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Ayurvedic Herbs A-Z

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Ayurvedic Medicine


Ashwagandha - "Indian Ginseng" (Withania somnifera)

Ashwagandha (or “Indian Ginseng” as it is sometimes called) is one of the most widely studied Indian herbs. Ashwagandha has many significant benefits, but is best known for its powerful adaptogenic properties, meaning that it helps mind and body adapt better to stress. It nourishes the nerves and improves nerve function to help you maintain calm during stressful situations.

It is also good for people who do physical labor or exercise a lot, to help the body adapt to physical stress.

It is a powerful Rasayana, meaning that it acts as an overall tonic for greater vitality and longevity.

It nourishes all the bodily tissues (Dhatus), including the joints and nerves.


Latin Name

English Name

Sanskrit Names

Hindi Name

Withania somnifera
Dunal (Solanaceae)

Winter Cherry

Ashvagandha, Hayahvaya, Vajigandha




History   |   Habitat   |   Morphology Description (Habit)   |   Principal Constituents

 Indications   |   Product Range   |   ;Reference



In Ayurveda, Asvagandha, which means "smelling like a horse or mare" in Sanskrit, was used as an aphrodisiac and geriatric tonic and treatment of rheumatism, cough, consumption, etc. The Greek physician Theophrastus, described this plant, which was recorded in the Arabic 'Kaknaj-el-manoum'. Rheede called it 'peVetti' and stated that a vulnerary ointment was prepared from the leaves. In the late 1880s, Dr. Trebut investigated its reputation for hypnotic properties. P.L. Simmonds1 stated that the plant was used at the Civil Hospital, Alger, as a sedative and hypnotic.


It is tomentose under-shrub. The taproot is well developed, stout and fleshy. The leaves are ovate, sub-acute and pubescent. Flowers are greenish or lirud yellow. Corolla is divided rather more than ˝ way down. Berry is red enclosed in the inflated calyx. The seed are reniform and yellow.

Morphology Description (Habit)

W.somnifera is an erect, evergreen, tomentose shrub. The roots are stout, fleshy and whitish brown; the leaves are simple ovate, glabrous; the flowers are inconspicuous, greenish or lurid-yellow, in axillary, umbellate cymes; the berries are globose, orange-red when mature, enclosed in the persistent calyx and have yellow, reniform seeds.

Principal Constituents

Biochemically heterogeneous alkaloids including cuscohygrine, anahygrine, tropine, pseudotropine, anaferine. The plant has steroidal lactones - withanolides, withaferin, which are estrogenic compounds. Long considered a premier adaptogenic herb, Ashwagandha has clearly demonstrated anti-stress properties, including resistance to gastric ulcers caused by aspirin and improved endurance as measured by swimming times and other endurance tests. The chief active ingredients are glycowithanolides, which are potent immunomodulators. Researchers in India and Germany have shown Ashwagandha to be superior to Panax ginseng in double-blind trials controlled with placebos. Ashwagandha has been traditionally used as an aphrodisiac and treatment of impotence.

In a separate study, the effect of Withania somnifera on the cellular immune responses (CMI) was demonstrated in normal as well as tumour bearing animals. Administration of Withania extract was found to enhance the proliferation of lymphocytes, bone marrow cells and thymocytes in responses to mitogens. Both PHA and Con A mitogens along with Withania treated splenocytes, bone marrow cells and thymocytes could stimulate proliferation twice greater than the normal. Withania treated splenocytes along with the mitogen LPS (10 microg/ml) could stimulate the lymphocyte proliferation six times more than the normal. Natural killer cell activity (NK) was found to be enhanced significantly in both the normal and the tumour bearing group and it was found to be earlier than the control (48.92% cell lysis). Antibody dependent cellular cytotoxicity (ADCC) was found to be enhanced in the Withania treated group on the 9th day (65% cell lysis). An early Antibody dependent complement mediated cytotoxicity (ACC) was observed in the Withania treated group on day 13 (47% cell lysis).

Ilayperuma I, Ratnasooriya WD, Weerasooriya TR. at the Department of Anatomy, Faculty of Medicine, University of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka demonstrated the effect of Withania somnifera extract on the sexual behavior of male adult rats.

Ayurvedic Energetics
Rasa (taste): Bitter, Astringent, Sweet
Virya (action): Heating
Vipaka (post-digestive effect): Sweet
Guna (quality): Light, Unctuous
Dosha effect: Vata-, Kapha-
Dhatu (tissue): Blood, Muscle, Fat, Bone, Nerve, Reproductive
Srota (channel): Reproductive, Nervous, Respiratory

Ayurvedic Action
Vrishya- increases sexual potency, Balya- increases strength, Shukrala- increases sperm production, Shothahara- prevents consumption and wasting diseases, Rasayana- rejuvenative, Vata kaphahara- reduces kapha and vata, Swasa- benefits breathing (Charaka, Sushruta, Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita, Bhavaprakasha


Ashwaganda is used in asthma and as a uterine sedative. The total alkaloids showed relaxant and antispasmodic effects against several spasmogens on intestinal, uterine, bronchial, tracheal and blood-vascular muscles.

Caution in excess pitta. Caution in pregnancy- although traditionally used in India during pregnancy its spasmolytic activity on the uterus has led western phytotherapy to restrict its use in pregnancy.

Product Range



  1. Singh B, Chandan BK, Gupta DK; Phytother Res. 2003 May;17(5):531-6.
  2. Bhattacharya SK, Muruganandam AV. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2003 Jun;75(3):547-55
  3. Davis L, Kuttan G., J Exp Clin Cancer Res. 2002 Dec;21(4):585-90.
  4. Ilayperuma I, Ratnasooriya WD, Weerasooriya TR. Asian J Androl. 2002 Dec;4(4):295-8
  5. Sai Ram M, Neetu D, Deepti P,Vandana M, Ilavazhagan G, Kumar D, Selvamurthy W; Phytother Res. 2003 Apr;17(4):430-3.
  6. Bhattacharya A, Ghosal S, Bhattacharya SK; Indian J Exp Biol. 2000 Sep;38(9):877-80.
  7. Sai Ram M, Neetu D, Yogesh B, Anju B, Dipti P, Pauline T, Sharma SK, Sarada SK, Ilavazhagan G, Kumar D, Selvamurthy W; J Ethnopharmacol. 2002 Jun;81(1):5-10
  8. Jose JK, Kuttan G, Kuttan R.; J Ethnopharmacol. 2001 May;75(2-3):65-9.
  9. Bhattacharya A, Chatterjee A, Ghosal S, Bhattacharya SK.; Indian J Exp Biol. 1999 Jul;37(7):676-80
  10. Gaitonde, N. S. et al: Ind. J. Pharm.,12: 290 (1950).
  11. Gaitonde, B. B. and M. H. Jethmalani: Arch. Int. Pharmacodyn., 179: 121, (1969).
  12. Gaitonde, B. B. and M. H. Jethmalani: Ind. J. Pharm., 31: 175, (1969
  13. Rezar V, Pajk T, Marinsek Logar R, Jese Janezic V, Salobir K, Oresnik A, Salobir J.; Ann Nutr Metab. 2003;47(2):78-84.
  14. Gauthaman K, Adaikan PG, Prasad RN. Life Sci. 2002 Aug 9;71(12):1385-96.
  15. Brown GA, Vukovich MD, Martini ER, Kohut ML, Franke WD, Jackson DA, King DS; Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 2001 Sep;71(5):293-301.
  16. Brown GA, Vukovich MD, Reifenrath TA, Uhl NL, Parsons KA, Sharp RL, King DS; Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2000 Sep;10(3):340-59.
  17. Amer. J. Pharm. Feb. 1891.

Parts Used:

Root and leaves. Each part has a different therapeutic value and must be prepared in its own way for maximum benefits. This shrub is common in Mumbai (Bombay) and Western India and occasionally found in Bengal.

Traditional Ayurvedic Uses:

Ashwaganda has many significant benefits, but is best known for its powerful adaptogenic properties, meaning that it helps mind and body adapt better to stress. It nourishes the nerves and improves nerve function to help you maintain calm during stressful situations.

It is also good for people who do physical labor or exercise a lot, to help the body adapt to physical stress.

It is a powerful Rasayana, meaning that it acts as an overall tonic for greater vitality and longevity.

It nourishes all the bodily tissues (Dhatus), including the joints and nerves.

It is also a powerful Medhya Rasayana, which means that it enhances all three aspects of mind power (Dhi -- comprehension; Dhriti -- memory; and Smriti -- recollection).

Ashwagandha nourishes the crucial mind-body connection and psychoneuro immune response (called PNI). It helps coordinate the mind and senses, as well, which is essential for good quality sleep.

It balances the mind (Prana Vata). This is essential for happiness in the face of mental or emotional stress.

It increases the quality and quantity of Ojas, the master coordinator between the body and consciousness. It helps pure consciousness slide into the physiology.

It has a Sothara effect -- which means it helps clear impurities (Ama) from the various channels of the body.

Ashwagandha enhances virility and has aphrodisiac properties, especially for men.

It is also well known for its powerful immune enhancing benefits.

It is considered among the best of all substances for balancing Vata. It also pacifies Kapha at the same time, which is a rare combination.

As with almost all single all herbs, there is one small caution. Ashwagandha should always be used with other herbs such as licorice to balance out possible heating effects (especially for the heart).

TISSUES: Debility, low body weight, emaciation, deficient haemoglobin, anaemia- post-convalescence, athletes, pregnancy. Specific for any imbalance in the muscles both reducing inflammation and strengthening muscle tone. It is a specific rasayana for mamsadhatu- it is an anabolic muscle builder.2 As it benefits all muscle tissue it is used as a heart tonic, uterine tonic, lung tonic as well as for increasing muscle weight and tone in convalescents, slow developing children and the elderly.

IMMUNITY: Auto-immune conditions, neutropenia, rheumatoid/osteo arthritis, cancer, chronic connective tissue disorders. As a pain killer and anti-inflammatory it is commonly used in swollen or painful arthritic conditions. It can strengthen a weakened immune system and protect it from becoming depleted due to immunosuppressive drugs or lifestyle. Improves white blood cell counts. It appears to have both immunosuppressive and immunotonic abilities- a 'true' adaptogen!3

LUNGS: Asthma, cough and allergic conditions from imbalanced immunity. Useful in hay fever, allergic rhinitis from aggravated vata.

NERVES: Nerosis, insomnia, anxiety, 'hyper' symptoms, ADHD. Very useful in all conditions caused by 'stress'. Beneficial in Multiple sclerosis.4

REPRODUCTIVE: Asthenospermia-increases sperm motility, oligospermia- increases sperm count, improves sexual performance, impotence.5

GYNAECOLOGY: Excellent tonic to the uterine muscles. Used in menstrual imbalance caused by a deficient condition with an aggravation of vata.

+ Pippali for enhancing tonic effect- useful in asthma
+ Bala and Shatavari in reproductive disorders
+ Brahmi, Mandukparni, Vacha in nerve disorders
+ Guggul, Frankincense and Turmeric in arthritic and congestive disorders.

Combinations are Best

The ayurvedic physicians of Ayurveda do not recommend the use of single herbs for self-care due to several important reasons (see the index page of the ayurvedic herb section for details).

One of the specialties of ayurveda is the science of herb combining that has been perfected over thousands of years of clinical practice. From this ayurvedic perspective, the study of herbs from scientific research which is based on single ingredient formulas is not very practical. This is because an herb can give a number of different effects depending on the other herbs it is combined with as well as a number of other factors such as dosage, how the herb was processed, etc. If one focuses just on the results of a study based on one ingredient, while it may be interesting, it does not give the full insight into the complete range of effects available from that particular herb.

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera):

Ashwagandha is a small woody shrub or herb of the Solanaceae family. It grows usually to about 2 feet in height and is naturally found in diverse areas ranging from Africa, the Mediterranean and East into India. Because of its wide range, there is considerable morphological and chemo typical variations in terms of local species. Known in English as winter cherry, Ashwagandha is the most highly regarded herb of the Ayurvedic medical system. Ayurveda regards Ashwagandha, as Traditional Chinese Medicine regards ginseng.

An adaptogenic herb of which Ashwagandha would be a first rate example, the herb allows one to adapt to a variety of heightened stressful circumstances. This will result in heightened stamina and endurance for athletic competition, the workplace and conditions of inclement environment and weather conditions.

The combined alkaloids seem to exhibit calming, anti-convulsant and antispasmodic properties against many spasmogenic agents on the intestinal, uterine, bronchial, tracheal and blood-vascular muscles. It is described as similar but considerably weaker that papaverine and phenobarbitone. Other constituents, namely the sitoindosides enhance pathogenic devouring phagocytes.

Regarded as a 1st class adaptogenic tonic in one of the world's greatest herbal medical systems, Ashwagandha is an herb which can compare favorably to the world’s most renowned herbal tonics such as ginseng (Panax ginseng), astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), dang gui (Angelica sinensis), reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) and South American suma (Pfaffia paniculata) and like these has been held in high regard by generations of people over the course of millennia for its ability to increase vitality, energy, endurance and stamina , promote longevity and strengthen the immune system without stimulating the body’s reserves.


The use of Ashwagandha in Ayurvedic medicine extends back over 3000 to 4000 years to the teachings of an esteemed rishi (sage) Punarvasu Atriya. It has been described in the sacred texts of Ayurveda, including the Charaka and Sushruta Samhitas where it is widely extolled as a tonic especially for emaciation in people of all ages including babies.

Description and Pharmacology

The distinctive earthy odor and flavor of Ashwagandha is due to the presence of certain steroidal lactones or Withanolides . It is from this characteristic odor that Ashwagandha derives its name - "like a horse", a Sanskrit name. It is particularly prized & known for its appealing flavor, The post digestive flavor of Ashwagandha is not so much sensorially identified but because it exhibits tonic nutritive properties. The seeds of the fruits are diuretic and can be used as a substitute for rennet to curdle milk.

The major biochemical constituents of Ashwagandha from which its primary medicinal properties emanate, are based upon the actions of certain steroidal alkaloids and steroidal lactones in a class of constituents called withanolides. These serve as important hormone precursors that the body is then able, as needed, to convert into human physiological hormones. If there is an excess of a certain hormone, the plant based hormone precursors occupy the so-called hormone receptor sites, without converting to human hormones, to block absorption. Hence, Ashwagandha - like other adaptogenic tonic herbs, is amphoteric and can serve to regulate important physiological processes, increasing or decreasing as needed.

Ashwagandha has many attractive features, it is cheap, has ginseng-like properties, regenerates the nervous system and yet imparts strength, vitality, enhances libido. It has powerful anti-inflammatory properties relieving / treating arthritic and rheumatic conditions bedsides having proved itself invaluable in a host of other ailments.

Anti-tumor properties have been found based on the use of the crude extract on mice both in living specimens as well as against cancer cells in the petri dish.


  1. Tillotson

  2. Bhavaprakasha. Paranjape


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