By Dr. Mercola
Known as a multipurpose herb and "rejuvenator," aka Rasayana, and used in ancient Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years, ashwagandha is a plant native to India with a host of bioactive functions. It's also one supplement that I take twice daily myself. A number of studies have shown this exotic herb can treat several diseases and disorders better than medications, and without all the side effects.
Ashwagandha has been identified as having potential stress-reducing (adaptogenic)1 and anti-inflammatory functions and may serve to improve the immune response (immunomodulatory) while soothing your nervous system's pain response. In addition, the roots are used therapeutically as a pain reliever (analgesic).2
Studies add that the herb has antitumor, antioxidant and blood production capabilities (hemopoietic), and benefits the cardiopulmonary, endocrine and central nervous systems, all "with little or no associated toxicity."3
Having names like winter cherry, Indian ginseng and poison gooseberry, ashwagandha is a member of the Solanaceae family along with eggplants and tomatoes, and can grow to 3 feet in height in arid regions of India and North America. It bears light green flowers that evolve to bright red fruit and is able to survive extreme temperatures and widely varying altitudes.4 The plants only need extra watering in extreme drought conditions. According to Wisepooch:
"The plants will start flowering from mid December onwards and it is determined if they are ready to harvest by observing the development of the red berry-like fruits. The whole plant along with the roots is removed from the soil. The roots and berries are the main parts used."5
In Sanskrit, the word ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) means "odor of a horse." The likeness refers not only to the odor of the plant's root but the essence of strength it's said to deliver. You may see both red berry-like fruits as well as papery "orange lanterns" as a description of the herb, but the latter is actually a close relative known as Physalis alkekengi.6
Multiple-Use Painkiller With Wide Range of Benefits
A double-blind, placebo-controlled study using ashwagandha was pitted against some of the most popular, typically used drugs targeted for hypothyroid patients. In fact, multiple studies show ashwagandha works better to normalize hormone levels, and without the harmful side effects,7 which may even include Alzheimer's disease.8 The study involved 50 participants with elevated serum thyroid hormone (TSH), all between the ages of 18 and 50.
Divided into two groups, each was given either ashwagandha treatments or starch as a placebo for eight weeks. Following the study, the researchers noted that the ashwagandha effectively and significantly normalized the serum thyroid levels, and concluded that such treatment might be beneficial for hypothyroid patients.9 Thyroid Advisor lists a number of additional health benefits.10 This powerful root may also:
Reduce blood pressure11
Lower irritability, edginess and anxiety
Provide natural pain relief
Boost memory, concentration and fight Alzheimer's12
Combat insomnia and promote relaxation
Stimulate proper thyroid function13
Protect nerve function and oxidation14
Nourish and protect your liver
Increase energy and endurance
Improve adrenal function15
Increase red blood cell production
Ashwagandha the 'Best Remedy' for Arthritis and Inflammation
Arthritis can weaken your digestive function and affect your joints and soft tissues, causing inflammation, possible hearing loss and other problems. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),16 more than 54 million American have arthritis in some form. Typical therapies include analgesics and other remedies such as ibuprofen, paracetamol (acetaminophen) and diclofenac.
Unfortunately, as The Ayurveda Experience notes, these drugs reduce symptoms only temporarily and often have side effects that can involve liver and kidney damage, gastrointestinal bleeding and increased risk for heart attack and stroke, cautioning: "In fact, if taken for a long period of time they can have severe side effects including stomach pain, ulceration, heartburn, allergic reactions, liver problem, kidney problems and high blood pressure."17
Another study observed the results from using ashwagandha as a natural alternative: "Patients of rheumatoid arthritis receiving Ashwagandha root powder showed excellent response. Their pain and swelling completely disappeared. A double-blind placebo controlled study, combining Ashwagandha, turmeric and zinc showed significant improvement in pain and inflammation."18
Ashwagandha has been noted in Ayurvedic manuscripts as well as modern medicine as being an effective remedy for both rheumatoid arthritis (Amavata) and osteoarthritis (Sandhi-gata Vata).19 In addition, ashwagandha was found in animal studies to be more effective against inflammation than phenylbutazone20 or hydrocortisone.21
The Main Bioactive Components in Ashwagandha
Flavonoids and other compounds are the active ingredients that give ashwagandha its surprisingly effective properties. In one study, bioactive withanolides in ashwagandha were identified as agents that suppressed the pathways causing several inflammation-based illness, including tumors, arthritis, asthma and hypertension, as well as cancer.22 In fact, one study reads:
"Ashwagandha leaf extract and Withanone cause selective killing of cancer cells by induction of ROS-signaling and hence are potential reagents that could be recruited for ROS-mediated cancer chemotherapy."23
For example, another study noted that researchers who treated rats suffering from reduced bone density (osteoporosis) with ashwagandha extracts noted decreased bone loss due to "estrogen-like withanolides (with) anti-osteoporotic activity."24 One study shows that withaferin A and withanolides in ashwagandha also have immunomodulating properties,25 described as a substance that can either stimulate or suppress your immune system to help fight infections, cancer and other diseases.
One of the alkaloids in ashwagandha, called somniferin, helps promote relaxation and sound sleep. In fact, the botanical name "somnifera" means the herb induces sleep. A study at the University of Tsukuba in Japan also found that it relieves related problems such as insomnia and restless leg syndrome.26
Recipe for Sore Joints and Arthritis Pain Using Ashwagandha
Dr. Nancy Lonsdorf, author of "The Ageless Woman: Natural Health and Beauty After Forty,"27 recommends a recipe combining four herbs for effective pain relief: ashwagandha along with three other ingredients. Mahanarayan Oil targets your muscles for up to 90 percent pain-relieving effectiveness due to its inflammation-blocking enzymes. It's used to soothe sore muscles and tendons, ease arthritis pain and prevent damage from overuse. Prevent Disease lists the other three herbal and spice ingredients as:28
- Boswellia or Boswellia serrata (Indian frankincense), found in the Middle East, contains a resin that can be harvested from the trunk that contains triterpenoids as well as palmitic, stearic, oleic and linoleic fatty acids.29 "It works by blocking an enzyme involved in the formation of leukotrienes, chemicals that trigger inflammation."30
- Turmeric, the active ingredient in the spice being curcumin, is well-known for its ability to reduce inflammation. In fact, it's reputed to contain more than two dozen compounds for this purpose, as well as six unique COX-2-inhibitors (COX-2 is an enzyme known to promote pain and inflammation). Further, this herb outperforms similar abilities claimed by pharmaceuticals.
- Ginger is another hardworking painkiller with several compounds that studies show dramatically reduce pain and inflammation: zingerone, gingerols, paradols and shogaols, again, by interfering with inflammatory enzymes and by lowering pain-causing prostaglandin levels in your body.
As it happens, ashwagandha is considered one of Ayurvedic medicine's most powerful herbs. Lonsdorf's recommendation is to combine the above spices and herbs as a supplement, and explains the connection between stress and inflammation: "When we are stressed, the hormones cortisol and epinephrine cause a breakdown of various body tissues.
Ashwagandha helps alleviate the damaging effects of stress by restoring the proper hormonal balance to the nervous system, which in turn strengthens the immune system and further reduces inflammation."31
However, Prevent Disease stresses that even with Ayurvedic supplements, organic is the way to go as often as possible, even for herbal remedies with the Ayurvedic label, as some commercial supplements have been known to contain more traces of lead, mercury and/or arsenic than regulatory standards allow.
Ashwagandha: Anecdotal Evidence for Pain
The People's Pharmacy shares the story of a patient who'd undergone bariatric surgery, but was still overweight and experiencing debilitating knee pain from severe osteoarthritis. Tylenol was "ineffective," and the patient's ability to move was becoming increasingly limited. Running across a study showing the effectiveness of ashwagandha, the patient took a 500 milligrams (mg) Withania somnifera extract containing 2.5 percent withanolides. His testimonial reads:
"On the second day of taking ashwagandha once a day, I awakened to find the pain had decreased dramatically. I've been taking it now for a week, and the pain is almost completely gone. There is still some stiffness. I've never had anything make such a difference so fast."32
While there are no side effects from ashwagandha such as those caused by drugs taken for thyroid problems or arthritis, those taking medications for diabetes, insomnia, hypertension, anxiety or depression may find their effectiveness diminished or exacerbated if taken with the herb. Pregnant women are advised against taking ashwagandha.33 Taking large amounts or doses is also not recommended.