Carolina Holistic Medicine | Functional & Alternative Medicine | Charleston, SC

Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha)

An adaptogen herb in the nightshade family of plants Withania somnifera (AKA, Ashwagandha, Indian Ginseng, and winter cherry to name a few) has been used in Ayervedic medicine for hundreds of years. The plant, roots, seeds, leaves and fruit, which is classified a berry, contain alkaloids, flavonoids and steroidal lactones. Most notably a substance called withaferin A which was first isolated along with sitoindosides 9 & 10 more recently discovered, all agents whose attributes to wellness and as an adaptogen are given. Ashwagandha finds its way into several stand-along supplements for stress reduction and sleep, as well as one part of several other herbals or adaptogen herbs in proprietary blends for adrenal gland support and optimal Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) function.

Adaptogens get their name as particular herbals (some 25 of all medicinal herbs) for their properties of adapting organisms to stress. They must maintain three general properties to obtain this distinction. Those being, they are not toxic substances, they must work on multiple physiological avenues and systems in an organism and lastly must exact a balancing property. The balance or homeostasis by definition by example would be a particular adaptogen herb at a certain dose would both lower blood glucose in a person with elevated serum glucose (a diabetic) and also raise the serum glucose levels in another individual with very low sugar levels (a hypoglycemic). The combination of all three principals must be met and are very unusual in the world of medicinal. I know of no pharmaceutical that actually possesses even two of these three properties.

An interesting aside is the culinary application of this plant’s fruit as a substitute for rennet, an animal gut derived complex of enzymes used in making of cheese. W. somnifera is a vegetarian alternative to the animal derived rennet.

Medicinally this herbal has been used for cognitive enhancement and neuro-protective properties from the treatment of anxiety and ADHD and cerebellar ataxia conditions. Researchers have studied its effects on diabetes and elevated cholesterol. There have been studies on reduction of tumor size and regression of cancer. It has use in male infertility, increasing sperm counts and has been studied with positive effects on erectile function in men. Ashwagandha has found it way into formulations to treat arthritis conditions as it imparts anti-inflammatory as well as analgesic properties. Several studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals purport effectiveness in reducing tumors showing its anti-neoplastic properties. Others report a reduction in inflammation, stress (adaptogenic properties) and ulcers. Clinicians prescribe this herbal to aid their patients suffering from fibromyalgia conditions as well as to bolstering their immune system. It has characteristics that increase the function of the thyroid gland and production of thyroxine and triiodothyronine, the two principle thyroid hormones. It has even been researched as a remedy for reducing the dependence and halting the tolerance to pain medication. It has found its way in complementary treatments for the addiction to opiate medications.

Dosing depends on the individual and what in particular is being treated, but a typical starting dose of 500 mg of standardized pharmaceutical grade once to twice daily is the norm. No more than 1000 mg twice daily is suggested. Length of use is safe for months at a time.

There are a few cautions to be considered with any herbal or therapy. Ashwagandha may cause lowering of blood glucose levels so care with folks on sugar lowering medications should be exercised. It may cause either an elevation or a lowering of blood pressure. Drops in blood pressure in those taking medication for hypertension can be of particular concern, so appropriate monitoring should be implemented. Those with stomach ulcers should use caution as it can cause gastrointestinal irritation. Prior to surgery that requires anesthesia this herb should be stopped two-weeks in advance as it may cause central nervous system depression with anesthetics. Those with thyroid disorders should also exercise caution, as this herb may cause an increase in hormone levels and thyroid function. Care should be taken if on thyroid hormone replacement therapy.

There are also some interactions with prescription medications. Chief is the sedative effect with taken with benzodiazepines such as diazepam or lorazepam. Also additive effects of somnolence are noted with phenobarbital and zolpidem. If one is on an immunosuppressant drug, than there are certainly suppressive effects associated with this herb that counteract these drug’s properties as it promotes immune function.

Ashwagandha is a superb choice of adaptogen herbs for the treatment of stress and stress induced illnesses. Ashwagandha is generally regarded as safe and effective for a wide number of medical conditions, but it is still highly suggested to have it managed by a qualified practitioner.

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