Jul 222008

Botanical Name: Withania somnifera
Common Names: Ashwagandha, Winter Cherry, Indian Ginseng
Energetics: warming
Taste: Sweet, bitter, pungent
Actions: Adaptogen, alterative, cardioprotective, immunomodulator, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic

This post contains some of my ramblings and ponderings about this very special plant. This isn’t an all-encompassing portrait of the herb but rather notes from my own experience plus research and the wise words of other herbalists. Being such a complex plant, I expect my opinions and experiences to grow and possibly change in the coming years. I hope that my explorations expand your own horizons and inspire you to cultivate and work with this beautiful being.

While I am rarely enamored of plants that come from further away than the catron county line, I have become steadily more infatuation and interested in the Winter Cherry, better known as Ashwagandha. A common plants in parts of India, I have discovered that it also thrives right here in New Mexico.

My many Ashwagandha babies are doing remarkably well. Actually they might be doing better than anything else in my little weed patch, with only the bountiful Sages anywhere near as fecund and vital. This nightshade family member thrives in our somewhat sandy soil and soaring temperatures. It’s very drought resistant but certainly appreciates a good daily drink. I started with six small plants purchased from Richter’s and then planted a few packets of seeds as well. I do believe that every ~single~ seed sprouted and is now growing like manic tomatoes towards the sun. I have to tell you, I’m impressed with their vitality and drive. They’re beautiful too, with their smooth green leaves and delicate, golden flowers. So far the only problem has been the slugs, which I’ve never had before but the plants are still growing in spite of them.

Ashwagandha has been quite the darling of alt. medicine headlines these last few years and is widely touted as the “Indian Ginseng” and as a primary adaptogen. Whatever the hype, I find Ashwagandha to be quite remarkable on many levels. One, it will actually grow here, and that’s a miracle in itself. Two, the roots can be used for medicine after a single season. Three, it’s one of the only calming adaptogens appropriate for individuals with anxiety. In fact, many people successfully take it to combat insomnia stemming from tension coupled with exhaustion .

In reality, this really is an intensely multi-faceted and useful herb, so much so that it has been called a near panacea by a number of practicing herbalists. While it certainly has constitutional subtleties it’s true that it can be used in a wide variety of situation with all kinds of people, and specifically wherever there is deficiency with nervousness. For a sampling, check out Michael Tierra’s overview of its uses:

Ashwagandha is specific for a wide range of conditions including arthritic inflammation, anxiety, insomnia, for respiratory disorders including emphysema, asthma bronchitis and coughs, for insomnia, nervous disorders, gynecological disorders, especially functional female infertility, male infertility and impotence. Ashwagandha can be used for a wide variety of conditions ranging from wasting diseases such as TB and AIDS to all chronic upper respiratory diseases; being rejuvenative, it can be used for degenerative symptoms attendant to aging or mal-development and growth; for neurological diseases including general anxiety, nervousness, depression and insomnia; weak digestive fire; fluid retention caused by lowered body metabolism and last but certainly not least, for low sexual libido.

Of course, its effects (as with all remedies) will be most profound when it is particularly suited to an individual. Great Lakes herbalist jim mcdonald has some excellent and insights on its specific indications that are worth taking to heart:

ashwangandha is exceptional for when your adrenal burnout isn’t something that’s happening, but has happened (maybe awhile ago). You’re exhausted, but you can’t sleep, and when you do you don’t sleep deeply; maybe you’re troubled by dreams. You can’t think quite straight, your concentration is shot. You might find yourself more and more irritable. Perhaps your libido has also crashed, or is in other ways unreliable (interested, but can’t focus)

But you’re still doing doing doing, because that’s what you do. And you’ll run yourself ragged before you let burnout stop you.

well, its still very useful before you get that bad, and it’d be a great idea to make use of it earlier rather than later. It really works well in instances that Milky Oats and Nettle work well in, but it’ll help more with sleep and is perhaps more sustaining if what’s stressing you out isn’t going away any time soon.

That’s right on with my experience. jim’s picture essentially describes me on my down days, when I’ve fallen back in the burnout hole. For me, Ashwagandha feels deeply supportive and nourishing to my depleted hormonal processes. It and Monkeyflower are about the only things that help me sleep through the night without me waking up worrying about something I’m too tired to deal with. It seems to increase the quality of energy available for immediate use, switching the body over from a buzzy, strung out feeling to a deeper, more steady stream of energy. I think this is especially vital for those of us who have been stimulant addicts of any kind and are used to (and even enjoy) that jittery speed gained from artificial stimulation. Withania helps to re-aquaint the body with a less-draining, and far more grounded type of energy. It pairs very nicely with Milky Oats for this type of case and if something more cooling is needed to offset Ashwagandha’s warming energy, then use Rose or Peach. For those who are so burnt out as to have no energy left at all, try with Nettle seeds, they work very well together. My favorite personal formula for adrenal exhaustion at the moment (subject to change) is: 2 parts Ashwagandha, 2 parts Nettle, 1 part Peach, and 1/2 part each Lemon Balm and Rose. This is very cooling and calming, and could be made a bit more stimulating and warming with the omission of the Peach and the addition of Rosemary in its stead and a 1/2 part fresh Ginger. If there is also low blood pressure then a part of Licorice root might be nice. It all depends on what’s going on with the individual of course, and the formula must be created to suit that rather than some rote bit of book text.

Besides its incredible usefulness in adrenal exhaustion, I have found it very helpful in the treatment of Lupus. This is especially true when it is combined with Nettle and Elderberry to supplement the kidneys and as an immune system modulator. David Winston also discusses this in his exploration of Withania in his Harmony Remedies:

This herb is one of the Rasayana (rejuvenative) herbs of Ayurveda. It is one of the few calming adaptogens and has traditionally been used for anxiety, bad dreams, mild OCD, insomnia, and nervous exhaustion. It acts as an antispasmodic & antiinflammatory and is very useful for fibromyalgia (with Kava and Scullcap), restless leg syndrome, mild Tourette’s syndrome, and osteo-arthritis. It is an immune amphoteric useful for hyper- and hypo-immune conditions. I find it especially useful for autoimmune conditions affecting the muscles and joints such as rheumatoid arthritis, Ankylosing Spondylitis, polymyositis, and polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR). It enhances male fertility (sperm count and sperm motility) and, due to its iron content, it benefits iron-deficient anemia. Ashwagandha also stimulates thyroid function. Studies in mice showed significant increases of serum T3(18%) andT4(111%) after 20 days of use.

I have utilized it in many chronic illnesses, including hepatitis C, lupus and cancer. In addition to its amphoteric effect on the immune system, it is also hepatoprotective and has a beneficial effect upon the metabolic system. It should be considered wherever there is nervousness and exhaustion in any chronic disease. It has the capacity to greatly increase vitality, sense of well-being while reducing anxiety and fatigue.

Withania has a long reputation as an aphrodisiac, usually in men. Generally, I take such a label to mean the plant is an overall restorative to the body (especially the endocrine system) which Ashwagandha surely is. However, it also seems to be much more directly stimulating to the libido, sending a lot of energy to pelvic area and perking up even the saddest libido, in men and women alike. This isn’t a universal effect, but seems more frequent in people with wiped out adrenals, chronic fatigue and the resulting “too tired to be turned on” syndrome. It can also cause very interesting dreams of the erotic nature. I’ve seen that about a half a dozen times now, especially in women (but that might be because I work with a higher proportion of women than men). It is popularly dubbed “a man’s herb” which is about as silly as calling Black Cohosh “a woman’s herb”, both are tremendously helpful for both genders. Appropriate use depends much more on constitution and current situation than gender.

I used to hate the taste, abhorred it really. These days I find myself craving it and have actually made a wonderfully tasty Ashwagandha ghee that I use as a condiment. It’s traditional in Ayurveda to add the powdered root to milk and ghee. It also makes a nice honey paste, especially with Rose. The powder is a great addition to many smoothies when blended with Cardamom and dates (this seems to be a universal thing, I’ve had six different herbalists tell me how much they like this combo). And you’ll get more of its wonderful nutritional value if you take the powder as well. I find the decoction is unpleasant, and generally stick with food-like preparations or the tincture, which works quite nicely. While most people figure the tincture dosage by the dropperful I prefer 3-5 drop doses, at least for myself and for others with very sensitive nervous systems.

Like many tonic/adaptogenic herbs, it generally works best taken over the long term. I recommend giving it at least three to five weeks to really soak into the body and influence overall function. It does appear to start affecting the adrenals in a much shorter time, and I’ve seen noticeable improvement in mood, stress capacity and libido in as little as six hours (two doses). It’s very important to use quality root, not mediocre imported three year old powder. I prefer the cut/sifted root because it’s usually more intact and fresh tasting, or have it powdered on demand by a supplier. If possible, buy from a reputable small herb farm like Pacific Botanicals or Zack Woods Herb Farm. I don’t really like buying from anyone though, which I why I’m growing so many this year, and cheerfully sacrificing my scarce water to their thirsty roots.

The leaves also make a lovely salve (if you can get the slugs to quit eating them long enough to harvest some) that can be used as an all purpose healing ointment. More details on that as I get to know it better.

Like all herbs, Ashwagandha has its quirks. Some deficient people find it stimulating rather than relaxing — this is rare, but it does happen. Also, it causes some people sweat more. I’ve not read this, only experienced it and seen it in clients. It may be because of how efficiently the plants switch the body from “fight or flight” sympathetic response to “rest and restore” parasympathetic response, which can indeed amp up the general sweat activity of the body. More importantly, some people find it too “yang” for their temperament. This is usually in people who don’t really need the herb anyway, being of an already robust constitution. This reaction will manifest as fits of anger, jitteriness, and general excessive nervous energy. Also it will sometimes bring on hot flash in people with wacked out endocrine systems, which could include some menopausal women and certainly includes myself (though I am not yet menopausal). Many herbalists consider the herb to actually nourish the kidney yin (vital fluids/moisture) so I’m guessing this is just the warming temperature. I find this to be the most unfortunate side effect, though formulating it with Nettles, Rose, Peach or other cooling herbs significantly helps to moderate the heating effect. All that said, Ashwagandha has a long history of traditional use, and is essentially free of toxicity and safe for even children to take in most cases.

Caution: Traditional wisdom advises that most supplementing herbs (including Ashwagandha) not be taken during acute illness. While this is a traditional remedy for lactation and pregnancy, I suggest using it in smaller doses during these times. Also, proceed carefully if you have a known allergy of the Nightshade family.


Forum writings and personal correspondence with jim mcdonald
personal correspondence with Darcey Blue
personal correspondence with Ananda Wilson
Adaptogens by David Winston
Harmony Remedies by David Winston
Herbal Therapy & Supplements by David Winston and Merrily Kuhn
Women, Hormones & The Menstrual Cycle (Rev. edition) by Ruth Trickey
Notes from an endocrine system lecture by Matthew Wood
Ashwagandha Monograph by Michael Tierra
Adaptogen Chart by Michael Moore

~Withania Flower pic (c) 2008 J. Wolf Hardin~

  21 Responses to “The Winter Cherry: Restoring Vitality”

  1. Fantastic article Kiva – I’m surprised you posted this one for free 🙂 Wonderful notes on specific energetics and I am amazed at how well it grows for you! That’s great!
    I love my Ashwagandha, as we all know 😉 and have found it indespensible along the recovery road from Mono., which causes many of these above ailments in varying amounts.

  2. Excellent Kiva! Thanks. I think I’ll take some now for some good zzzzzz!

  3. wow, I really wrote that?

    would also say that ashwangandha is a real good consideration for people processing trauma (PTSD) and having flashback nightmares.

  4. Yeah jim, I’d have to definitely agree with that assessment, thanks for pointing it out.

  5. This is fantastic! I take ashwagandha daily, along with gotu kola — I have fibromyalgia, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, and several other disorders related to my muscles and nerves. Ashwagandha works very well for all these conditions.
    Have you tried rhodiola rosea? I just started taking it in the mornings. It is spectacular for chronic fatigue. It seems to complement ashwagandha.

  6. Hi Joanna,

    I have used rhodiola a little bit and personally find it very unpleasant, way too speedy and stimulating for me. Also, I tend to avoid plants that aren’t native here or that I can’t grow easily so I’m it’s unlikely I’ll form a close relationship with the plant. I’m glad it’s working for you, be sure not to over-stimulate in order to compensate for fatigue, but rather to nourish the body so its natural energy comes back. Nettle Seed can be nice for that.

    Thanks for reading!

  7. […] Ashwagandha and Milky Oats is another favorite combo of mine, especially for adrenal burnout with insomnia, nervousness, inability to focus, lack of libido and sensory hypersensitivity. They also combine nicely with Nettle Seeds when there’s exhaustion to the point of chronic fatigue and ongoing lack of vital energy. 4And then there’s the wonderful Peaches ‘n Cream formula, a tasty combo of Peach twig and Milky Oats that is fabulous for overheated, red-faced, can’t relax type A people who really need some nourishment and chill out time. […]

  8. Thank you for this. After trying to deal with my adrenal burnout/PTSD on my own for awhile, I recently went to a naturopath who prescribed some Withania for me. Since I’m learning about herbs and don’t want to take anything without knowing about it, I searched online and found this article from you.

    It’s really helpful to hear descriptive distinctions between “old burn-out, source of stress still not resolved” (jim mcdonald) and current stressors — and then to hear your ideas of how the Withania works in each case.

    I’ve noticed your attention to these sorts of differences in the past. Thank you for sharing so much. You include a lot of us who have been “hard cases” when you do that. Not all burn-out is the same, and it helps us all when we listen to the differences

    So far, I’m taking a Standard Process complex that has Withania, Skullcap, and Korean Ginseng. I feel its calming effects within minutes of taking it.

    I usually like to mix my own herbs (because I’m trying to learn), but — as you mentioned in your article — there are ways to tweak Withania’s impact by how you combine it with other herbs. I’m still not there yet in my herbal studies so I’m glad for this pill and will learn more about it all so that I might be able to make my own combination in the future.

    For instance, I am perimenopausal (big time) and have been suffering from some hot flashes even before visiting the naturopath and taking this supplement. It’s helpful to know that rose can help cool things down without reducing Withania’s impact. I use rose a lot in my regular infusions, and she’s a good friend.

    Anyway, all of this to tell you that the detail you shared here helped me figure out how to sink in and use this prescribed supplement and how to move forward afterward.

  9. Hi Cathy, I’m so glad this was helpful for you!!! And thanks so much for letting me know. Blessings for your continued healing!


  10. Can you tell me how you harvested and prepared the roots for drying?

  11. Just like any other root really. Pull or dig them up, brush the dirt off, chop into smallish pieces and dry. One year roots can be dried whole if you prefer them that way though…

  12. I have a mother Ashwagandha plant that I bought from Richters a couple of years ago. I collected the seeds over the last two years and would like to start a crop in my greenhouse this spring. I dried the red berries and am just now checking the germination rate. Do you have any tips for germinating the seeds? Do they need a cold period? Do you know how long the seeds are viable?

    Your page is very informative. Many thanks,

  13. […] to my previously posted monograph on Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), I’d like to add a few notes. One is that most of the side effects I referred to in that piece, […]

  14. Thank you for your very thorough down to earth info Kiva.. it is very interesting to read about Ashwagandha as it has been one of the delights of my time here in USA… I grew it from seed nearly two years ago now and started them off in pots.. then i transferred two to the soil and they took off in their second year.. they now grow vibrant and strong, tall, green and beautiful and give me much joy when i greet them daily. I have meant to harvest their root but didnt know how (and also felt slightly sad to uproot this grand and gracious plant..) do you know about how/when to harvest the root and prepare it?

  15. I tried ashwagandha – in capsule form by Organic India: 2x 400mg caps a day.

    After nearly two weeks, I found that I was becoming a bit too ‘alert’ and began having problems sleeping.

    I am very sensitive to most things and especially stimulating herbs like ginseng (even siberian), maca, etc but thought ashwagandha would be calming since I read some people take it to help them sleep.

    I wasn’t taking anything else different at the time and since I stopped, I’ve been back to normal (sleep wise) so I conclude it was causing it. Strange though? it doesn’t seem to affect anyone else in this way.

    Now I don’t know what to use for an adaptogen (adrenal, general stress response stuff)… holy basil perhaps?

  16. James, part of the problem is your form of administration. Try a tincture or using the powder in foods or drinks, and try it in a smaller dosage. And actually, many or most people will find Ashwagandha overstimulating if they take too large of a dose, the homeopathic effect (skullcap and other nervines will often do the same thing). AND, try Ashwagandha from an American grower like Pacific or Zack Woods, it can make a huge difference.

    You need to take Ashwagandha for at least a couple months to see the true effects, two weeks isn’t nearly long enough to get the full benefits.

    And as I point out in my post on adaptogens, they herbs filed under this label are not interchangeable, nor should they be taken by everyone and anyone, please only use herbs according your specific needs and the particular actions and nature of the plant. http://bearmedicineherbals.com/?p=570

  17. What would be the proper dosage for someone with severe adrenal disorder? I am currently on Isocort and Thyroid but still not handling things well and have even been told by my naturopath that I must move on to Cortef but I refuse. The biggest issue is constantly plummeting low blood sugar. I tend to be oversensitive to most things. I tried Eleuthero which seemed to help at first and then ended up making me violently ill due to low bp and low blood sugar, causing anxiety, heart palps etc. I would like to try the tincture as you suggested and I see you have noted that sensitive peoples should try 3-5 drops. How many times a day is that recommended? Thank you so much for your writings. They have been very helpful!

  18. btw the one I found is 2.5 ml per ounce and suggests 100 drops a day or 1/2 teaspoon.

  19. Dear Bonnie,

    I find that appropriate dosage varies radically among individuals. Being so sensitive I would definitely suggest starting with a very small dose, just a couple drops two to three times per day, and see how that feels for at least a few days before increasing a drop or two at a time if that feels good to you.

    By severe adrenal disorder do you mean burnout or weakness from exhaustion, stimulants, steroids, etc or some kind of organic disease?

    I’m so glad my writings have been helpful to you! Thanks for reading.

  20. I actually have primary adrenal insufficiency with secondary organ failure or hypopituitarism. I have been an enigma to the medical community at large. At one point I did quite well on bioidentical hormones and over the past couple of years my body has began to reject pretty much everything I try causing some weird and unpleasant reactions. It is unknown exactly why I have this. However despite being on less and less medications my test results are starting to come back more normalized then they have in the past. So while I continue to be an enigma I have faith that I can heal from this. Thank you so much and I will start with just a tiny bit and see how I feel. 🙂

  21. I was looking into this little root for growing myself. For anit viral purposes.
    Glad to see you covered it’s Anti HIV ability.

    PubMed has many write ups on this little root along with it’s ability to drop the viral load by half in six months of use in an AIDS Ward. I thought I saved that report but it turns out I didn’t.

    Not to mention that Panax Ginseng itself reduces stress at teh cell level and Ashwagandha has the same ability. Great root, great write up.

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