayurveda Integr Med. 2016 Jul-Sep; 7(3): 151-157.

10 Raut, Ashwinikumar, et al. "Exploratory study to evaluate tolerability, safety, and activity of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) in healthy volunteers." Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine (2012): 111.

11 Sandu JS, Shah B, et al. Effects of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) and Terminalia arjuna (Arjuna) on physical performance and cardiorespiratory endurance in healthy young adults. Int J Ayurveda Res. 2010 Jul-Sep; 1(3): 144-149. Doi: 10.4103/0974-7788:72485.

12 Singh N., Bhalla M., de Jager P., & Gilca M. "An overview on Ashwagandha: A rasayana (rejuvenator) of Ayurveda." Afr J Tradit Complement Altern Med. (2011) 8(S):208-213.

13 Wankhede S, Langade D, Joshi K, Sinha SR, Bhattacharyya S. Examining the effect of Withania somnifera supplementation on muscle strength and recovery: a randomized controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. November 25, 2015;12:43. doi: 10.1186/s12970-015-0104-9.

14 Winston, David and Maimes, Steven. "Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief," Herbal Therapeutics. Rochester, Vt: 2007.

15 “7 Questions Everyone Has About Ashwagandha (& What It Really Does For Your Mood),”
https://www.cleanplates.com/know/nutrition/7-questions-ashwagandha-mood.

16 “Ashwagandha Power,”
https://www.yogajournal.com/lifestyle/ashwagandha-power.

17 “Hypoglycemic Activity of Withanolides and Elicitated Withania Somnifera,”
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25796090.

18 “Exploratory Study to Evaluate Tolerability, Safety, and Activity of Ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera) in Healthy Volunteers,”
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23125505.

19 “Ashwagandha,”
https://ascopost.com/issues/march-25-2018/ashwagandha.

20 “Studies on Immunomodulatory Activity of Withania Somnifera (Ashwagandha) Extracts in Experimental Immune Inflammation,” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10616957.