FAMILY: Solanaceae (Nightshade Family)
COMMON NAMES: Ashwagandha, Agol (Ethiopian), Amkuram Kizhangu (Dravidian, “beautiful horse root”), Asgandh (Hindi), Hajarat el Dib (Arabic, “wolf tree”), Harhumbashir (Assyrian, “red coral”), Henbane, Kakink (Pakistan), Marjan (Modern Arabic, “coral”), Sekran (Syrian, “inebriant”), Timbutti Eqli (Assyrian, “ring of the field”), Ubad (Arabic/Yemen)
A perennial plant, Withania somnifera is branchy and herbaceous and can grow up to more than a meter in height; it may, on occasion, reach a height of up to several meters. However, on average it remains a compact bush. It has small, alternate, oval-shaped leaves and tiny flowers with light green calyxes and white pistils. The flowers bloom near the upper levels of the branch, close to the core stem. The red berry fruits, known appropriately in ancient Assyrian as harhumbashir, or “red coral,” are encased by an inflated calyx that resemble a small lantern. The fruits contain tiny seeds which are orange-yellow in color and round and flat in shape (Ratsch 1998, 541).
The remains of several Egyptian flower garlands that contain ashwagandha have been found in El Faiyûm, and date back to late antiquity. The plant is originally from North Africa and is commonly found throughout Iraq, Pakistan and northern India. One can trace the plant’s history in Europe back to the sixteenth century, for ashwangandha is described and pictured in most of the herbal writings of the fathers of botany. Withania somnifera is, to this day, a very popular ornamental plant in China (Ratsch 1998, 541).
Propagation of Withania somnifera is achieved by way of the seeds, which are best pre-germinated before planting. Water well at first, then taper off to watering in moderation. Ashwangandha does not tolerate any frost, and therefore in colder climates it must be kept indoors in a container during the winter. As a houseplant it thrives, and may blossom several times a year (Ratsch 1998, 541).
TRADITIONAL USES: Withania somnifera, known in the Assyrian language as ashwagandha, is suspected to have been widely used in ancient Mesopotamia for its medicinal and narcotic properties. A member of the Nightshade family, the plant was well known in ancient Egypt, and characterized and classified as a sakrân intoxicant in Old Arabic. It was widely speculated that Withania somnifera was the fabled and mysterious halacacabon, or “Salt Jar,” as well as the legendary, mythical psychoactive plant known as trychnos or strychnos, ‘that which provokes sleep’, of the Greeks (Ratsch 1998, 540).
Numerous claims tout Withania somnifera as a twin to the wondrous root jangida, whose praises were sung in the Vedic medical system – especially in the Arthava Veda – as having strong powers as a panacea, amulet, magical agent, and aphrodisiac. Sushruta, the Indian physician and co-founder of the Ayurvedic system, hailed the root as rasayana, an alchemical elixir, and as a vajikarana, an aphrodisiac, sometimes used in combination with Cannabis sativa. For this reason, ashwangandha was employed in sexual magic and Tantric rituals as an aid in sustaining the vital duration of erections. Folk healers known as vaidyas still prepare a love potion from the root. Its effects are said to attract the opposite sex and make one ready for love. It is mentioned frequently in the Atharva Veda, and is considered second in importance to soma. The fruits are used to coagulate milk when rennet cannot be used in rituals and ceremonies for religious reasons (Kumaraswamy 1985).
The ancient Arabs used the root as a narcotic, a health tonic, and an aphrodisiac. In Pakistan, the leaves of the closely related Withania coagluans were presumably smoked as a means to become intoxicated (Goodman & Ghafoor 1992). The root has been used historically as a substitute for mandrake (Mandragora officarum), as well (Ratsch 1998, 541).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: The psychoactive parts of the plant are the root and the aboveground herbage. To make a preparation from the root, it is dried, then left whole or ground into a powder. The powder may be poured into gelatin capsules and ingested. A tonic or sedative tea can be made by boiling the root cortex for a few minutes. The root powder may be boiled in milk together with honey and pippali (Piper longum) (Ratsch 1998, 541).
In Ayurvedic medicine, a single dosage consists of 250mg to one gram of the powdered root. Definite, pronounced effects occur at dosages of 100mg of root powder per kilogram of body weight. Tonic effects are achieved by chewing a piece of root the length of half a finger, each and every day (Grandhi et al. 1994). The root has a pleasant taste slightly reminiscent of licorice.
MEDICINAL USES: The liquid extract of the root has anti-stress effects similar to those of ginseng. The antiserotinergic activity results in the stimulation of appetite. An alcohol extract of the aboveground herbage has quite potent anti-inflammatory properties, primarily as a result of the steroids that are present in the plant, especially withaferin A. No toxic side effects have reported to date, even when the plant is used during pregnancy (Grahndi et al. 1994).
The Assyrians used the root as a fumigant, blowing the incense smoke onto inflammed teeth. This use is similar to the ways in which the Assyrians used black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger). In modern-day Yemen, ashwangandha root is still used to treat toothaches. Folk medicine uses a paste created from grinding ashwangandha leaves to a pulp. On occasion the fruits will also be added into this pulpy mixture. The salve is then applied topically and massaged into the skin to treat open wounds, swelling, rheumatism, and external inflammation (Fleurentin & Pelt 1982).
In Africa, the root is given to children as a tranquilizer, and to soothe teething pain. In India, the herbage is smoked to soothe coughing and asthma. A section of Pakistan employs the root cortex as a powder, then mixes it with water. This mixture is then kneaded into a paste which is used to treat, disinfect and heal wounds. In Ethiopia, crushed Withania somnifera leaves are smeared onto arthritic joints (Ratsch 1998, 541).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: In addition to withaferin A, Withania somnifera contains lactones, somniferin and various other steroids. Ashwangandha root contains approximately 2.8% steroid lactone, the purported withanolides, and also starch. The new withnolides withasomnilide, withasomniferanolide, somniferanolide, somniferawithanolide and somniwithanolide were discovered in the stem bark of a sample from India (Ali et al. 1997).
Ashwagandha is used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat a number of ailments. It is said to be good for women who are having trouble in pregnancy, to regenerate the hormonal system, to promote healing, and can also be used topically on sores or wounds. The Ayurvedic system regards it as “sattvi in quality”, a rejuvenative herb that is good for the mind, which it nurtures and clarifies. It also produces a calming effect and allows for deep, dreamless sleep. Some reports indicate that it may act as a sedative, a euphoriant, or an aphrodisiac (Voogelbreinder 2009, 350).
The plant acts as “an immune stimulant, hypnotic, tranquilizer, sedative, narcotic, analgesic, hypotensive, respiratory stimulant, vasomotor stimulant, appetite stimulant, astringent, brachycardiac, antirheumatic, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumour, antiparasitic, and anti-stress agent”. A study of an extract also showed that it inhibited morphine tolerance, dependence and withdrawal symptoms in mice (Voogelbreinder 2009, 350).
Ali, M., M. Shuaib, and S.H. Ansari. “Withanolides from the Stem Bark of Withania Somniferia.” Phytochemistry 44, no. 6 (1997): 1163–1168.
Fleurentin, J., and J. Pelt. “Repertory of Drugs and Medicinal Plants of Yemen.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 6 (1982): 85–108.
Goodman, S.M., and A. Ghafoor. “The Ethnobotany of Southern Balochistan, Pakistan, with Particular Reference to Medicinal Plants.” Fieldiana (Botany) 31 (1992): 1–84.
Grandhi, A., A.M. Mujumdar, and B. Patwardhan. “A Comparative Pharmacological Investigation of Ashwaghanda and Ginseng.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 44 (1994): 131–135.
Kumaraswamy, R. “Ethnopharmacognostical Studies of the Vedic Jangida and the Siddha Kattuchooti as the Indian Mandrake of the Ancient Past.” Curare 3 (1985): 109–120.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Voogelbreinder, Snu, Garden of Eden: The Shamanic Use of Psychoactive Flora and Fauna, and the Study of Consciousness. Snu Voogelbreinder, 2009.