The "Rejuvenator " - Withania aka Ashwagundha
Withania somnifera aka Ashwagundha, you might also hear this herb referred to as “winter cherry”. This herb right here is one of my favourites (not my absolute fav but it’s up there).
I just love it, it does so much for you and we are going to explore some of that, right here right now. It has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. This herb is particularly great for all you stress heads out there… you know who you are ;)
In Ayurvedic medicine it is said about this herb:
“That which has the smell of a horse, as it gives the vitality and sexual energy of a horse”
So if you want to have the strength and virility (aphrodisiac/sexual energy) of a horse haha this might be the herb you want ;)
Now Withania is commonly referred to as an “adaptogen” or adaptogenic herb. But what does that mean?
Though this word is a relatively new concept to western medicine, China and Eastern medical theory has employed their use for centuries. Adaptogenic herbs improve the body’s adaptability, enabling the body to avoid reaching a point of collapse or over-stress. Adaptogens can have an overall tonifying effect or provide benefit within specific organs such as the circulatory, respiratory, digestive, reproductive and nervous systems.
The core of their action appears to be in helping the body deal with the physiology of stress. When we’re unable to cope with external pressures it leads to internal repercussions, and the manifestation of illness can develop in many diverse forms. Adaptogens seem to increase the threshold of resistance to damage through supporting the adrenal glands and possibly pitutiary gland function. Their normalizing effect leads to contradictory actions depending on the body’s needs. The restorative quality of these herbs is a unique feature of herbal medicine unlike any in the pharmaceutical index.
Adaptogens help us regroup mentally and emotionally, they help us problem solve and deal with the path we are on.
Adaptogens are capable of restoring normal tone and function to the HPA (hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal) axis and SAS (sympathoadrenal system) and therefore to the entire body. As the adrenal glands underlie much of the body’s response to external and internal stressors. While improving resistance to stress they help to prevent some of the more common symptoms of stress including poor concentration, sleep disturbance, fatigue, decreased immune response, and decreased resistance to infections. Pretty amazing right?
What is Withania used for?
Withania is a brain normaliser or steadier. It can be thought of also as a brain neutraliser making it better for conditions like anxiety as it is not stimulating.
Withania is used to restore health to the nervous system and eases stress and mental exhaustion, as it promotes mental clarity and improves memory and stamina.
It is particularly good for the “ stamina of the heart” be that physical or emotional stamina that is required. It is used as a tonic for the elderly, to promote growth in children and enhance athletic performance ( for perseverance of energy). It also promotes recovery after illness and during convalescence and has great use in various chronic diseases involving inflammation. It will aid in reducing bone degeneration, rheumatism, joint pain and neuralgias and can be used topically for wounds and swelling. It also assists with reproductive health, is used as a general tonic, as a rejuvenating agent, nervous system tonic, sedative, immunomodulator, anti-tumor, anti-inflammatory, astringent, anti-anaemic, aphrodisiac and oxytocin agent. Not only that but it has been shown to have neuroprotective characteristics. One little herb that does so much!
Energetics and tradition of the herb
It is said to be bitter, astringent, sweet and heating. It decreases Vata and Kapha and increases Pitta and Ama (toxins) if used in excess. It is a Rasayana karma (rejuvenating tonic)- Rasa (essence) ayana(enter). It holds a similar place in Ayurvedic medicine as Ginseng does in Chinese medicine. It is a really rejuvenating herb for the muscles, marrow and semen (hence why it is thought of typically as a herb used in men). In Aruyvedia it was particularly used in people with a Vata constitution.
Traditionally men started using this herb in puberty and continued taking it until they died. It is warming and drying for men and as men are more warm and dry naturally, it increased their strength and stamina. It was said to increase brain clarity, creativity and libido in men, increase semen and believe it if you will ( I would like some evidence though) is said to increase penis size!
Withania is said to have a “nightshade” quality that other adaptogens don’t tend to have. You can think of it like a snake charmer- hypnotic very gentle and mild. It gives you energy but energy you are in control of - that you surrender to and helps keep you present. Not like caffeine that gives you energy but has you unfocused and bouncing off the walls. This is a slow sustained in-control energy to keep you going. Just like the growth of the plant it takes 9months to 1 year to grow before you can harvest it.
Traditionally it can be taken as a decoction to which may be added honey, raw sugar, pippali and basmati rice. It is said to inhibit ageing and catalyse the anabolic processes in the body. As a Rasayana karma herb it is used to rebuild mind-body connection, prevent decay and postpone ageing. Rasayana karma herbs do not “add to the bulk” of the body tissues but increase the quality of them. They are subtle, specific and longer lasting that simple nutritive tonics and sustain optimal form and function of various organs.
Said to be “Sattvic” in quality it is one of the best herbs for the mind and is clarifying and nurturing, making it calming and promoting deep, dreamless sleep.
But what are the benefits?
Stress, Fatigue and Anxiety
Our lives today are filled with stressors (emotional, physical, mental etc.) putting pressure on our HPA axis (Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal) and can then cause dysfunction of this system. Sometimes you will hear people call this “adrenal fatigue”, but that’s not quite accurate. (see blog on stress/ anxiety and HPA axis)
If your body is under long term stress, this causes your adrenals to be under constant pressure to secrete cortisol, adrenaline (epinephrine), noradrenaline (norepinephrine) etc. With this constant messaging, your brain and adrenals begin miscommunicating, which can throw off your HPA-axis.
Because Withania is an adaptogen:
It works through your HPA-axis (how your brain and adrenals communicate) and can therefore help balance how much cortisol your body makess-causing it to have a significant anti-stress activity.
There have also been studies to show that Ashwagandha helps prevent the depletion of cortisol and vitamin C (which is highly concentrated in the adrenal glands) in the adrenals following a stressful event.
It has also been shown particularly in mice studies to reduce obsessive compulsive behaviours and typically being known as a nervine it is nourishing and thus protective to the nervous system from stress. It is great for those who feel depleted or “wiped out” but are still a shell of “agitation and jitters”. It really helps to slow down those excessive thought patterns. When used in anxiety it can take up to 15 days to start working, it may be slow acting but has been shown to be just as effective as Benzodiazepines, with its full effect seen in 30-60 days.
It’s a great herb to take before bedtime to help you reduce the “wired but tired” feeling so you get a better night’s rest, particularly due to its effects on GABA. It is not sedating but will help you sleep as it’s helping regulate the sleep cycle rather than making you “knocked out” and “drowsy” to help aid sleep. Withania being more gentle in action can take over a month to regulate sleep patterns but in 2-3 months it can help your sleep cycle completely reset.
How does it help?
It can modulate GABA neurotransmission and having low GABA is linked to stress and anxiety . Furthermore the potent sitoindosides and acylsterylglucosides within Withania are well-known anti-stress agents.
These effects make it have a anxiolytic (which means it can be used to manage anxiety) action. Withania is beneficial for those with anxiety and chronic stress because it helps the body regulate cortisol and stress hormone output.
Helps regulate the nervous system and causes it to have a more parasympathetic state that leads to deep restoration of the entire system. For this reason it is used for exhaustion, fatigue, insomnia from stress and neurasthenia (nervous exhaustion).
Evidence of this
52 subjects suffering from chronic stress were given Ashwagandha/Withania and assessed at the end of eight weeks. Across all measures, including serum cortisol levels, the Perceived Stress Scale and the Oxford Happiness QuestionInaire, significant improvements were shown.
In a small, randomized double-blind placebo-controlled study, benefits were observed after 60 days of continuous Ashwagandha/Withania use at a dose of 300 mg twice daily.
Sexual function/ hormonal balance
Withania is also known as an aphrodisiac and was typically thought of as a male tonic.
It increases testosterone in men- as the adrenal glands are responsible for DHEA production which is then converted to testosterone and thus can increase motivation, mood and libido. Increasing testosterone also increases sperm count, sperm mobility and therefore male fertility.
But it is very useful in both sexes:
This herb has been shown to improve orgasms, arousal, lubrication and sexual satisfaction. How good is that! It also helps balance oestrogen and prolactin and when the adrenals are in good shape then progesterone production continues on happily and it enhances libido (esp in women).
Stress can cause degeneration (breakdown) of brain cells, which can lead to various neurological problems and diseases. Withania increases glutathione- which is an antioxidant in our bodies. Antioxidants protect us from free radical damage that cause ageing. It can also boosts memory, concentration and has shown some beneifts in dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
It promotes neurite outgrowth which can allow greater connections between thought/ideas- better connections leads to better cognition. It also increases Ach (Acetylcholine) production in the brain, which is linked to memory and learning.
Not only that but it increases dopamine, which is your feel good neurotransmitter that is also important for attention, sexual interest etc.
When cortisol is chronically elevated, it can lead to high cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar. Due to Withanias’ balancing action the adrenals can therefore assist with lowering LDL cholesterol, triglycerides and blood glucose levels and increase HDL -your good cholesterol.
As Withania is an antioxidant as discussed above it can help with tumor growth and cancer treatment by preventing the spread of cancer cells in the body. This is not to say that this herb should replace the medical care or advice from your doctor. It is not a replacement for cancer drugs or other treatments. It may, however, be a helpful adjunct therapy and worth mentioning to your doctor/pharmacist to make sure it doesn’t interact with your other therapies.
Withania helps lower stress as discussed, which can be beneficial when people are going through cancer and the stress of cancer treatment. It reduces chemo-induced suppression of the immune system and is good to use more like a prophylactic agent to prevent cancer. For example it can be used in women on the oral contraceptive pill (OCP) to help reduce the risk of breast cancer etc.
Withania contains flavonoids which can lower blood sugar levels and decrease insulin resistance, it can also help with those feelings of excessive food cravings. By lowering blood glucose levels you are also reducing inflammation overall in the body.
A well-functioning Ovarian-Adrenal-Thyroid Axis (OAT) is vital in the pursuit of balanced hormones. If our adrenal gland is overburdened and making lots of cortisol this means that the thyroid and ovaries will struggle too. So by Withania lowering cortisol and balancing the adrenals it will therefore inadvertently help with thyroid function.
It can also help with hypothyroidism seperate to this process by improving both TSH and T4, assisting an underactive thyroid. But as it is stimulating on the thyroid it is best avoided in hyperthyroidism unless managed by your doctor/practitioner.
Withania increases physical performance and the ability to endure under fatiguing conditions such as exercise, lifting weights and muscle recovery. Usage is linked to lower body fat percentages and it strengthens the immune system to aid physical performance. So these effects make it good for athletes and those that exercise rigorously.
Chronic stress can eventually lead to a compromised immune system. Your lymphocytes (the white blood cells ) decrease and with chronic stress there is chronic inflammation, leading to a compromised immune system also. Withania can help increase the production of immunoglobulins and suppress inflammatory cytokines. One way to know if your adrenals are under stress is to look at how often you are getting sick. Frequent colds or flus shows an immune system under stress.
Are there any precautions or reasons i could not take this herb?
Certain autoimmune conditions could be made worse for some people who take Withania or adaptogens in general (e.g. lupus), but this isn't true for everyone. In fact, some autoimmune conditions improve with the use of adaptogens. It's always good to chat with your practitioner if you have an autoimmune condition and are considering this herb.
It might cause problems for people with hyperthyroidism because it can stimulate an already over-stimulated thyroid gland.
Since it is in the nightshade family, those with nightshade sensitivities should be cautious.
Should not be used in pregnant women (even though traditionally it was used in “weak pregnant women” to stabilise the foetus).
It also lowers blood pressure so if you stuffer from orthostatic hypotension this might not be ideal for you.
Caution of use if on HRT (hormone replacement therapy) and if taking thyroid medications, do not start taking without checking with your doctor/pharmacist/ naturopath due to potential interactions.
How long until it takes affect, I want my stress gone now?
Affects can be seen right away but it also has affects longer term after 2-3months. If you have had chronically high stress, you can’t expect the effects of that to disappear over night as it didn’t occur overnight. So be patient. Plus remember herbs just like medications are not a silver bullet. You need to look at all the other factors such as diet etc that maybe impacting your health and contributing to stress. We need to remove the triggers not just give something to allow you to keep doing the behaviours etc. that lead to you feeling wired up and stressed in the first place.
Who is this good for?
Well anyone suffering from any of the conditions/ looking for the benefits listed above. But also athletes, students, busy parents, corporate workers etc.
You can see why this is one of my favourite herbs it can be used in a herbal tincture mixed up from a practitioner, in tablet forms and also in teas. So have a chat to your qualified herbalist, naturopath, pharmacist or doctor if you are wanting to use this herb and want to know if it will be right for you.
The Yoga of Herbs, Dr David Frawley and Dr Vasant Lad.