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What Is Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), also known as Indian ginseng, poison gooseberry or winter cherry, grows in India, the Middle East and parts of Africa. Its roots and orange-red fruit have been used for hundreds of years for medicinal purposes. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

India may be known for spicy food, the peaceful resistance of Gandhi and the majesty of the Taj Mahal, but it's also widely revered for its deep roots in traditional medicine. One highly recognized practice, Ayurveda, originated in India over 5,000 years ago and is built on the concept that systemic balance can only obtained in relation to one's individual constitution — a pattern of physical, mental and emotional characteristics. This ancient tradition uses holistic care focused on diet, lifestyle and herbs to purportedly achieve mental clarity and maintain physical health. Ayurveda is considered a medical practice in India; however ayurvedic practitioners are not licensed in many Western countries, including the United States.

Perhaps one of the most prized herbs in Ayurveda, ashwagandha (sometimes called Indian ginseng or Indian winter cherry) has purported health benefits that fall directly in line with the ancient practice's goal of individual, systemic balance. Over time, the herb has become increasingly popular outside of the Ayurveda tradition, and is used in various alternative medicine practices around the globe.

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The herb is derived from the roots of the ashwagandha bush (Withania somnifera), a small, green plant with yellow flowers and tiny orange-red fruit. It's native to the Indian subcontinent and a member of the nightshade family. Ashwagandha is still heavily cultivated in India, but due to increased demand for the herb throughout the world, the ashwagandha bush is also grown in parts of Africa, the Middle East and even in temperate climates in the U.S.

While almost all parts of the plant have purported therapeutic value, the stout, light brown roots are said to have the most valuable healing properties. The roots are dried and then ground to create a powder that's traditionally mixed with ghee, honey and milk to cover the bitter taste. But today, it's often taken in the form of a supplement, tea, tincture or extract.

Ashwagandha is classified as an adaptogenic herb, meaning it may be able to help the body better handle stress and balance various bodily systems. Many alternative medicine practices use ashwagandha for this potentially stress reducing effect but also for the additional purported benefits of improving memory, strengthening the immune system, promoting reproductive balance and lowering blood sugar.

Due to its historical role in the Ayurvedic tradition and wide range of potential benefits, ashwagandha has made a name for itself around the globe as a part of an alternative approach to health and healing, though there is no conclusive clinical evidence that it is effective in treating any ailment. As always, consult your physician before adding ashwagandha, or any other medicinal herb, to your health regimen.

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