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Indian Ginseng, a magical adaptogenic herb
Ashwagandha is also known by the names Winter Cherry, Indian Ginseng, and Withania. Ashwagandha or Withania genus belongs to the pepper family. The herb is prevalent in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Africa. The medicinal part of this herb is the root. The shoots and seeds are also used as food, and to thicken milk. Ashwagandha is an important herb used in Ayurveda, Siddha and Unani. The name comes from the peculiar odor of this herb, that is, smell similar to that of a sweaty horse. Ashwagandha on India is similar to Ginseng in other parts of the Orient. Modern herbalists classify Ashwagandha as an adaptogen, a substance said to increase the body’s ability to withstand stress of all types. Like other adaptogen, Ashwagandha is supposed to improve physical energy, exercise capacity, and overall health. It also may strengthen immunity (against colds, flu, and other infections), increases sexual capacity, improves fertility, and normalizes cholesterol levels. As its name “somnifera” suggests, it is also sometimes said to produce mild sedation, an effect potentially useful for those troubled by isomnia or anxiety.
The plant grows in dry and sub-tropical regions and is an erect branching low lying shrub reaching a height of about 1.50 m. it grows in dry parts in sub-tropical regions. Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh are the major Ashwagandha producing states of the country. In Madhya Pradesh alone it is cultivated in more than 5000 hectare. The estimated production of Ashwagandha roots in India is than 1500 tonnes and the annual requirement is about 7000 tonnes necessitating the increase in its cultivation and higher production.
Both herbs are touted for their longevity enhancing and sexually stimulating properties. However, Ashwagandha is considered to be milder and less stimulating than Ginseng. Ashwagandha has been used for 4000 years in tradition Indian medicine – it was used for treating tumors, inflammation (including arthritis), and a wide range of infectious diseases. Traditional uses of Ashwagandha among tribal peoples in Africa included fevers and inflammatory conditions.
However, as yet the evidence for these and other potential benefits is limited to highly preliminary studies at best. The primary chemical constituents of this herb include alkaloids, steroidal lactones, and iron. Studies with rats and human volunteers have shown that Ashwagandha is helpful in putting cancer tumors into regression (used as an alcoholic root extract) and in reducing inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis.
The plant’s high steroid content was found to be more potent than hydrocartisone in animal and human arthritis. Compounds known as withanolides are believed to account for multiple medicinal applications of this herb. Ashwagandha has also been shown to relieve pain by lowering serotonin levels, which
contribute to the sensitivity of pain receptors in the body. It is considered as a good tonic for the mind and useful for those who have overindulged in work, drugs, or alcohol.
The use of ashwagandha in Ayurvedic medicine extends back over 3000 to 4000 years to the teachings of an esteemed Rishi (sage) Punarvasu Atriya. It has been described in the sacred texts of Ayurveda, including the Chakra and Sushrutha Samhitas where it is widely extolled as a tonic especially for emaciation in people of all ages including babies, enhancing the reproductive function of both men and women. It has also been used for inflammations especially for arthritic and rheumatic conditions and as a major tonic for counteract the ravages of aging and promote youthful longevity. Some of its other traditional uses have been as a mild purgative of chronic constipation and for the treatment of swollen glands.
Ashwagandha is a small woody shrub or herb in the Solanaceae family that grows usually about 2 feet I height and is naturally found in diverse areas ranging from Africa, the Mediterranean and East into India. Because of its wide range, there are considerable morphological and chemotypical variations in terms of local species. Considering its healing properties, except for the bright red fruit, it is fairly plain, nondescript plant. The fruit is harvested in the late fall and in the bright yellow seeds are dried for planting in the following spring. The cultivated Nagori species of Ashwagandha seems to be significantly larger, one source describing it as a shrub growing from5 to 7 feet tall. However, the primary alkaloids of both the wild as well as the cultivated species are the same.
The commercial supplies of ashwagandha are obtained from both wild and commercial sources. The fresh root of one year old plants is harvested from January to March. It is either dried whole or cut in short transverse pieces and directly in the sun. Quality is determined by the size of the main tap root as well as its color, odor and its flavor.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is often described as the Indian equivalent of Chinese ginseng, which has captured a huge chunk of the global market. Yet the Indian herb is not a commercial success. One of the reasons of this is the lack of standards, which has led to the wide variation in the chemical composition of Ashwagandha-based drugs. These insufficiency was fond during a recent study, and prevalent in the herbal products of even reputable companies. These drugs are portrayed as potent healers with a wide range of benefit like improving memory, cognition, stamina, vigor and resistance to diseases, as well as relieving tension and depression. But experts feel that in view of some of the latest findings the dubious value always will hang on the efficacy of these medicines in the consumer world.
This study was published in the February 2004 issue of Current Science, a journal brought out by the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Entitled ‘Phytochemical variability in commercial herbal products and preparations of Withania somnifera’, it was conducted by three institutes of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) the Central Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (CIMAP) and National Botanical Research Institute (NBRI), both in Lucknow, and the Regional Research Laboratory in Jammu. During the study, the amount of withaferin-a one of the withanolides of ashwagandha was analyzed in 10 products being sold in the market. Withanolides are secondary chemicals produced by the plant. The scientists assumed withaferin-a, to be an indicator of the presence of ashwagandha. They found that the amount of the chemical per gram of ashwagandha varied from 100 percent to merely 0.9 percent. In nine of the products, the quality was less than 50 percent.
Under the scanner, the 10 herbal products that were subjected to tests
‘Photochemical variability in commercial herbal products and preparations of Withania somnifera’, Current Science,
The research highlights these inconsistencies to underscore the importance of standardizing herbal products. It also points out that the anomaly can only be corrected through stringent legislation, which doesn’t exist in India at present. Several factors like sources of raw materials, harvest and post-harvest conditions, and processing and manufacturing techniques have to be regulated for controlling the quality of herbal products. But the drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940, which governs the herbal medicine industry only lays emphasis in making drugs in clean factories and testing raw materials for genuineness. G S Lavekar, director, Central Council for Research in Ayurveda and Siddha, under the Union ministry of health and family welfare, says: “Parameters such as chemical and biological markers should be set so that an acceptable range can be for chemical constituents.” R S Sangwan of CIMAP, a member of the study team, suggests that ashwagandha should be marketed as a single plant product and not a traditional medicine, wherein a combination of plants is used. While modern scientists are in favor of identifying active ingredients in herbal products and using them as medicines, conventional practitioners believe that such isolates cease to be traditional medicines.
The report has evoked a mixed response from the industry. Some companies are of the opinion that the laws should be strengthened. At the same time, there are others, who claim their products are up to the mark. Paranjay Sharma, president of
Shree Baidyanath Ayurveda Bhavan Private Limited, says a manufacturer can only be penalized if standards exist. He feels quality control should be introduced in the production process at raw material stage itself. Significantly, the good manufacturing practices that are stipulated currently deal with this aspect. S K Mitra of Himalaya Drug Company says his company uses chemical indicators to ensure that even products in different batches conform to a uniform standard. Further, it conducts trails on humans to ensure the efficiency of the drugs. A senior representative of another manufacturer implicated in the study asserts: “The researchers did not find the withanolides because it could have been masked by other chemicals present in the product.” Sharad Goel, spokesperson for Dabur, says “We believe that the researchers should have estimated total withanolides, which is a widely accepted biological benchmark, for the purpose of comparing different products available in the market.”
The term adaptogen was first defined by the Russians as a result of their extensive research on the tonic, Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) the definition of adaptogen is based on the following, according to Brekman: 1). Safety of the adaptogen action on the organism; 2). A wide range of regulatory activity, but manifesting its action only against the actual challenge to the system; 3). Act through a nonspecific mechanism to increase the nonspecific resistance (NSR) to harmful influences of an extremely wide spectrum of physical, chemical and biological factors causing stress; 4). Has a normalizing action irrespective of the direction of foregoing pathological changes.
An adaptogenic herb of which ashwagandha would be a first rate example, allows one to adapt to variety of heightened stressful circumstances. This will result in heightened stamina and endurance for athletic competition, the workplace and conditions of inclement environment and weather conditions.
There is an herb regarded as the 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), astragulus (Astragulus membranaceus), dang gui (Angelica sinensis), reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) and south American suma (Pfaffia paniculatai) and like these has been held in high regard by generations of people over the course of millennia for its ability to increase validity, 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, counter anxiety and stress to promote a calm state of mind. Thi8s same herb, having powerful anti-inflammatory properties, is specific for treating arthritic and rheumatic conditions. As if all of this 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.
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 only one year of growth. This represent a very real consideration that if ashwagandha were used more, would relieve some of the threat of extinction from the wild of other 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 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 other 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 unique of ashwagandha is that it achieves its results through strengthening the nervous system and potentiates reproductive hormones.
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 in the world. Dating back over many millennia, it is likely to be even older than Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and may be its origin, as it certainly is the origin of Tibetan medicine, Middle Eastern Tibb medicine and our own ancient Roman medicine. Nearly suppressed by the English during their occupation of India through the 19th and first part of the 20th centuries, Ayurveda is finally making significant inroads of acceptability throughout all countries of the western world. Ayurveda is based on a system of Tridosha or Three Humors which classifies all 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. Nearly suppressed India by the occupying English during the 19th and 20th centuries, Ayurveda is gaining in popularity throughout many western countries.
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 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. In the TCM system, ashwagandha would be used as a Kidney Yang tonic because of its warming, aphrodisiac properties. In this, it is deeper acting than other herbs, such as the African yohimbe, the South American miura puama or the milder Central American domain. One may have to take ashwagandha longer, at least a month, to notice the aphrodisiac effects. The distinctive earthy odor and flavor of ashwagandha is due to the presence of certain steroidal lactones or Withanolides. It is from this characteristic odor which its Sanskrit name, “like a horse” derives. While the largest majority of medicinal herb are not particularly prized or known for their appealing flavor, ashwagandha for most may be promoted to the forefront of those herbs with the least taste-smell appeal. Fortunately, it is possible to formulate ashwagandha into pills, capsules and alcoholic extracts to create greater public acceptance.
Ashwagandha Coagulans, a related species and occasional adulterant, primarily uses the inside kernel of the seed capsule “withannin” which is similar to rennet to curd milk. “About a table spoon of the mixture of seeds with a little milk (1 in 40) is enough to coagulate a gallon of milk in approximately a half an hour”. Alcohol will destroy the coagulating principle but the dried capsules can be used. A coagulans is also therapeutically used as an alternative and emetic.
The major biochemical constituents of ashwagandha from which its primary medicinal properties emanate, are based upon the actions of certain steroidal alkaloids and steroidal lactones in class of constituents called withanolides. These serve as important hormone precursors which the body is then able, as needed, to convert into human physiological hormones. If there is an excess of a certain hormone, the plant based hormone precursors occupy the so-called hormone receptor sites, without converting to human hormones, to block absorption. In this way, ashwagandha, like other adaptogenic tonic herb, is amphoteric and can serve to regulate important physiological processes, increasing or decreasing as needed.
With its ease of cultivation, there is hardly a reason that most people and certainly old age nursing homes does not have its own garden patch of Ashwagandha as a hedge, so to speak, against the ravages of aging decrepitude. Given the fact that for better or worse, more people are living longer in the world than any other time in its history, trying to save enough money in long term retirement accounts for comfortable old age and at the same time sensing real concerns at the thought of dwindling governmental entitlement benefits, it seems imperative that everyone grow their personal supply of ashwagandha and learn how to prepare it and take it.
Besides over 3000 years of empirical experience, numerous studies on both animals and humans have attested to the anti-arthritis and mind calming properties of crude preparations of the herb. The combined alkaloids seem to exhibit calming, anti-convulsant and antispasmodic properties against many spasmogenic agents on the intestinal, uterine, bronchial, tracheal and blood vascular muscles. It is described as similar but considerably weaker that papaverine and phenobarbitone. Other constituents namely the sitoindosides enhance pathogenic devouring phagocytes. Even anti-tumor properties have been found based on the use of crude extract on mice both in living specimens and as well as against cancer cells in the Petri dish.
Withanine and somnifera alkaloids. Active principle: withanolides. The roots of the plant have been reported to have Alkaloids, Withanolides (a group of naturally occurring oxygenated ergostane-type steroids generally having a lactone in the side chain and 2-en-1-one system in ring A) and many Glycosides. The main alkaloids reported are Cuscohygrine, Anahygrine, Tropane, Pseudotropine, Anaferine, dl-iso-pllatierine, Withanine, Withasominine, Withaninine, Somniferin and Pseudowithanine etc. the active components are Glycosides present in the root. Among the most important Glycosides
disturbed sleep, mental alert-ness, effective in convalescence, and
Relieves anxiety neurosis, physical and mental stress, and relieves general
are Sitoindoside VII, VIII, IX, & X for which immunomodulationhave been investigated. Ashwagandha pE 8% extract: Total withanolides: 8%.
The constituents believed to be active in ashwagandha have been extensively studied. Compounds known as withanolides are believed to account for multiple medicinal applications of ashwagandha. These
molecules are steroidal and bear a resemblance, both in their action and appearance, to the active constituents of Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) known as ginsenoside. Indeed, ashwagandha has been called “Indian ginseng” by some. Ashwagandha and its withanolides have been extensively researched in a variety of animal studies examining effects on immune function, inflammation, and even cancer. Ashwagandha stimulates the activation of immune system cells, such as lymphocytes. It has also been shown to inhibit inflammation and improve memory in experiments. Taken together, these actions may support the traditional reputation of ashwagandha as a tonic or adaptogen an herb with multiple, nonspecific actions that counteract the effects of stress and general promoters wellness.
The health applications for ashwagandha in traditional India and Ayurvedic medicine are extensive. Of particular note is its use against tumors, inflammation (including arthritis), and a wide range of infectious diseases. The shoots and seeds are also used as food and to thicken milk in India. Traditional uses of ashwagandha among tribal peoples in Africa include fevers and inflammatory conditions. Ashwagandha is frequently a constituent of Ayurvedic formulas, including a relatively common one known as shilajit.
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List of Research and Publications: I. Publications in peer reviewed journals (National & International) 1. Praharaj, S.K. (2004) Escitalopram treatment of transvestic fetichism: A case report. German Journal of Psychiatry, 7(2), 20-21. 2. Praharaj, S.K. (2004) Koro and psychosis following steroid abuse. German Journal of Psychiatry, 7(3), 49-50. 3. Praharaj, S.K. (2004) Serotonin reu