Some words can be given contextual personality by simply adding, for instance, an exclamation point. Ashwagandha is just such a word. Already exotic at first glance, add an exclamation point and you have what looks like the title of a foreign film about freedom fighters in an unnamed revolution somewhere. Like this:
See? The word is a natural for your local art-house movie marquee. Ashwagandha, (scientific name Withania somnifera—which no exclamation point can bolster…) is in fact the name of a demure little plant, and one of the most powerful herbs in the ancient Ayurvedic medicinal traditions of India. Ashwagandha has been in use as a healing agent for a large part of recorded human history, earliest mentions appearing in sacred Ayurvedic texts called the Sushruta Samhitas which date back to about the 6th century BCE. Used in ancient times for a broad array of conditions, ashwagandha is perhaps most familiarly known to traditional medicine practitioners as a restorative, with potent rejuvenating benefits. In Sanskrit, Ashwagandha means “the scent of a horse”, and the root of the plant does indeed give off a distinctly equine bouquet, which the ancients found quite in keeping with its ability to convey strength and power. A popular Ayurvedic herb today, ashwagandha is prescribed in traditional medicine circles, for stress, fatigue, rheumatoid arthritis, gastrointestinal troubles, diabetes, and even epilepsy. Ashwagandha’s use as an energy-increasing tonic continues unabated to this day. The stuff is even used topically (on the skin, that is) as an analgesic; a mild pain killer, like aspirin.
Ashwagandha. Where to start? This syllable-laden shrub is an "adaptogen"; a naturally found substance that helps the body establish and maintain that physiological equilibrium known to biologists as “homeostasis”. Studies have shown that ashwagandha has neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory properties, making it both anti-arthritic and a helpmate to cognition. Ashwagandha’s anti-oxidant properties may explain to the modern researcher why this herb has garnered such a reputation through the millennia for providing both a sense of “energy” and a reputation for providing longevity. Oxidative stress has to do with cellular wear-and-tear, as free radicals in search of electrons extract them from defenseless, healthy cells. It’s been suggested the aging process itself is at least abetted by oxidative stress. Ashwagandha’s ability to do battle with free radicals bodes well for cellular health generally, and cellular health is….health. As for aches and pains, the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine has reported that ashwagandha does admirable work mitigating the pain of arthritis. How? Withanolide is a naturally occurring steroid, and ashwagandha is naturally chock full of the stuff, wielding the metabolite’s anti-inflammation program with joint-relieving panache. And clinical studies suggest the mechanism by which ashwagandha’s cancer-battling qualities are enacted. Research by The Sloan Kettering Cancer Center indicates ashwagandha’s tumor-slowing effects may have to do with a sapping of the cancer cell's internal energy store, actually disabling or slowing the cancer cell’s reproductive capacity. And cancer cells only exist to reproduce in finally unsustainable numbers.
So…while traditionally, ashwagandha has been prescribed as a nerve tonic and adaptogen—an agent which helps the body adapt to various emotional and physical stressors—its ardent fan base has sent it into battle to secure all fronts that lead to “vivid health”. Ashwagandha is something of a mercenary—it will go where directed and address the issue, from parasites to lovemaking, and from goiter to constipation. Yes, “lovemaking” can comfortably inhabit the same sentence as “constipation”. Such is the mechanistic Wonder of it All. Laugh, live, love. And make full use of nature’s fairly insane bounty. It’s not for nothing ashwagandha has long been a staple in traditional cultures.
We all aspire to the radiant simplicities of health. On reaching that physiological plateau we are unfettered and may move on to the grander themes that make our time on Earth worthy and energizing. Ashwagandha helps us take care of step one, that we may all glowingly partake of step two. Hey, we emerged from nature. Making use of her leafy meds to truly live is taking a page from our own book—and what a story we’ve yet to tell.