The Winter Cherry
Botanical Name: Withania somnifera
Common Names: Ashwagandha, Winter Cherry, Indian Ginseng
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-acquaint 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 Skullcap), 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.
I’d like to add a few notes. One is that most of the side effects I referred to in that piece, specifically hot flashes and sweating, seem to vary a great deal based on where the herb comes from. The herb I have used from Pacific Botanicals, Zack Woods Herb Farm and my own garden has yet to cause any of these problems in anyone, including myself, even in larger doses. The taste of this high quality, American grown root is also very different than anything I’ve gotten from India, even through normally good suppliers. And since the taste from the root harvested from my garden is nearly identical to that of the two farms referred to above, I tend to think this indicates how very good the quality is.
One significant characteristic of long term use of Ashwagandha I previously glossed over, is it’s amazing ability to stabilize blood sugar. This has been confirmed in studies and passes over well into actual practice. I’ve personally found it so effective that I no longer get low blood sugar and pressure EVER, even when I make the less than perfect food choices that usually throw me off (you know how brownies can just beg to be eaten.….).
This from Todd Caldecott:
“Diabetes: The hypoglycemic, diuretic and hypocholesterolemic effects of roots of Ashvagandha were assessed in six patients with mild NIDDM and six patients with mild hypercholesterolemia. The treatment consisted of the powder of roots over a 30 day period. At the end of the study, researchers noted a decrease in blood glucose comparable to that of an oral hypoglycemic drug, and a significant increase in urine sodium and urine volume, coupled with a decrease in serum cholesterol, triglycerides, LDL (low density lipoproteins) and VLDL (very low density lipoproteins) cholesterol, with no adverse effects noted (Andallu and Radhika 2000)”
Now, notice that it says it caused a significant increase in urine volume, which would make you think that it would make low blood pressure worse, right? Well, I haven’t experienced any increase in urine volume and as I said above, it has definitely helped my low blood pressure and my blood sugar levels. I notice that some plants may work simply by lowering blood sugar while other plants, such as Ashwagandha, seem to rebalance the HPA axis and thus effect the insulin process however needed. I have certainly used Ashwagandha with clients with varying states of blood pressure and hypo or hyperglycemia, all with good results as long as the general indications for the herb are present.
Another interesting note is that due to it’s nourishing effect on the endocrine system it can help to balance overly long menstrual cycles. For example, I have consistently had rather long cycles (averaging about 30 to 31 days) ever since my 1 year experience on birth control pills many years ago, but after using a low dose of Ashwagandha (3 drops of dry plant tincture, 2x per day) for a couple of months my cycle steadily shortened and is holding strong now at 28 days for the last several months. It has also reduced my previous one to two week long bouts of PMS (thanks also to the pill, along with some really great ovarian cysts) to less than 24 hours, and only noticeable in an annoying way for about 8 hours. It seems to get better every month too. I’ve also observed this pattern in a few of my clients as well. I’ve wondered if it could possibly shorten the cycle too much, but so far this hasn’t been a problem, so perhaps modulates the cycle rather than simply shortening it, which would be consistent with Ashwagandha’s nourishing, balancing tendencies.
And did I mention that it’s been proven to (both in studies and clinical practice) be immunomodulatory? A very useful herb, even (or especially) in many cases of autoimmune disorders like lupus, where it is especially helpful with its anti-inflammatory properties. I do tend to recommend that clients back off of their dosage or stop it completely during a flareup though.
Refer to Caldecott’s online article or the books, Adaptogens or Herbal Therapy & Supplements, both by David Winston for more info on the studies that have been done on Ashwagandha.
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