With its exotic name and a reputation for boosting libido and increasing longevity, it's no wonder that ashwagandha has captured the attention of the American public. Preliminary research in the early 2000s suggests that ashwagandha, sometimes called Indian ginseng, may be useful in treating cancer, boosting the immune system and taming stress. Studies have also uncovered side effects and drug interactions that may make ashwagandha dangerous in some situations. As with all herbal medicines, ashwagandha should be used carefully, and only under the advice and supervision of your health-care provider.
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Ashwagandha--withania somniferum--is a member of the nightshade family that grows throughout the drier regions in Africa, from the Canary Islands, through India, the Middle East and Sri Lanka. In India, aswagandha is a cultivated crop with an annual market for more than 9,000 tons of the dried root, according to the authors of "Medicinal Plants."
Ayurvedic practitioners in India have prescribed preparations made with ashwagandha for centuries as a general tonic for "everything from hiccups to a variety of gynecologic concerns," writes James A. Duke in "The Green Pharmacy Herbal Handbook." The authors of "Medicinal Plants" list dozens of uses and preparations in both Ayurvedic tradition and general folk medicine throughout Africa. The list of conditions treated with ashwagandha includes ear infection, skin ulcers, dropsy, asthma, general pain, rheumatism, wound infections and to induce abortion. It is well-known as a natural sedative and general stress reliever. Current research does not provide enough information to confirm the traditional medicinal uses or safety of ashwagandha.
The most studied components of ashwagandha are a group of chemicals called withanolides, and withaferin a, a chemical found in ashwagandha leaves and stems. Withanolides and withaferin a have shown antioxidant and anti-tumor effects in vitro against several types of human cancer cells, as well as in some animal studies using human cancer cells. The research is promising, but no human trials confirm the preliminary results, according to a review of ashwagandha studies published in the December 2006 issue of the Alternative Medicine Review.
Ashwagandha may help to relieve stress in people suffering from anxiety, according to a 2009 Canadian study. The study involved 81 participants in a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Half of the participants received standard psycho-therapeutic counseling, information on nutrition and exercise and two placebos. The treatment group received similarly structured counseling sessions that included advice on nutrition and exercise, a daily multivitamin, and daily pills containing ashwagandha. At the end of eight weeks, all the participants showed improvement in their anxiety symptoms, but the treatment group showed significantly more improvement. Since there were several differences between the two groups, the effects of ashwagandha is only one possible reason for the increased improvement.
To test ashwagandha's purported libido-enhancing properties, researchers at the University of Ruhuna in Sri Lanka fed powdered ashwagandha root extract to male rats for seven days, and tested their response to receptive female rats before, during and after the treatment. They found that the treated rats exhibited a marked decrease in libido, sexual performance and sexual vigor, and an increase in penile erectile dysfunction. The researchers concluded that despite its reputation as an aphrodisiac, ashwagandha may be detrimental to male sexual competence.
Pregnant women should avoid ashwagandha as it may cause miscarriage. People with thyroid conditions should not take preparations with ashwagandha as it may induce hyperthyroidism. Ashwagandha may increase the effects of sedatives and barbiturates. If you are considering taking ashwagandha, consult a health practitioner to evaluate your condition and ensure that the herb will not interact with your other medications or treatments.