Ashwagandha: The Rejuvenating Antioxidant That Calms The Heart and Mind!

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), also called winter cherry, comes from the roots of a shrub cultivated in India and North America. Ayurvedic practitioners have been using it for thousands of years as a powerful rasayana (a tonic for greater vitality and longevity). The herb has traditionally been used for calming the mind, relieving weakness, nervous exhaustion and arthritis, and for building sexual energy. It is beneficial to people who do physical labor or exercise a lot to help the body adapt to physical stress. It has also been used for strengthening the female reproductive system.

Ashwagandha contains flavonoids and many active ingredients of the withanolide class. Numerous studies over the past two decades indicate that it has anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, anti-stress, antioxidant, mind-boosting, and rejuvenating properties.1

Withanolides are believed to account for the multiple medicinal applications of Ashwagandha.2 These molecules are steroidal and bear a resemblance, both in their action and appearance, to the active constituents of Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) known as ginsenosides. Ashwagandha’s withanolides have been extensively studied in a variety of animal studies examining their effects on immune function, and even cancer.

Demonstrated healing abilities


  • Provides potent antioxidant protection3 15 21
  • Stimulates the activation of immune system cells, such as lymphocytes and phagocytes4 5 6 7
  • Counteracts the effects of stress and generally promotes wellness, making it an important tonic or adaptogen.8 9

Reduces anxiety

A recent study at the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences, Calcutta University, examined the effect that Ashwagandha has on chronic stress in rodents. For 21 days, the animals’ feet were given a mild electrical shock, which resulted in hyperglycemia, glucose intolerance, increase in plasma corticosterone levels, gastric ulcerations, male sexual dysfunction, cognitive deficits, immunosuppression and mental depression. Animals that were given Ashwagandha an hour before the foot shock experienced a significantly reduced level of stress, confirming the researchers’ theory that the herb produces a significant anti-stress adaptogenic effect.10

A study done at the Department of Pharmacology, University of Texas Health Science Center indicated that extracts of Ashwagandha produce GABA-like activity, which may account for the herb’s anti-anxiety effects.11 GABA (Gamma Amino-butyric acid) is an inhibitory (calming) neurotransmitter in the brain. Its function is to decrease neuron activity and inhibit nerve cells from over firing. Too much neuronal activity can lead to restlessness and insomnia, but GABA inhibits the number of nerve cells that fire in the brain, and helps to induce sleep, uplift mood, and reduce anxiety.

Improves mood

Ashwagandha has traditionally been used to stabilize mood in patients with behavioral disturbances, and another study showed that it does indeed produce an anti-depressant and anti-anxiety effect in rodents comparable to the anti-depressant drug imipramine and anti-anxiety drug lorazepam (Ativan).12

Provides a potent antioxidant effect

Researchers from Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, India13, and from the Drug Research and Development Center, Calcutta14, discovered that some of the chemicals in Ashwagandha are powerful antioxidants. They tested these compounds for their effects on rat brains and found an increase in the levels of three natural antioxidants; superoxide dismutase, catalase, and glutathione peroxidase.

According to the researchers, “These findings are consistent with the therapeutic use of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) as an Ayurvedic rasayana. The antioxidant effect of active principles of W. somnifera may explain, at least in part, the reported anti-stress, cognition-facilitating, anti-inflammatory and anti-aging effects produced by them in experimental animals, and in clinical situations.”14

Another study examined Ashwagandha’s effect on copper-induced lipid peroxidation and antioxidant enzymes in aging spinal cords of laboratory mice. The herb produced a strong antioxidant effect and stopped the lipid peroxidation,15 which, in humans, is a cause of atherosclerosis leading to heart disease.

Supports cardiovascular health

A study of six human subjects with high cholesterol showed that treatment with Ashwagandha for 30 days decreased their blood glucose, serum cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL (bad cholesterol). The herb also had a diuretic effect, and no one experienced any adverse effects.16

Increases NO production 17

This is important for a number of reasons. Nitric oxide production plays a role in maintaining cardiovascular health. Here’s how: Inside your body nitric oxide is produced by endothelial cells that line your blood vessels, and acts as a messenger molecule by telling the blood vessels when to relax and expand. When adequate nitric oxide is produced, it causes an “endothelial relaxing factor,” which is needed by the arterial system to expand and contract with each heartbeat. This helps regulate blood flow and pressure, so that oxygen-carrying blood is delivered to your tissues and organs.18 19 Ashwagandha has traditionally been used as a sex enhancer, which makes sense because nitric oxide dilates blood vessels-a key factor in maintaining penile erection.

Enhances cognition and boosts memory

Ashwagandha is used in India to treat mental deficits in geriatric patients, including amnesia. Researchers from the University of Leipzig in Germany wanted to find out which neurotransmitters were influenced by Ashwagandha. After injecting some of the compounds found in Ashwagandha into rats, they examined slices of the animals’ brains and found an increase in acetylcholine receptor activity. Acetylcholine is the most abundant and essential neurotransmitter in the brain that is responsible for numerous functions, including many related to cognition and memory. It is released into the synapse, or space between two nerve cells, where it stimulates the transfer of nerve impulses from one nerve cell to another. According to the researchers, the increase in acetylcholine receptor capacity might partly explain the cognition-enhancing and memory-improving effects of extracts from Ashwagandha observed in animals20 and humans.21

Supports normal brain function

Two studies done in Japan also indicate that Ashwagandha stimulates the growth of axons and dendrites in human neuroblastoma cells22 23, and in rat neurons.22 This is significant because the extension of dendrites and axons-which bring information to and from the brain-may compensate for and repair damaged neuronal circuits in the dementia brain.24 Ashwagandha’s antioxidant properties have also been shown to help protect the brain from damage in several other studies25 26, including one in which it was used as a prophylactic against damage caused by stroke.27

Reduces cancer cell growth

A recent Japanese in vitro study found that a number of the compounds in Ashwagandha reduced the growth of human colon, breast and lung cancer cells, leading the researchers to suggest that the herb may prevent or decrease the growth of tumors in humans.28 A number of animal studies, both in vivo and in vitro, also showed that Ashwagandha reduces cancer cell growth, and increased the longevity of the animals.29 30 31 32

How safe is it?

Ashwagandha is a safe and gentle herb when used as directed. It should not be used by pregnant women or by individuals taking barbiturates, because the herb increases their effects. Although Ashwagandha has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine, the Western world is just beginning to learn about its amazing benefits. Its antioxidant and adaptogenic effects are second to none, and as consumers learn about its benefits, it is sure to take its place among the most revered health tonics known to modern man.

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