As an ethnobotanist, I’ve studied traditional medical practices involving plants in many parts of the world. One of the most extraordinarily comprehensive systems I’ve had the privilege of working with is known as Ayurveda, a 5,000-year-old medical system found widely throughout India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
Practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine employ more than 500 plant species to promote health or treat illness, using many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of individual recipes that vary in their composition and mode of preparation. To me, one of the most historically fascinating, locally revered, and clinically significant plants of Ayurveda is ashwagandha, known to botanists as Withania somnifera.
(Like what you're reading? Sign up for our newsletter to get health insights, clever kitchen tricks, gardening secrets, and more—delivered straight to your inbox.)
Ashwagandha is a member of the nightshade family, which also includes tomatoes—but, unlike the tomato, the quarter-inch, orange-red fruits of this herb are not the focus of its beneficial properties. The mature plant’s thick, gray taproot, which reaches 1 to 2 feet into the soil, contains compounds that act as a sedative, reduce anxiety, and induce relaxation.
Over the centuries, ashwagandha has been used for arthritis and colds, to improve sleep, as an aphrodisiac, and to treat many other conditions. One of the English common names for this species, Indian ginseng, refers to its power as an adaptogen, a name given to herbs that increase our immune function and help the body cope with stress. Botanically, ginseng and ashwagandha are in different plant families, but they are similar in having medicinally active taproots with the ability, when ingested, to fight stress. Ginseng does so through its stimulant activity, while ashwagandha induces a more tranquil state of mind and body.
After a hard day, a cup of ashwagandha tea can help relaxation and promote sleep. I prefer to use chopped dried roots to make the tea, steeping a teaspoon in an 8-ounce cup of water or milk for 10 minutes before slowly drinking it. There are many commercial sources of ashwagandha, from prepackaged tea bags to liquid extracts and herbal formulas, all sold at health-food stores. Those who are taking pharmaceutical sedatives or who are pregnant should not use ashwagandha tea or supplements because of potential adverse reactions. (Want to try it out? Organic India Ashwagandha is certified organic and made from just one ingredient: ashwagandha root.)
Scientists have carried out many studies on ashwagandha, both in the laboratory and with human subjects. One recent study showed that a root extract given to healthy individuals improved cognition and reaction times, suggesting that it might be a useful therapy when combined with other medicines that treat declines in memory, language, thinking, and judgment that come with age or foreshadow dementia.
GEOFF KIDD/ Gap Photos
The dried roots should be no more than 2 years old to retain their maximum potency, so growing and harvesting your own is often best. (Buy ashwagandha seeds from a reputable retailer such as Mountain Rose Herbs.) Ashwagandha, a tender perennial, can be grown as an annual in climates with cold winters. Plants started from seeds will yield reasonably sized roots during one growing season. Ten to 12 weeks prior to the spring frost-free date, sow seeds in flats or individual pots indoors, much as you would tomato or eggplant seeds. Seeds germinate within 2 weeks. When the weather is warm and there is no chance of frost, transplant the seedlings to a spot outdoors in full sun or partial shade. In fall or early winter, when the berries ripen and leaves begin to dry, pull the plant up and cut off and dry the root, washing it carefully before placing it in a dry and dark place indoors. When dry, the root can be chopped and used to brew tea or made into an extract. (Here are 10 herbs you should grow inside year round.)
Adaptogens have great importance in helping us to cope with the stresses of modern day life, and ashwagandha is an herb that deserves much more recognition in the West for its extraordinary properties.
If you are the only person using this device,
there’s no need to log out. Just exit this page
and you won’t have to sign in again. But if
you’re on a public or shared computer, log out
to keep your account secure.