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Botanical Briefer: Ashwagandha

Withania somnifera is one of the most economically and medicinally significant plants to contain the withanolide constituent. Withanolides are the scientific name of a compound found in certain plants of the Solanceae family (commonly known as the nightshade family). W. somnifera, commonly known as Ashwagandha, Winter Cherry or Indian Ginseng, is widely cultivated in India and throughout the Middle East and grows in dry areas of sub-tropical regions. Somnifera is Latin for “sleep-bearing.” Ashwagandha is a grayish, slightly hairy evergreen shrub that grows to about 1.5 meters in height and has fairly long tuberous roots. It has small and greenish-yellow flowers and bares fruit that is smooth, round, and fleshy, with many seeds; it is orange-red when ripe.

Ashwagandha is rich in iron and studies suggest this may be responsible for growth in children, improved hemoglobin levels, red blood cell count, sexual performance and improve fertility. It has been used to treat many health issues including fatigue, skin diseases, diabetes, gastrointestinal disease, arthritis, epilepsy, cerebral ischemia and even the management of drug addiction.

There are numerous medicinal properties of the withanolides including: anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory, antimicrobial, mood stabilizer, sedative, sexual vitality, liver tonic, ameliorates neuronal dysfunction and induces significant regeneration of axons and dendrites. Various forms of cancer may be helped with withanolides as this compound possesses the ability to suppress cancer cell proliferation, decrease cellular damage as an antioxidant and also has anti-tumor properties. Research demonstrates the neuroprotective properties of withanolides suggesting potential applications in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

In some plants, the withanolides have adaptogenic activity to help the body adapt to stress as it promotes physical and mental health to provide defense against disease and adverse environmental factors. Ashwagandha is a plant I use with patients who have high amounts of the stress hormone, called cortisol. Excess cortisol disrupts healthy sleep patterns, causes weight gain, fatigue and dampens the immune system.

Safety: Studies have not revealed evidence for toxicity associated with the use of ashwagandha yet higher doses of 5 grams per day increase the risk of toxicity. The sedative effects of barbiturates may be potentiated while taking ashwagandha. Abortifacient properties have been attributed to this plant and therefore its use is not recommended for safe use in pregnancy. Although raw ground root powder is used medicinally, concentrated tinctures can be prepared by extraction of ashwagandha with alcohol.

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