Ashwagandha acts as a both perennial and annual. Like many annuals it loves full sun, summer warmth and doesn’t tolerate cold. In tropical climates like it’s native India, it will come back year after year. It grows easily in colder climates as well, but only as an annual. It is native to the dry, Northwestern areas of India. It doesn’t require special soil and doesn’t like a lot of water. Ashwagandha grows 3-5 feet high as a shrub. It’s an unassuming plant; nothing particularly special about its yellow flowers and small orange-red berries. Consistent with nightshade plant family characteristics, ashwagandha’s leaves have toxic components, but not the roots, which are the part used in herbal medicines. The time to harvest roots is in the autumn right after berries drop. I have not grown this yet myself, but would love to try.
Although native to India, Ashwagandha grow in any summer climate. Harvesting your own herbal ingredients has benefits, true, but also requires time, energy, and sometimes determination. Roots feel particularly complex because after the digging and washing, their sturdiness adds a challenge to get them to useable form. Working through these steps is gratifying and offers the chance to know a plant better, the smell, the feel, the color. Purchasing herbs bypasses this opportunity and adds cost, but also seems to facilitate ease of use. Ashwagandha root is sold dried either in small pieces or powdered. Rosemary’s Garden sells both in one-ounce packages, convenient for one-time use. Buying smaller packages helps assure freshness and decreases need for storage space. Mountain Rose Herbs also sells cut up dried roots and powder in one-four-eight ounce and one-pound packages. Additionally, capsules and liquid extract are available. If growing entices you, Mountain Rose and Strictly Medicinal sell seeds. Strictly Medicinal Seeds also sell potted plants as well as 1 pound packages of powdered root. My favorite supplier of tinctures is Herbalist & Alchemist, who offers ashwagandha tincture in 2-4-or 8-ounce bottles. Because Ashwagandha arises from Ayurveda, a supplier devoted to this modality offers expanded product diversity. Banyan Botanicals offers an array of products including powder, extract, tablets, massage oils, and even Chyavanprash, which is a wonderful herbal combination for vitality that includes ashwagandha root as an ingredient.
Much can be learned about a plant’s character from its name. Ashwagandha’s species name, somnifera translates to sleep, and enhance sleep it does. Energetically ashwagandha is warm and dry. I feel an immediate calming and warming pass through my body even after a few drops of tincture mixed with water and I don’t think it my imagination. Calling ashwagandha “Indian ginseng”, though does not accurately describe it. The replenishing and balancing qualities are similar but ashwagandha is its own class of adaptogen, not a ginseng. Without getting too technical, the major biochemical components of ashwagandha called withanolides, another name link, act as precursors to hormones. This is an important aspect of its regulatory abilities. These and other alkaloid compounds provide calming, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, and anti-spasmodic effects in our bodies. There are some cautions to consider with this herb. Ashwagandha stimulates thyroid function so in hyperthyroid conditions should be avoided. Additionally, for those on medications for hypothyroid, such as Synthroid or Levoxyl, caution and only small amounts should be used. Because of its iron richness, excess iron such as in hemochromatosis would also contraindicate its use. Ashwagandha is in the nightshade family along with tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and paprika, so may not be tolerated in those with sensitivity to this group. It may increase effect of barbiturate medications so should be avoided with them.
For all of its virtues, ashwagandha can’t boast palate appeal. Its taste is bitter and earthy with a bit of pungency and astringency. Despite this disagreeable description, the flavor isn’t strong so can be easily mixed with other more pleasant tasting herbs.
The word ashwagandha translates from Sanskrit to English as ‘smells like horse sweat’. Dried, it smells more of the earth. Perhaps, a more appealing way to interpret this is by associating the virtues of a horse with ashwagandha’s gifts of vitality and strength.
Although rooted in truth, a mystical suggestion of longevity and endurance surrounds ashwagandha. Elixir of life, yes, but it’s also known for its aphrodisiac and sexual potency capabilities. It’s often an ingredient in love potions. A star of Ayurvedic traditional medicine, documentation of ashwaganda’s use dates back 3000 years to the original sacred texts authored by famous healers and sages These site ashwagandha as a tonic for all ages, especially children and fertility problems. All negative consequences of aging are touched on by ashwagandha.
Culinary and Cooking
Ancient Ayruvedic remedies emphasize culinary herbal preparations. Ashwagandha root, a rich source of iron, is used for anemia, especially in children and women. It can be boiled in milk with molasses, mixed with yogurt, or sipped unstrained in teas. Mixing it in chai blends with herbs such as ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg can deliciously lighten the slightly bitter taste. Churma is the powdered root mixed with ghee and honey. Indian cooking uses this as a spice added to soups, stews, or vegetable curries. Churma can also be rolled into small snack sized balls that are easy to eat. Ashwagandha root is an ingredient in another traditional and ancient Ayurvedic kitchen remedy called chyavanprash. This is herbal jam like mixture, which can be used on toast or crackers or mixed into warm milk or water. Ashwagandha Ghirta, an Ayruvedic aphrodisiac formula, begins with ashwagandha, milk and ghee. The mixture gets boiled down until the milk has evaporated and only ghee remains, which can be taken by the spoonful twice daily to restore libido. The possibilities seem endless for working ashwagandha milk into both savory and sweet recipes.
Beneficial Qualities and Traditional Uses
The symptom setup for this herb is nervousness and fatigue. In our culture of sleep deprivation, chronic fatigue, burnout, and automimmune diseases, the call for ashwagandha seems stronger than ever. Ashwagandha mesmerizes me with its ancient history and classification as an adaptogen. Described in the earliest Ayurvedic texts as a rasayana, it was known by healing sages to create a foundation in the body of wellness and vitality. As an adaptogen, it supports the body to adapt to and resist the effects of stress. Often adaptogens stimulate and ashwagandha is used for conditions that need that: fatigue, poor memory, decreased sexual energy, and thyroid function. But the side effects of overstimulation are lost as it also soothes anxiety, calms nerves, promotes sleep, and relaxes muscle tension. The amazing ability of an adaptogen to satisfy two needs at once is particularly strong for uniquely calming ashwagandha. It energizes and calms at the same time, promotes rest and supports rejuvenation. Ashwagandha’s indications extend to strengthening immunity, cancer prevention, blood sugar regulation, increasing fertility especially for men, treating anxiety, and as an antioxidant to repair nerve and tissue damage from oxidative stress. It can relieve pain associated with arthritis and fibromyalgia with its ant-inflammatory and antispasmodic capabilities. Finally, it is a rich source of iron, a mineral hard to get and often deficient in anemia.
Ashwagandha tea is prepared with the powdered root. Combine ½ teaspoon with 8 ounces of water in a small saucepan and bring to gentle simmer. Simmer for 10 minutes with lid ajar, then remove from heat, cover tightly and allow to steep for 30 minutes. Strain.
In small saucepan, combine 8 ounces whole, organic milk with ½ teaspoon ashwagandha root powder. Add spices such as cinnamon, ginger, saffron, cardamom, or a pinch of nutmeg or clove as desired. Bring to gentle boil. Turn off heat, cover and steep for 20-30 minutes. Strain, drink gently warmed or at room temperature.
Roots cut to small pieces then dried will easily powder in a spice or coffee grinder. Place 1-2 tablespoons dried root pieces in grinder and pulse for 20-30 seconds. Leave covered for 2 minutes to allow powder to settle.
The traditional formula for ashwagandha extract is one part ashwagandha to 5 parts alcohol diluted to 45-50% with water. Label and store in cool, dark place for 6-8 weeks, then strain.