Ashwagandha is an ancient herb by any definition of the word. It has been in use for over 3,000 years. Its use can be traced back to the time of Punarvasu Atreya, a highly esteemed Ayurveda practitioner and scholar who lived around 1000 BCE. Practitioners of Ayurveda consider it one of the most powerful herbs and it is considered effective at lengthening life.
Ashwagandha is a perennial plant in the nightshade family that comes from the arid parts of India but can also be found in parts of Australia, the Middle East, and Africa. The fact that it is a nightshade means that it is a relative of tomatoes, eggplants, and potatoes. Ashwagandha is the Bengali name for the herb; there are multiple variations of the name throughout India. The name means “odor of horse” and refers to the fact that some varieties of the herb have a horse smell. More specifically, the smell of a horse’s sweat.
Happily, most of the ashwagandha powder available to westerners does not have this property. The Arabic name for it translates to “wolf tree”. Other names for ashwagandha include winter cherry and Indian ginseng. Ashawganda powder is made from the dried and ground herb.
Ashwagandha flavor profile
Aside from the horsey aroma of some varieties, Ashwagandha’s flavor can be most simply be described as being very bitter.
Health benefits of ashwagandha
Ayurveda practitioners classify ashwagandha as a rasayana, which is a tonic often given to children and seniors. For children, its purpose is to increase energy and improve mood; for the elderly, it is supposed to bring longevity. Ashwagandha has numerous medical applications that include treatment for these conditions:
- Stress: In Ayurveda, ashwagandha is used to relieve tension and physical discomfort. The herb is classified as an adaptogen and helps to regulate cortisol levels. Cortisol is the stress hormone. In other words, ashwagandha functions as a kind of anxiolytic. The stress-relieving effects are also believed to strengthen the immune system indirectly.
- Inflammation: Practitioners of tribal medicine in some parts of Africa use ashwagandha to treat inflammation and associated conditions like fever.
- High/Low blood sugar: Ashwagandha has been proven effective in keeping blood sugar level stable. If the level is too high, it lowers it; if too low, it increases it.
- Alzheimer’s disease: Ashwagandha may be effective for combating the plaques that cause Alzheimer’s disease. This may stem from its effect on blood sugar, which has been shown to have an association with dementia.
- Sexual dysfunction: Ashwagandha is a reputed aphrodisiac that is supposedly effective for both men and women.
The American FDA has not given ashwagandha its “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) classification; however, it is widely sold as a health supplement and there are numerous studies showing that it is likely effective for several health conditions.
Ashwagandha powder can be mixed with other spices to form a blend called a churna. The word churna simply means powder. It may then be mixed with ghee and milk, which help to mask the herb’s bitter taste. Most of the applications for ashwagandha powder are formulated to neutralize the bitterness. Other options involve making a tea that can be sweetened with honey and to which spices like cardamom may be added.