A Herbalist's Guide to Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)

Posted by Emily van Oosterom on

Ashwagandha, or Withania, is a powerful plant in the world of herbalism. Known as the "Indian ginseng" due to its invigorating properties, this plant has been revered in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. 

Historical and Traditional Uses

Native to India, North Africa, and the Middle East, Ashwagandha has a rich history of use. The name Ashwagandha means "smell of the horse," in Sanskrit, reflecting its distinct musky aroma and the traditional belief that it can imbue the strength and vitality of a horse.

In Ayurvedic medicine, Ashwagandha is considered a Rasayana, a rejuvenating herb believed to promote both physical and mental health, restore the body, and increase longevity. Its roots and berries have been used to treat many and varied conditions, including stress, anxiety, insomnia, and various inflammatory diseases.

Current Use

Today, Ashwagandha is widely appreciated, not only within Ayurvedic practices but also in Western herbalism. It's often found as a dietary supplement, with its most commonly recognised benefit being stress and anxiety relief. This is linked to its classification as an adaptogen, a unique class of herbs known to help the body manage and adapt to stress.

Ashwagandha is reputed to support cognitive function, support immune function, and provide anti-inflammatory benefits. It is widely available in a variety of forms such as capsules, powders, and tinctures, allowing people to incorporate it into their routines in a way that suits them best.

Chemical Constituents and Actions

Ashwagandha's primary bioactive components, withanolides, are a group of naturally occurring steroidal lactones. These compounds have attracted scientific attention due to their range of biological activities. Withanolides are believed to contribute to Ashwagandha's medicinal properties, including its adaptogenic, anti-inflammatory, and immune-enhancing effects.

In terms of adaptogenic properties, the withanolides help in modulating the body's response to stress. They are thought to regulate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is the central stress response system of the body. When a stressful event occurs, the HPA axis is activated, leading to a series of reactions that ultimately result in the release of cortisol, the body's primary stress hormone, from the adrenal glands. Withanolides appear to mitigate the stress response by dampening HPA axis activity, reducing cortisol release, and thus helping the body to maintain balance and resist stressors.

The anti-inflammatory effect of withanolides is also of significant interest. They have been observed to inhibit the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are substances that can trigger inflammation in the body. By suppressing cytokine production, withanolides can help control systemic inflammation, which is linked to various chronic health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

Withanolides have been found to stimulate the activity of natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell that plays a crucial role in our body's defense against viruses and cancer cells. This stimulation enhances the body's innate immune response, providing a potential improvement to overall immune function.

Several scientific studies support traditional uses of Ashwagandha. For instance, research suggests that Ashwagandha may help reduce cortisol levels, the body's primary stress hormone, likely due to its modulatory effect on the HPA axis as mentioned earlier. This cortisol-lowering effect could explain the herb's reputed benefits for stress reduction and mood improvement.

Other studies indicate potential benefits for brain health, including improvements in memory, reaction time, and task performance. These cognitive benefits may be attributed to several mechanisms. Firstly, the reduction in cortisol levels can have a protective effect on the brain, as prolonged exposure to high cortisol levels can be damaging to brain cells. Secondly, withanolides might enhance the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that promotes the survival of nerve cells and stimulates the growth of new ones. Ashwagandha has also been found to increase acetylcholine levels in the brain, a neurotransmitter involved in learning and memory processes.

These mechanisms offer a holistic view of how Ashwagandha might influence physiological functions to bring about its therapeutic effects. 

Precautions and Contraindications

Despite its array of potential benefits, Ashwagandha isn't for everyone. It may interact with certain medications, including those for diabetes, high blood pressure, and autoimmune conditions. Its use is also generally advised against during pregnancy due to potential risk of miscarriage.

As with any supplement or natural medicine, it's important to consult a healthcare provider before using Ashwagandha, especially for those with chronic health conditions or taking prescribed medications.

Wondering how to incorporate Ashwagandha into your life? Try these simple recipes:

Ashwagandha Chocolate Energy Balls


  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup almond butter
  • 1/4 cup honey or maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons of Ashwagandha powder
  • 1/2 cup mini chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup flax seeds
  • 1 tablespoon of chia seeds



  1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl, making sure the Ashwagandha powder is thoroughly mixed in.
  2. Roll the mixture into 1-inch balls.
  3. Place the balls on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours to firm up.
  4. Enjoy as a quick, healthy snack that also provides the benefits of Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha Hot Chocolate


  • 2 cups of almond milk (or milk of your choice)
  • 2 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon of Ashwagandha powder
  • honey or sweetener of choice, to taste.



  1. In a small saucepan, heat the almond milk over medium heat until hot, but not boiling.
  2. Add the cocoa powder and Ashwagandha powder, and whisk until well combined.
  3. Remove from heat and stir in the honey or sweetener.
  4. Pour into mugs and enjoy a comforting hot drink that's also packed with the benefits of Ashwagandha



  1. Mishra, L. C., Singh, B. B., & Dagenais, S. (2000). Scientific basis for the therapeutic use of Withania somnifera (ashwagandha): a review. Alternative medicine review, 5(4), 334-346.
  1. Singh, N., Bhalla, M., Jager, P., & Gilca, M. (2011). An Overview on Ashwagandha: A Rasayana (Rejuvenator) of Ayurveda. African Journal of Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicines, 8(5S).
  2. Chandrasekhar, K., Kapoor, J., & Anishetty, S. (2012). A Prospective, Randomized Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study of Safety and Efficacy of a High-Concentration Full-Spectrum Extract of Ashwagandha Root in Reducing Stress and Anxiety in Adults. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 34(3), 255-262.
  3. Pratte, M. A., Nanavati, K. B., Young, V., & Morley, C. P. (2014). An Alternative Treatment for Anxiety: A Systematic Review of Human Trial Results Reported for the Ayurvedic Herb Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera). Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 20(12), 901-908.
  4. Wankhede, S., Langade, D., Joshi, K., Sinha, S. R., & Bhattacharyya, S. (2015). Examining the effect of Withania somnifera supplementation on muscle strength and recovery: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 12, 43.

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