This is supposed to be a blog about plants, actually, among other things. So, I decided to talk about one of my favorite medicinal plants today. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), also called Indian ginseng, is a useful member of the nightshade family commonly employed in Ayurvedic medicine. My experience with this plant goes all the way back to my sophomore year in high school.
Once I hit twelve years old, I had a lot of trouble sleeping. I’m not talking about having a small issue falling asleep, I had major, prolonged insomnia. A good night’s sleep for me consisted of about four hours of sleep. A bad night’s sleep? I’d get about an hour or so. To this day, I have no idea what caused such severe insomnia, but I can tell you it went on for over a year and a half. I talked to my parents and to my doctor. In short, nobody really believed I was sleeping so little. So I essentially learned to put up with it. Once I hit high school, I joined the cross-country team, and predictably running several miles a day was enough to finally knock me out. I still remember how my sleep changed. I went from four hours of sleep, to six, finally to eight. It was magical.
Unfortunately, this only lasted for a short time. My insomnia came back when I turned sixteen. Luckily for me, by this time I had access to the internet and a health food store. I’ve always been of the mindset that if someone won’t help you, then figure out how to solve the problem yourself. Over the past few years I’d developed a interested in medicinal plants, partly because of my insomnia. And I now had the means to procure those plants to try on fix it. I drove over to the health food store and basically started grabbing every plant I knew could help me sleep. I was walking over to the counter with several tinctures when the cashier finally asked me if I was having some trouble sleeping. I had explained my long history of insomnia and mentioned how odd I thought it was that I was having this problem again, seeing as how I was now running ten to fifteen miles daily. She suggested that instead of buying fifty plus dollars of sedatives, I try a supplement with Ashwagandha in it. She babbled something about excessive cortisol that I did not really believe, and even though I’d been told repeatedly as a kid not to take strange pills non-doctor adults gave you, I was desperate, so I tried it anyway. Thankfully, the cashier at the health food store had no nefarious intentioned. The supplement worked like magic. It fixed my insomnia with one dose, something several doctor’s visits did not do for me. I’ve used the plant ever since to fix insomnia when it rears its exhausting head.
Some fun facts about this plant:
Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, which is the term used by herbalists to describe plants that help the body maintain balance, particularly in times of stress. Many are noted for working on the adrenal glands (although I’ll come right out and say I haven’t found much in the way of scientific literature on this for every adaptogen. Luckily for Ashwagandha there is loads of it, which is not something you can say about most medicinal plants. More on that in a bit). What’s notable about many adaptogens is that they typically have a dual functionality about them. For instance, mint, a common adaptogen, can both wake you up and help you relax. It can also stimulate your digestive system and help soothe an overactive one. This is the overall nature of these plants, they drag you back from the extremes and center you.
Like many medicinal herbs, it has a wide variety of traditional uses. It is a strengthening and restorative plant. It has been used for malnourished children, arthritis, insomnia, joint inflammation, nervous conditions, constipation, maintaining hormone balance, and so much more. It has even been prescribed as an aphrodisiac.
Scientific study on this plant has indicated that there is quite a bit of validity in these uses. The stress and anxiety relieving properties of this plant are well documented, with studies seeing positive results in both rats and humans. This plant also helps with endurance. A study on swimmers who took this plant found that taking this plant reduced cortisol, even after five hours of swimming (I’ve linked this below- it’s a review that kind of goes all over the place). Cortisol, in case you are wondering, is a hormone released by the adrenal glands in response to stress of all kinds. You’ve probably heard about it in relation to weight loss. It has functions relating to the immune system, metabolism and blood sugar, pregnancy, and inflammatory responses. It’s treated like the devil’s hormone probably because, in my opinion, our culture tends to make many of us produce too much for too long. I won’t get into the stress pathway involved here because I don’t want to write an essay, but I will link to some resources below for your reading pleasure. Suffice to say that cortisol production and the stress response should not operating on full blast for a long period of time. Swerving back on topic, plants that help chill this system out, like Ashwagandha, can lend themselves to a variety of functions. Drifting away from science for a minute, I have often wondered if Ashwagandha’s ability to reduce cortisol levels might even explain why it can be useful for such a wide variety of conditions.
Another related place this plant will act on is the thyroid. I have not been able to figure out how it does this in terms of cellular mechanics, nobody seems to have written much about it. If you find anything let me know. I have found that Ashwagandha stimulates T3 and T4 production of the thyroid. Again, these are hormones with all sorts of functions in the body, and again, I’ve linked some stuff below on it. While this can have its benefits, it can also be a source of trouble. Taking too much Ashwagandha can cause hyperthyroidism. While I was searching literature, I found two documented cases of hyperthyroidism from taking this plant. Neither incident had a record of how much the subject had taken. Obviously, if you’ve got this condition already, avoid this plant. Another contradiction of this plant is heartburn. While some studies have indicated that it can be useful for stopping heartburn and helping digestion, other sources say it can cause heartburn. If I had to guess, the reason it could do both could be related to it’s adaptogenic effect, however I haven’t seen anything in the way of scientific study on this. I can personally attest to the heartburn risk. I’ve got a long history of acid reflux and taking this plant and then laying down almost always sets it off.
Another problem with this plant is that for some people it seems to be slightly habit-forming. Not on the level of most drugs, but people who take it consistently and then stop sometimes have some problems restoring normal cycles, particularly in sleep.
I usually use this plant when I am over stressed and over tired. Think Coldplay, “When you feel so tired you can’t sleep”, and maybe when you can’t sit still, you’re still going over to do lists in your mind, and you wake up in the middle of the night paralyzed by everything you got to do still. That’s when I pull out the Ashwagandha. This plant got me through grad school.
It’s probably obvious, but I’m just going to point this out. I’m not a doctor or an herbalist. I just love plants and love talking about them. Feel free to try out this plant, but if you’re noticing you have a real medical problem, do see a doctor.
A review on this plant: Here is where you read about the swimmers among other things
A little bit on cortisol
A Psychology Today article on cortisol
Some info on your Thyroid