the-south-asian.com January 2004
Page 2 of 4
Ashwagandha: Wonder Herb of India
By Dr. Michael Tierra
Three months later I returned to the Garden of Sanjivani in Santa Cruz and planted my ashwagandha seeds. I was amazed at how easily they germinated and continue to re-seed themselves year after year in the area bordering the San Lorenzo river, long after I had moved away. Despite this, one need not be concerned about its becoming an invasive pest. Since it is as easy to control as another more famous Solanaceae representative, the tomato to which it is closely related.
Over the years I have noticed how herbs with more complex, seemingly opposite properties, such as ashwagandha, are generally the strongest and most useful. Unlike many tonics, Ashwagandha is also anti-inflammatory, anti-arthritic, anti-anxiety calmative and aphrodisiac. To herbalists, this seems strange since it is also a member of a family of plants that include the familiar belladonna and henbane, also well respected anti-inflammatory nervines but toxic not particularly known for their nutritional tonic properties. This certainly qualifies ashwagandha as one of the most paradoxical herbs. Perhaps it is for this reason that so far it has not yet established itself with equal esteem of the other more well known tonics mentioned above.
There is still one other highly significant and practical fact about ashwagandha. Most tonics like ginseng, require special growing conditions and several years to develop their tonic properties (ginseng requires 7 years). Ashwagandha is unique as a tonic herb in that it is exceptionally easy to cultivate and is ready for harvest after only one year of growth. This represents a very real consideration that if ashwagandha were used more, it would relieve some of the threat of extinction from the wild of other highly popular herbs such as wild ginseng (Panax quinquefolium), golden seal (Hydrastis canadensis) , suma (Pfaffia paniculata) and lady’s slipper (cypripedium pubescens) for instance. This is not to say that any tonic can be substituted for each other, but too often, because of excessive commercial promotion, people are induced to overuse and just as often, misuse certain endangered herbs for purposes that another more common herb may be even more effective.
The unique properties of ashwagandha  , while being an energy tonic like ginseng or codonopsis for instance, is uniquely more beneficial for calming the mind, relieving arthritis and building sexual energy while ginseng and codonopsis (Codonopsis pilosula also known as "bastard ginseng" because it is an acceptable milder substitute) is more specifically effective for low energy caused by digestive weakness. Astragalus, classified as another Qi or energy tonic in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), is stronger as an immune tonic. Again, these properties are equally shared by ginseng, codonopsis and ashwagandha, but more indirectly because of their effects on other physiological systems. Ashwagandha is also useful for strengthening the female reproductive system for which it is commonly combined with another Ayurvedic herb called shatavari (Asparagus racemosa) but the Chinese herb, dang gui (Angelica sinensis and A. acutiloba), renowned as a blood tonic, is especially beneficial in gynecology for deficient blood conditions, anemia and irregular menstruation. The uniqueness of Ashwagandha is that it achieves its results through strengthening the nervous system and the reproductive hormones.
Also known in English as winter cherry, Ashwagandha is one of the most highly valuable herbs in the Ayurvedic medical system. On another trip to India I met with several Ayurvedic doctors and heads of prominent Ayurvedic pharmacies. I decided to ask them the kind of inane  question that I am often asked, "what do you think is the most valuable Ayurvedic herb?" There was an unequivocal answer that ashwagandha was at least equally regarded in Ayurvedic medicine as ginseng is in TCM.
In order to appreciate the traditional uses and properties of ashwagandha it is necessary to offer a brief description of the Ayurvedic system of medicine. Ayurveda, translated as Science of Health, is probably the oldest existing system of natural healing in the world. Dating back over many millennia, it may go back even further in antiquity than TCM and is certainly the basis for Traditional Tibetan Medicine  , Middle Eastern Tibb or Unani medicine which form the basis for much of ancient Greco-Roman medicine  . Nearly suppressed in India by the occupying English during the 19th and early 20th centuries, Ayurveda is gaining in popularity throughout many Western countries.
Ayurveda is based on a system of Tridosha or Three Humours which classifies all individual constitutions of people, diseases, herbs and other non-herbal remedies and therapies according to whether they are Vata (air or nerve oriented), Kapha (water or mucoid type) or Pitta (fire type)  . Herbs that have pungent, sour and salty flavors stimulate fire; herbs that are astringent (drying) and bitter stimulate vata-air, or the nerve centered humour; herbs that are sweet, salty and sour stimulate or increase Kapha-water, or the mucoid humour. In contrast, herbs that are sweet, sour and salty flavored ameliorate Vata-air, which means that they have a particular affinity for the nervous system. Herbs that are astringent, sweet and bitter ameliorate Pitta-fire, meaning that they are soothing and anti-inflammatory. Finally herbs that are pungent, bitter and astringent ameliorate Kapha-water, which means they tend to increase digestive fire, expel and dry excessive fluid build up in the system, including clearing excessive fat from the body, and the accumulation of cholesterol and other fatty deposits in the veins and arteries of the body.
Because the primary quality and flavor of ashwagandha is sharp and pungent, this indicates that it is warming, raises metabolism, stimulates digestion, clears mucus, and improves circulation. Unlike TCM, Ayurveda also identifies a secondary post-digestive flavor, which for ashwagandha is sweet. It is this effect, which is not necessarily directly identified by one’s sense of taste, that occurs when a substance is converted into a still purer nutritive extract  . Following this, the post digestive sweet flavor of ashwagandha represents its deep nutritive, hormonal properties as well as its ability to strengthen and nourish the nervous system.
An even deeper and more profound transformation of food occurs after 7 days. This is when food is transformed into blood. Only after a month does the most refined essence of food transform into semen. It is at this deepest level that ashwagandha exhibits its profound aphrodisiac properties.
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