What is Ashwagandha ?

Ashwagandha also known by names like winter cherry, Asgandh, or Withania root consists of dried roots and stem bases of Withania somnifera Linn. belonging to the family Solanaceae. Withania is also known as Indian Ginseng and Ashwagandha is considered similar to ginseng. As such Withania genus comprises of about 23 species but economically only two species are considered and they are Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) and Withania coagulans (Ashutosh booti). So, we will be discussing Ashwagandha only. 

Ashwagandha is a small woody herb or shrub found in diverse areas ranging from Africa, the Mediterranean and East into India. The dried tuberous roots are used for medicinal purpose and so, let us get to know about the root morphologically. Roots are buff to grey colored externally with longitudinal wrinkles. They are unbranched, straight, and conical and some of them also bear a crown that possesses a number of bud scars. Taste of root is bitter-mucilaginous and fresh roots smell similar to urine of horse.

Chemical Constituents of Ashwagandha

Main constituents are alkaloids and steroidal lactones. Among the various alkaloids, withanine is the main constituent. Other alkaloids are somniferine, somnine, somniferinine, withananine, pseudo-withanine, tropine, pseudo tropine, choline, cuscohygrine, anaferine and anahydrine. Two acyl steryl glucosides i.e. Sitoindoside-7 and sitoindoside-8 have been isolated from roots.
Steroidal lactones are obtained from leaves. They are commonly called as ‘withanolides’. Steroids (withanolides) of Ashwagandha are obtained from different chemotypes. Chemotype-1 gave withaferin, withaferin A, withanolide D. withanolide E to M have been obtained from chemotype-3.

Also present apart from alkaloids and steroidal lactones are two monohydric alcohols called somnitol and somnirol; withanic acid; phytosterol and ipuranol; mixture of fatty acids containing cerotic acid, oleic acid, palmitic acid, and stearic acid.

Health benefits of Ashwagandha

As a rejuvenator : Ashwagandha is an indigenous rejuvenative herb for muscles, bone marrow and semen. It has got a great reputation as a tonic and aphrodisiac (sex stimulant). It is considered as strength and vigor promoting drug especially in geriatric cases. It acts as an immune-booster.

  • It is used for weakness, weak eyes, tissue deficiency, nervous exhaustion, sexual debility, old age problems, and loss of memory, loss of muscular energy, spermatorrhea, and infertility.
  • It inhibits aging and catalyzes the anabolic processes of the body, nurture and clarifies the mind promoting dreamless sleep. Therefore it is also used for treating insomnia, lack-of-sleep disorder.
  • Ashwagandha regenerates the humoral system and promotes healing of tissue.
  • It is said to be good for weak pregnant women and helps them stabilize the fetus.

As a sedative and hypnotic : Ashwagandha is used as a sedative in insomnia although the compound responsible for the sedative action is not known so far. It provides calmness and mental satisfaction.

Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha also possesses anti-stress activity due to the presence of sitoindosides. Henceforth, it indirectly provides sedative relief and acts as a hypnotic. Ashwagandha has ‘adaptogenic’ properties. Adaptogens are substances that normalize body functions, strengthen systems and functions that are compromised by stress and have a protective effect against a wide variety of environmental and emotional stress. So it can be used in a number of diseases.

As an anti-inflammatory agent :  Ashwagandha shows good anti-inflammatory action and hence used in treating respiratory disorders like asthma, bronchitis, cough and tuberculosis. It is also used in auto-immune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and gout. Still you must ask your doctor prior to consuming Ashwagandha as it might react adversely for immune-disorder patients.  

Recent Use  : Withania is found to have anti-cancer activity. This was found recently in the drug in India. During an epidemic plague, withania root was applied externally on tumours. This activity is believed to be likely due to the steroidal lactones present in it.

As an anti-oxidant : A study on rat shows that Ashwagandha can inhibit lipid peroxidation induced by copper metal or inhibit protein oxidative modification. As a result Ashwagandha has a notable anti-oxidant effect by eliminating metals and free radicals from the body. This also helps in treating cancer conditions and also improving aging.

Miscellaneous uses

  • Ashwagandha has hypotensive activity and shows stimulant action along with bradycardia.
  • It is an immuno-modulatory agent.
  • It is used to treat a number of chronic diseases such as leucorrhoea, paralysis, anemia, glandular swelling, nervine and skin diseases.
  • It is also used for treatment of neuro-degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer.
  • Apart from all the roots utility, it is also found that the leaf extract of Ashwagandha shows activity against Staphylococcus aureus (Bacteria) and Ranikhet virus (virus).

Probable therapeutic uses

Insufficient evidence is obtained regarding the use of Ashwagandha in treatment of liver diseases, fibromyalgia, stress induces vomiting, swelling, ulcers, altering immune functions and improving aging effects.

Precautions while using Ashwagandha

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not reviewed this drug for safety and effectiveness hence must be used with caution. As such no serious side-effects are observed with this drug. Large doses results into stomach upset, diarrhea and vomiting.

  • Though it has been mentioned previously that Ashwagandha helps stabilizes the fetus, you must not take it while pregnant as there are chances of developing potential risk to infants. So you must ask your doctor before taking it and also avoid taking it during breast-feeding.
  • Preparation of this drug that are available in liquid form should be considered before consuming if you are a diabetic patient or suffering from kidney disease or if you have alcohol dependence because liquid preparations contain sugar and/or alcohol in it. 
  • There are chances of drug interaction with this drug and hence you should make your doctor well aware about the other drugs that are already being taken by you.
  • Overdosing must be avoided as it can cause poisonous effects.
  • Do not consume it if you have to go for a surgical operation or if you have stomach ulcers or an immune system disease.
  • Do not take it along with immunosuppressant like azathioprine, prednisone, and tacrolimus or with benzodiazepines and other nervous system depressants as it decreases the effect of ashwagandha.

How to administer Ashwagandha usage ?

Mix one teaspoon of Ashwagandha root powder in a cup of water and then mix it with an equal portion of clarified butter or warm milk or honey. Direct liquid preparations are also available.

Summary

As discussed above, Ashwagandha has a lot of health benefits with negligible side-effects. Poisoning only occurs due to overdosing rest it is fit for use with exception of the above mentioned sensitive patients.