the-south-asian.com January 2004
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Ashwagandha: Wonder Herb of India
By Dr. Michael Tierra
Also known in English as winter cherry, Ashwagandha is one of the most valuable herbs in the Ayurvedic medical system. Ashwagandha is specific for a wide range of conditions including arthritic inflammation, anxiety, insomnia, respiratory disorders including emphysema, asthma bronchitis and coughs, nervous disorders, gynecological disorders, especially functional female and male infertility and impotence. From this it would seem that ashwagandha should be considered for all immuno-compromised diseases including TB and AIDS, chronic upper respiratory diseases, degenerative symptoms attendant to aging, juvenile mal-development and growth, chronic neurological diseases especially anxiety, nervousness, depression and insomnia, weak digestion, fluid retention caused by lowered body metabolism and last but certainly not least, for low sexual libido.
There is an herb regarded as a 1st class adaptogenic tonic in one of the world's greatest herbal medical systems, an herb which can compare favorably to the world’s most renowned herbal tonics such as ginseng (Panax ginseng) , astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) , dang gui (Angelica sinensis), reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) and South American suma (Pfaffia paniculata) and like these has been held in high regard by generations of people over the course of millennia for its ability to increase vitality, energy, endurance and stamina , promote longevity and strengthen the immune system without stimulating the body’s reserves. In fact having the ability to nurture the nervous system, counteract anxiety and stress to promote a calm state of mind. This same herb, having powerful anti-inflammatory properties, is specific for treating arthritic and rheumatic conditions. As if all of these were not enough, it is easily the most potent tonic aphrodisiacs in the entire botanical kingdom. With all of these uses, Withania somnifera, better known in India as ashwagandha, is destined to rise significantly and take its place with all the other better known tonics.
In 1978, as part of a tour to India, I had the opportunity to live in a small South Indian village outside of Bangalore, for three weeks. One day my gracious host and I were walking at sunset along a dirt road adjacent to a cultivated field of rice. Knowing my interest in native Indian herbs and the ancient traditional system of medicine called Ayurveda, he casually pointed out a few nondescript plants growing on the border of a rice field as Ashwagandha. I was very excited to see this remarkable plant which I had only recently studied in various books in the United States. I made way walking along the drier border of the rice field and picked several of the seed laden red berries to bring back to my residence and herb school in Santa Cruz, called the Garden of Sanjivani.
It was early in my career and I was so linked with my identity as a herbalist that I often mused whether I could serve as an herb doctor in a country where the native plants were unfamiliar. So far, in the village where I stayed, ashwagandha and the neem tree were the only native herbs I knew. Notwithstanding this fact, many local villagers, wanting to meet their esteemed visitor from America, hearing that I was involved in healing, came to the abode where I was staying seeking advice for a wide variety of problems. Fortunately, most of these were of a chronic type associated with aging and it just so happened that the single native herb to which I was recently introduced, ashwagandha, was perfect.
One of the important lessons I was to learn from this experience was that being an herb doctor meant more than a knowledge of a particular set of familiar herbs. It also included the ability to ‘think like an herbalist’ to be ever vigilant and watchful of the gifts that nature abundantly provides everywhere in the form of both botanicals as well as the local knowledge and wisdom of the use of plants.
One man in his early 80s came complaining of chronic pain in his lower back and elbow. I directed him to my newfound patch of ashwagandha and he sent one of his sons out to dig some roots for him to make tea. Three days later, he came to thank me since he had already showed considerable improvement. Another young child was suffering from a severe adverse reaction to a recent polio vaccine. The arm that had been injected with the vaccine only a few months previous hung limp and malformed from lack of proper maturation. The villagers commented that every time the local medical core visited their village to administer vaccinations, there were always a few such casualties. I remember thinking how in a more alienated society such as the Western world, such things may also happen, but our neighbors have no opportunity to witness such reactions because our lives are so separate compared to that of a South Indian village. Once again, ashwagandha was the perfect herb to give for non-inflammatory childhood mal-development.
A young boy around the age of 14 was brought to me with chronic bronchitis. After taking ashwagandha for only a week, he was completely cured. I must confess that I was a little trepidatious of becoming known as the "one herb doctor from America". Since no one else seemed to care and everyone was getting such positive results from ashwagandha, I took consolation in the famous axiom of the late Dr. Christopher, "it is better to know one herb well, than a smattering of many".
During my stay, I had the opportunity to prescribe ashwagandha for a wide variety of conditions ranging from male impotence, for which Withania is a near specific, to chronic vaginal discharge. For many of these I was not there long enough to directly observe the results, but I was later told that everyone to whom I had recommended the herb had either experienced significant improvement or more likely had completely recovered from their chronic condition.
Interestingly, people took no notice of the fact that I was recommending the same herb to everyone. In fact, it was a local herb with which they were all very familiar. Its a curious thing that I had observed when living in proximity with the Karok Indians of Northern California that some native people, having recently fallen under the seduction of Western ways including Western medicine, actually appreciated being reminded, especially from a representative of much envied and powerful country such as the US, of the powerful yet much safer effects of their native medicine. Placebo effect notwithstanding, it seemed that the fact that I recommend it seemed to make it all the more powerful and effective in their eyes.
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