yoga philosophy on how to have a healthy relationship with food
Three Yoga Philosophy Secrets on How to Have a Healthy Relationship with Food
June 5, 2024
yoga philosophy on how to have a healthy relationship with food
Three Yoga Philosophy Secrets on How to Have a Healthy Relationship with Food
June 5, 2024

How to Use Ashwagandha and How NOT To (Updated)

Have you heard of ashwagandha? It’s become very popular over the last few years. Most people know ashwagandha is an adaptogen and it helps with stress.

If it’s good for stress, then everyone should be taking it right? Well not exactly. While ashwagandha is an amazing remedy, it’s important to use it properly. This means understanding its properties, origins and tradition. Understanding ashwagandha will help you determine if it’s right for you.

  • Common Name: Ashwagandha, Winter Cherry, Ayurvedic Ginseng
  • Latin Name:  Withania Somnifera
  • Family: Solanaceae
  • Parts Used: Traditionally the root is used but the leaves and berries also have medicinal properties
  • Geographical Distribution: Native to Asia, Africa and the Mediterranean

History and Geographical region of Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is native to Asia and Africa and has been used for over 3,000 years in the tradition of Ayurvedic medicine. The root is most often used for its medicinal properties and ground into a powder. However, the berries and leaves also have medicinal properties.  Ashwagandha is a part of the Solanaceae family (the nightshade family.) It grows about 2 ft. high mostly in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. However, it can grow in most temperate climates, so you may even be able to grow it in your own backyard. 


What’s an Adaptogen?

The term adaptogen was first coined by Russian Scientist, Nikolay Lazarev in 1947, after conducting scientific studies on the herb Eleuthera. Adaptogens were defined to have a non-specific normalizing effect on the body. In general, adaptogens help the body cope with stress, fatigue and sleep issues. Other adaptogens include:

  • Rhodiola
  • Astragulus
  • Panax Ginseng
  • American Ginseng
  • And of course, ashwagandha

While adaptogens are a general term to describe herbs, they each help the body cope with stress in different ways. Some help to regulate the nervous system, while others work to balance cortisol. Some adaptogens can be more stimulating, while others can be more calming.

So, in conclusion, adaptogens have a non-specific effect on stress, but it’s important to get specific. Each herb should be looked at individually in order to determine which herb is right for you.  Adaptogen is a relatively new term in the world of herbs, but the use of these plants is not. Ginseng, Astragulus and Ashwagandha have all been used for thousands of years and have their own terms within their own tradition.

Ashwagandha: An Ayurvedic Perspective


As Ashwagandha is an important herb in ayurveda, having a basic understanding of this ancient system of medicine will help us to fully appreciate its benefits.  Ayurveda is a 5,000-year-old system of traditional medicine originating from India. Ayurveda teaches us that we can bring balance to the body by balancing our constitutions or doshas. The doshas derive from the five elements: Fire, Water, Air, Earth, and Ether. The doshas are as follows:

  •  Pitta = Fire + Water
  •  Kapha = Earth + Water
  •  Vata = Air + Ether
We all have a predominant one or two dosha, or perhaps a balance of all three (tri-doshic). Our doshas make up our physiological and psychological traits.

The goal of Ayurvedic medicine is not to keep all three doshas in balance, but rather to maintain your own natural balance whether it is Pitta, Vata or Kapha or a combination of the three.

We can balance our doshas by making changes to our diet and lifestyle and by taking certain herbs. For example, something with a Pitta constitution may want to avoid spicy foods; someone with Vata constitution should not eat a lot of cold raw foods.

Ashwagandha has warming and oily properties and therefore works well for someone with an imbalance of Vata which can be cold, dry and weak.  As Vata is made up of air and ether so think cold, light, dry wind. A Vata imbalance may also cause feelings of anxiety.

Someone with a Pitta imbalance has a lot of fire in their constitution. A healthy amount of fire means a driven and focused person. However, it is common for Pitta types to overwork themselves which leads to burn out. So, while ashwagandha is a warming herb and therefore can aggravate Pitta, it can help a Pitta constitution in this burnt-out state.

A Kapha imbalance usually results in fatigue and lethargy (Earth and Water being the heaviest elements). Therefore, ashwagandha can help with a Kapha imbalance in this case.

In Ayurveda, ashwagandha is considered a rasayana herb. Rasa means juice, it refers to the first of the seven bodily tissues defined in Ayurveda. It is essentially plasma or known as our life essence. Rasayana herbs are meant to be taken long term to increase vitality and strengthen this life essence.  

Ashwagandha: A Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Perspective

Traditional Chinese Medicine has a concept of Qi tonics. These are similar to Rasayana herbs in that they are meant to be taken longer term to improve vitality and reinvigorate the body. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, qi (pronounced “chi”) is known as our life force. Other qi tonics used more commonly in Traditional Chinese Medicine include Astragulus, Licorice root, Ginseng and Codonopsis.  

5 Reasons to Use Ashwagandha


1. Ashwagandha for Stress and Anxiety

Ashwagandha has been traditionally used for stress and anxiety, now we have clinical studies to back this up.

In 2019 a double-blind randomized placebo-controlled study was conducted. Sixty participants were given either a 240 mg standardized extract of Ashwagandha or a placebo.

The study found a statistically significant reduction in anxiety and some reduction in depression. Morning cortisol levels were also reduced.

Cortisol is our long-term stress hormone and also a part of our sleep-wake cycle. It should be highest in the morning, then drop slowly throughout the day. Cortisol is at its lowest when we are in a deep sleep (probably around 3 AM.) If cortisol is off balance, then we may feel overly stressed and anxious, have difficulty sleeping, or feel tired during the day.

An investigation into the stress-relieving and pharmacological actions of an ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) extract – PMC (nih.gov)

2. Ashwagandha for Sleep

As ashwagandha has been shown to reduce cortisol levels, it would make sense that it would improve sleep in addition to reducing stress.

In 2020 a study was conducted to determine how ashwagandha can improve sleep and overall quality of life in the elderly. This 12-week, prospective, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study was conducted on individuals between 65-80 years of age. Participants either received an Ashwagandha root extract at a dose of 600 mg/day orally, or identical placebo capsules with the same dose for 12 weeks. Participants who received the ashwagandha had improved sleep quality, mental alertness, and general well-being.

Efficacy and Tolerability of Ashwagandha Root Extract in the Elderly for Improvement of General Well-being and Sleep: A Prospective, Randomized, Double-blind, Placebo-controlled Study – PMC (nih.gov)

3. Ashwagandha for Fertility and Libido

A 2017 meta-analysis on male fertility found that Ashwagandha can increase testosterone levels, increase DHEA levels, improve sperm count and motility.

By reducing cortisol levels overall, it can help fertility in both males and females. High cortisol levels can interfere with the production of other steroid hormones, such as sex hormones including progesterone, estrogen and testosterone.

Withania somnifera (Indian ginseng) in male infertility: An evidence-based systematic review and meta-analysis – PubMed (nih.gov)

4. Ashwagandha for Immunity

Ashwagandha is by no means a cure for the common cold. So, if you get sick, reaching for the ashwagandha powder probably won’t help.

However, taking ashwagandha consistently throughout cold and flu season can help to strengthen your own resilience against viruses, thus reducing the frequency and duration of illness. A 2021 randomized double blind placebo-controlled study studied the immune-modulating effect of ashwagandha (withania somnifera). The study concluded that after 30 days, ashwagandha resulted in a significant increase in immune cells including immunoglobulins, cytokines and lymphocytes. Managing stress and balancing cortisol is also important for the immune system.

Immunomodulatory Effect of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) Extract—A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo Controlled Trial with an Open Label Extension on Healthy Participants – PMC (nih.gov)

5. Ashwagandha for Blood Sugar Balance

A 2020 meta-analysis on 24 studies demonstrated that Ashwagandha can reduce glucose levels, reduce A1C hemoglobin levels, insulin levels and oxidative stress markers.  Five of these clinical studies were on individuals with Diabetes Mellitus.

Withania somnifera (Indian ginseng) in diabetes mellitus: A systematic review and meta-analysis of scientific evidence from experimental research to clinical application – PubMed (nih.gov)


3 Reasons to Not Use Ashwagandha

1. Pregnancy & Breast feeding

Ashwagandha is not considered safe during pregnancy or breastfeeding.

2. Autoimmune Conditions

Due to ashwagandha’s ability to increase immune cells, it should be avoided in the case of autoimmune conditions to avoid an overreaction of the immune system.

3. Taking Certain Medications

You should always talk to your doctor before starting any herbal supplement if you are on medication. In particular, ashwagandha is not safe if you are taking benzodiazepinesanticonvulsants, or barbiturates.

Who should take Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha is for the tired and wired person. Either a driven person who has become burn out and exhausted or a naturally anxious person. Someone who is feeling weak and depleted,     but at the same time still anxious and stressed out. If any of the following sounds like you, you may want to take ashwagandha:

  • You have trouble waking up in the morning but then have difficulty falling asleep at night.
  • You feel run down in the winter and seem to catch every virus out there. Or if it seems to take forever to get over your illness.
  • You have blood sugar imbalances, or are at risk for diabetes.
  • You are trying to start a family
  • You are a woman going through menopause or perimenopause (lowering cortisol can help to balance other hormones and reduce symptoms)

How to Take Ashwagandha

The easiest way to take ashwagandha is via capsules but where is the fun in that? As ashwagandha is normally taken in powder form, it can be used to make drinks and mixed into food. Traditionally ashwagandha powder was infused with milk or added to sweets. I like to use ashwagandha in recipes that enhance its natural properties.

Fertility Boosting Chocolate Shake:

Is there any food more sensual than chocolate? Forget a glass of wine to set the mood, try this instead:

  • 1 tbsp raw cacao powder
  • 1 tsp maca powder
  • 1 tsp ashwagandha powder
  • 1 tbsp raw honey or 3 dates (pitted)
  • ½ tsp sea salt 
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 3 tbsp cashew butter or almond butter
  • 1 1/2 cups milk of choice

Directions:

  1. Blend all ingredients together in a high-speed blender
  2. Serve cold or warm it up like hot cocoa. depending on your mood
Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Bliss Balls 

It’s often that we will crave a sweet when we’re stressed, so here’s one that will satisfy the craving and lower stress all in one bite.

Ingredients:  

  • 1 cup quick oats (gluten free)  
  • ½ cup dairy-free chocolate chips 
  • ¼ cup ashwagandha powder
  • 10 medjool dates (pitted) (double if you’re using smaller dates)
  • ¼ cup nut or seed butter 
  • ½ cup of cooked chickpeas  
  • 3 Tbsp hemp seeds  
  • 1 Tbsp coconut oil 
  • 1 tsp vanilla  
  • 1 tsp cinnamon  
  • ½ tsp sea salt  
  • Optional toppings: shredded coconut, chia seeds, raw cacao 
  1. Place all ingredients except chocolate chips in a food processor.  
  2. Process until it resembles a dough like consistency.  
  3. Stir in chocolate chips.  
  4. Form the dough into individual balls, and if desired, roll in optional toppings 
  5. Place the dough balls in the freezer for 15 minutes.   
  6. Take out and enjoy!  

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Kirsten Colella, CNP, a Holistic Nutritionist who graduated from the Institute of Holistic Nutrition with high honours, is also a certified yoga teacher. As a yogi who teaches individuals, groups and soon online, Kirsten does her best to live a full yoga-styled life, incorporating the best from herbs with her farm-fresh foods. Living on a farm with her family, Kirsten prepares a wide variety of farm-to-table meals, sharing her delicious recipes, colourful food pics and health-promoting food ideas on our Instagram page @essentialbalanceholistic             

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