Herbal Spotlight: Ashwaghanda
by: Dr. Neil
Ayurvedic medicine is one of the oldest traditional forms of healing known to man. Its origins are in ancient India, and it’s theory is based on using holistic treatments and herbs to address common ailments. Once herb used commonly to treat stress, and improve neuronal function was ashwaghanda.
In Western medicine, while we are recently looking at herbal medicine – we have tended to adopt more of a “create new therapies” approach. While that has lead us to the creation of numerous novel therapies, we are only now starting to look at herbal therapies. With that in mind – what does our current literature say regarding ashwaghanda?”
Ashwaghanda has been used traditionally to treat stress and anxiety. When looking closely, the main active extracts found to be effective are called glycowithanolides. These glycowithanolides are essentially very powerful antiboxidants that function by improving function of certain enzymes within the brain while removing oxidizing compounds. When compared to western benzodiazepine Ativan, it was found that in rats, ashwaghanda extra elicited a similar to stress reduction response. In the study they compared levels of tribulin – a rat stress hormone – and found that when given Ativan versus Ashwaghanda extract, the reduction in that stress hormone was comparable. Can this be directly translated to humans – absolutely not as we are not mice. However, Benzodiazepines (Ativan) have been associated with thousands of deaths nationwide, where ashwaghanda has not.
When looking at the long-term effects of stress on the brain, it is founds that oxidation of lipids can lead to eventual neuronal destruction. When comparing oxidation within the brain to rats given ashwaghanda to those not, it was found that oxidative stress was dramatically reduced2. This was then extrapolated to look at neurodegenerative diseases when looking at chronically stressed brains in rats – brain patterns similar to those seen in human degenerative diseases like alzheimers. – it was found that the number of degenerative brain cells decreased by a statistically significant amount. Unfortunately this study suffered the same study as the last one mentioned – they were both done on rats. To reiterate, studies done on rats cannot be generalized to humans as there are countless drugs that show effectiveness in rats, but not do not show effect in humans.
Recognizing the problem behind using studies on rats, a systematic review was published in the journal of alternative and complementary medicine in 2014 looking at five separate human trials on ashwaghanda versus placebo to treat anxiety. The systematic review concluded that within in all five trials, there was a statistically significant improvement in stress and anxiety reduction when compared to placebo. Obviously there was some heterogeneity between the studies, and one review in isolation should not be taken as gospel, however, with the safety of ashwaghanda and the absence of adverse side effects, that study certainly shows promise .
Unfortunately research into ashwaghanda has just begun. The studies are limited at best, and while some show promise, none can be easily generalizable. That being said, the benefits while early, still show safety when compared to alternatives that could potentially be harmful. While ashwaghanda cannot serve as a replacement for current therapy, it certainly seems that the literature suggests that it can be safely taken as an adjunct to treat anxiety and depression.
 7. Tohda C, Kuboyama T, Komatsu K. Search for natural products related to regeneration of the neuronal network. Neurosignals. 2005;14(1-2):34-45
 Bhattacharya A, Ghosal S, Bhattacharya SK. Antioxidant effect of Withania somnifera glycowithanolides in chronic footshock stress-induced perturbations of oxidative free radical scavenging enzymes and lipid peroxidation in rat frontal cortex and striatum. J Ethnopharmacol. 2001 Jan;74(1):1-6.
 Bhattacharya SK, Bhattacharya A, Sairam K, Ghosal S. Anxiolytic-antidepressant activity of Withania somnifera glycowithanolides: an experimental study. Phytomedicine. 2000 Dec;7(6):463-9.
 Jain S, Shukla SD, Sharma K, Bhatnagar M. Neuroprotective effects of Withania somnifera Dunn. in hippocampal sub-regions of female albino rat. Phytother Res. 2001 Sep;15(6):544-8.
 Pratte, MA, Nanavati KB. An alaternative treatment for anxiety: a systematic review of human trial reported for the Ayurvedic herb ashwaghanda. J Altern Complement Med. 2014.