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Withania somnifera / Ashwagandha

By Nadia McMorran

You may remember that in our January/February catalogue I wrote about my five favourite natural remedies. One of them was an herb called withania, and because there was a lot of interest in the benefits of this herb I thought it would be a good idea to give you some more information.

Withania somnifera, also known as ashwagandha, Indian ginseng or winter cherry is an Ayurvedic (traditional Indian medicine) herb that belongs to the nightshade family of plants. It is a small shrub that grows natively in India, Africa, North America and parts of East Asia. Ashwaghanda, the Sanskrit name, translates to ‘giving the power and vigour of a horse’.

Withania is commonly known as the principal medicine of India, with traditional uses dating back at least 5000 years. The root is the most desirable part of the plant to use medicinally and contains the most active constituents, although sometimes the berries are also used. In Ayurvedic medicine, it is known as rasayana, which means that it acts as a tonic for vitality and longevity, promotes physical and mental health and provides defence against diseases.

It is known as a whole body tonic, because it has such a large number of uses in the body. Some of its key uses include:

Adaptogenic (helps the body adapt to stress, both physically and mentally)

  • Immune modulator
  • Aphrodisiac
  • Liver tonic
  • Promotes learning and memory
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Mild sedative
  • Increases stamina during exercise
  • Helps to control cholesterol and blood sugar
  • Adjunctive to chemotherapy and radiation
  • Cancer prevention
  • Mood stabilising
  • Balance thyroid hormones (specifically increasing T4)
  • Cardioprotective
  • Reproductive support
  • Improving blood cell health (including iron levels)
  • Antioxidant
  • Antidepressant and antianxiety effects
  • Increases vitality
  • Management and recovery from addiction
  • Arthritis and joint pain
  • Recovery from convalescence
  • Neuroprotective

Chemical composition

Analysis of the roots of withania in a laboratory shows that there are more than 35 chemical constituents present. It is also a rich source of iron. The primary chemical compound present in withania is withanolides, which are believed to account for its extraordinary medicinal properties. Withanolides are steroidal and have some similarities to the active constituents found in Korean ginseng.

Withania and stress

Without a doubt, one of the most well known uses of withania is its positive effect on stress levels in the body. Stress can result in consistently elevated cortisol and adrenal fatigue, both of which withania can work to combat. Both physical stresses, such as illness, injury or exercise and mental or emotional stresses can have an incredibly negative impact on a number of body systems. Numerous scientific studies have been conducted worldwide, examining the effect that withania has when it comes to reducing stress levels. Overwhelmingly, it shows that withania has a positive effect in reducing stress levels and even produces activity similar to GABA (Gamma Amino-Butyric Acid) in the brain. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that prevents nerve cells from over firing, therefore having a calming effect, which helps to induce sleep, uplift your mood and reduce anxiety. Research has shown that the effects produced by withania on the brain can even be compared to commonly used antianxiety and antidepressant drugs.

Stress also negatively affects our immune system, along with a number of other body systems. Research shows that withania can increase the levels of white blood cells, platelets and neutrophils, resulting in a stronger immune system.


Withania is well known as a very safe herb with no reported adverse reactions or interactions. As with anything though, if you are currently taking any prescribed medication, do check with your health professional before beginning to take withania.