WITHANIA
Common Names

Ashwagandha root , Ashwaganda, Ajagandha,
Indian ginseng, Winter cherry
Botanical Name
Withania somnifera
Family
SOLANACEAE Nightshade Family

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What is it?

In herbal medicine we use the roots of Withania, a small shrub that grows from 30-70cms tall in hot, dry places in the world, especially in India where it is one of the most widely used and revered of all traditional Ayurvedic herbs.


BERRY


DRIED ROOT


POWDER

How has it been used?

It is commonly said that Withania is the single most important herb in Ayurvedic medicine (the chief medicine of India), itself a system with written records that go back thousands of years and an oral history that goes back at least 5000 years.

Withania has had so many traditional uses that, like any true tonic, it is very hard to briefly summarise. I'm not a fan of long lists (for all but a few of us the eyes and brain soon blur) but it would be an injustice to this great herb not to give my many patients who receive this herb or those who are reading for their own interest at least something of a run-down. The following are the kinds of problems that Withania has been legitimately called on to help:

~ promoting learning and memory
~ inflammatory conditions such as rheumatism, bronchitis, asthma and psoriasis
~ Arthritis and painful joints in general
~ Improving stamina in athletes
~ Improving libido (sexual energy) in males and females
~ promoting growth in children
~ improving blood cell health including iron levels
~ helping in the treatment of high cholesterol or diabetes
~ helping convalescence after illness or prolonged stress
~ enhancing immune function and for low white blood cell counts
~ for helping with insomnia


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Science on Withania

Note that there are some further research snippets at the bottom of this page
High level clinical studies that have been randomized, double-blinded and placebo-controlled on Withania include:

~ 101 male patients aged 50-59 in a year-long trial where the recipients of the Withania showed significantly decreased cholesterol and blood stickiness, improved red blood cell count and hair melanin (the colouring pigment) content and improved sexual performance (Kuppurajan K, Rajagopalan SS, Sitaraman R et al. J Res Ayu Sid 1980;1:247-258)


~ a similar 60 day long study with children showed increased hand grip strength, improved blood health (corpuscular haemoglobin, serum iron and blood haemoglobin) and increased body weight compared to the placebo group which showed no changes (Venkataraghavan S, Seshadri C, Sunderesan TP et al. J Res Ayu Sid 1980;1:370-385)

~ A small study done with high blood cholesterol showed that Withania significantly reduced total cholesterol and triglycerides. The lipid profiles in the control group that was remained unchanged even though dietary analysis showed that the Withania group actually had higher calorie and fat intakes by comparison (Andallu B, Radhika B: Indian J Exp Biol 38:P607-609,2000)

~ in an uncontrolled clinical trial in the 1960s Withania in high doses (4 to 9 grams a day) was beneficial for patients with acute rheumatoid arthritis (Bector NP, Puri AS, Sharma D: Indian J Med Res 56:1581-1583,1969)

~ Trainee mountaineers took Withania daily for 29 days whilst ascending over 5000metres (17,000 feet) and reported improved sleep patterns, responsiveness, state of awareness and physical strength (Roy AS, Acharya SB, De AK et al. Int Sem Trad Med, Calcutta, Nov 7-9,1992, p.61)

Safety of Withania

Despite being used by millions of people for thousands of years there are no adverse reactions or effects reported or expected for this herb. Withania is extremely safe to use in high or frequent doses if necessary and may be taken by the young or old, whilst pregnant or during breastfeeding with confidence.

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Personal experiences

I rate Withania as highly as any beneficial substance I have ever worked with and if, by some horrible drought of supplies, I could only have one remedy to use it would have to be Withania because it has so much to offer the patients I see on a day to day basis.

Withania somnifera, like Ginseng, is a rather humble looking shrub but what goes on in those roots has a remarkably complex personality. Withania sings you a lullaby when you first start getting to know it. People sleep better, they feel less irritable and it takes more to get them upset. I notice that people look a little younger after a short while of taking Withania and I guess this is because they are frowning less and smiling more!

What happens after a while (usually about a week, maybe two) is then that Withania starts waking you up! This is where the increased sexual energy starts to come in and people feel like doing more in general. I hear people say things like they feel more motivated and have been getting more things done. This is the tonic effect and I find it quite fascinating that something that can first relax you then turns around and starts energising you.

The increased sleep and relaxation that Withania generates moves the healing process forward better than anything. Then the tonic effects kick in and as they start doing more exercise or just moving more in general they start accumulating savings in their 'energy bank' rather than getting further depleted. I think that this is why I find it so helpful in clinical practice where many of my patients have been ill for a long time.

Children do very well on Withania, they eat more and get noticeably stronger and more resilient if they keep it up for a good while. People in their 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond also do extremely well on Withania and so long as they just keep taking it week after week you see a consistent renewal of vitality and significantly improved health.

That said the majority of my patient population are working adults and I find that for many of them Withania can be the key ingredient to getting less stressed and having more energy. In fact I could no more imagine treating people's tiredness without Withania than I could treat immune problems without Echinacea!

If you who are reading this are studying herbal medicine or if you have your own good reasons for wanting to understand this great plant ally at a much deeper level then I warmly encourage you to take a good dose of Withania tea or tincture and then, with a quite and attentive mind, observe for yourself how it makes you feel. This ancient method of 'experiential' learning can help you to get a personal grasp of the 'action' of the herb in a way that academic study can only point towards. Speaking for myself but also having done this experiment with many students and colleagues, I can say that the energy of this humble looking but potent herb can usually be felt right down at the very core - in one's bone-marrow you might say; it truly is quite a remarkable tonic, but I think you will have to try this for yourself to see what I mean...

I don't think there is one right dose of Withania that is right for everyone but I do think that this this is a herb that can be used in large amounts to get a rapid effect on anxiety, insomnia or fatigue and I recommend the traditional method described below to get a big dose quickly when needed.

I use a great deal of the Withania extract that we make in our clinic from raw, organic herb. Doses of this range anywhere from about 2 to 8mls in a day. For longer term use I give a lot of capsules of 2 parts Withania and 1 part Panax Ginseng. We supply the raw herb (so I know it is the right stuff) and we get the encapsulating done by a local company and people usually take around 4 of these capsules a day, The thing with Withania is that you need enough of it for the steroidal saponins and other beneficial constituents in it to work, but once it is having an effect you won't necessarily get more benefit by taking larger amounts. The way to get the most from it is to simply use it patiently and then for as long as you need its support it will not let you down.

Withania combines perfectly with Panax Ginseng and Licorice root for fatigue or exhaustion, with Echinacea for a depressed immune system and with Hawthorn for a lack of physical vitality and heart strength.

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Constitutional note

Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Withania is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with plant B. There is value in this approach in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another but where it falls short is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Withania might work brilliantly for one person but less well for another with the same kind of symptom picture -- why is this?

The reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are more hot or cool and at the same time more dry or damp; more info about this here.

There is an old wisdom in treating the person first and the condition second and in this light Withania can particularly offer its benefits when a nourishing action is needed in the 'cycle of healing' - something that is discussed here and shown in a chart here.

Withania in milk (traditional Ayurvedic recipe)

Take 1 heaped dessertspoon of cut Withania root and place in a small saucepan with about 1 ½ cups of milk (or a combination of milk and water). Add at least one tsp or more of raw sugar (or honey) to taste and also add a small sprinkle of black pepper,. You might like to try adding a small amount of Cinnamon powder as well.

Bring this mixture to just about boiling and then keep stirring on a gentle simmer for several minutes or until nearly half a cup has been absorbed into the root or evaporated.

Take off the heat, strain into a cup, and drink.

Most people find the taste of this old traditional Withania drink more than acceptable and many say they actually find it quite delicious, especially after they have had it a few times.

You can see people visibly relaxing and smiling more by the time they finish drinking this, it is ' feel-good' medicine.

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Further Science notes on Withania

One of the marvellous things about herbal medicine is that you cannot patent them as drugs because all the plants of the earth belong to the earth; that means they are here for all of us! The drawback to this is that there is no incentive for a drug company to put money into researching herbs because they will never be able to make any money out of getting exclusive rights to them
!

Clinical studies on Withania are very encouraging but they are few in number because of a lack of funding however there are resourcesin some Government departments and Universities around the world to explore the traditional medicines of their countries and from these sources we have some further intriguing insights which, for the science-minded amongst you, I have included some highlights below:

~Withania extracts were shown to be better at decreasing baseline biomarkers of inflammation than were standard anti-inflammatory drugs at relative doses (Anbalagan K, Sadique J. Int J Crude Drug Res 1986;24(2):90-100)

~Withania given orally demonstrated increased endurance, anti-stress properties and enhanced growth and development in experimental models (Grandhi A, Mujumdar AM, Patwardhan B. J Ethnopharmacol 1994;44(3):131-135)

~ Withania extracts significantly increased total white blood cell levels and neutrophil counts when given orally (Thatte UM, Chhabria SN, Karandikar SM et al. J Postgrad Med 1987;33(4):185-188)

~ Withania enhanced learning in both young and old rodents when given orally (Ghosal S, Lah J, Srivastava R et al. Phytother Res 1989;3(5):201-206)

~ Withania has immune modulating activity and has been shown to increase mobilisation, activation and phagocytosis (engulfing of foreign particles or bacteria) by white blood cells called macrophages (Ziauddin M, Phansalkar N, Patki P et al. J Ethrnopharmacol 1996;50(2):69-76)

~ Withania suppressed the development of tolerance to morphine and also reduced morphine withdrawal jumps (Kulkarni SK, George B. Phytother Res 1996:10(5):447-449)

Please understand that I cannot personally advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in my clinic but ideas on how you might find a good herbalist in your area are here.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!

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© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd