Ashwagandha’s Got You Covered: The Powerful Herb that Treats Everything from Memory Loss to Depression

If you’ve read my post on Rhodiola Rosea, ashwagandha may sound familiar to you. Both Rhodiola and ashwagandha are adaptogenic herbs, meaning they modulate your body’s response to stress in a number of ways, restoring balance; both are known to reduce anxiety and depression, strengthen the immune system, and improve learning, memory and reaction time.

But there are a few key differences: Where Rhodiola grows in cold, mountainous regions in northern Europe, Scandinavia, and northern Asia, ashwagandha, on the other hand, is native to the dry regions of India, northern Africa, and the Middle East; and where Rhodiola is used to increase energy and fight fatigue, ashwagandha soothes, treats insomnia and inspires a general sense of relaxed well-being within the body. Rhodiola is best to take in the mornings to start the day; whereas you can come down from the stresses of the everyday world with a soothing ashwagandha tea at night.

Ashwagandha actually belongs to the nightshade family, the same family as tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and others, and looks a bit like a tomatillo, with its oval leaves encircling the small, raisin-sized fruit. It has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine and Indian cooking and is often called “Indian ginseng” for its rejuvenating properties—even though it is not related to ginseng. According to a 2003 study, the withanolides, found in the Withania somnifera leaves of ashwagandha, are what give the plant its medicinal properties. In fact, this active constituent has been found to inhibit the growth of tumors! Although ashwagandha’s cancer-fighting properties need more research before the plant is used widely in Western medicine, it is certainly helpful in fighting cancer-related and chemotherapy-related fatigue, stress, and overall improving one’s quality of life, according to a 2013 study in Integrative Cancer Therapies.

Aside from its incredible cancer-fighting properties, ashwagandha has powerful immune-stimulating, antioxidant and body and mind-balancing effects. In fact, multiple studies have shown it to increase endurance and stamina, protect against stress-induced gastric ulcers, and treat other stress-induced diseases including arteriosclerosis, premature aging, arthritis, diabetes, and hypertension. It also increases levels of superoxide dismutase and glutathione peroxidase, two powerful antioxidants. Incredibly, it can normalize thyroid hormone levels in people with both hyper and hypothyroid issues, as well as people with hyper and hypo adrenal gland issues—both of which are very important to your overall well-being. In fact, in traditional Chinese medicine, the adrenal gland is related to the kidney qi, and the kidney is vital because it actually controls your internal qi, thus regulating your yin and yang balance. Problems with your adrenal gland are associated with depression, fatigue, and reduced sexual function, among others.

As I mentioned above, ashwagandha has a soothing or calming effect and has been used to treat sleeplessness and insomnia. In fact, in multiple studies conducted on rats, ashwagandha had the same calming, anxiety-reducing effect as the prescription sedative Lorazepam, as well as antidepressant effects similar to that of the prescription antidepressant imipramine. The effects of these findings are powerful, since many people taking prescription drugs to treat anxiety, depression and other illnesses experience addiction and crippling side effects. With ashwagandha, there is no risk of these! The more you dig into this herb, the more incredible things you will find about it; ashwagandha will adapt to your body, your specific needs and deficits, and respond in the best way possible to make sure you are in balance. Ashwagandha is used extensively in Ayurveda, the traditional Hindu system of medicine based on the idea of bodily balance. Many concepts in Ayurveda translate to Chinese medicine, so we can think about ashwagandha as restoring Jing (vital essence) to the body, increasing your overall well-being and rejuvenating you from the inside out. That being said, it’s important to understand that in herbal medicine, not all herbs are good for everybody–even adaptogens. Ashwagandha is a warming and nourishing herb and is best for people with cooler and dryer constitutions and not those with excessively hot constitutions. If you’re not sure whether ashwagandha is right for you, ask your acupuncturist or herbalist and they will be able to guide you in the right direction. 

How can you reap all the amazing benefits of Ashwagandha?

You can definitely find it in pill and capsule form—just make sure you are choosing a product that is wildcrafted, biodynamic and organic and that has the highest levels of medicinal compounds. As with Rhodiola, you may want to start with a low dosage and work your way up to higher dosages so you can monitor how your body reacts to the herb.

You can also find ashwagandha in powder form: I love Sun Potions Organic ashwagandha powder. You can simply steep the powder in boiling water for approximately 5 minutes and then filter it out when you are ready to drink. Personally, I find ashwagandha best mixed with a small amount of water and drunk quickly or added to a smoothie, as it has a bitter taste. In addition, in my post on turmeric (I hope you’re all whipping up batches of golden milk now!), I mention a recipe on Local Milk, a great blog I like to frequent for delicious and healthy recipes. In Beth Kirby’s Golden Milk cocoa, she adds a dash of ashwagandha powder, a delicious way to sneak in medicinal benefits!