Ashwagandha is the health buzzword you've been hearing about all year, but as much as we've become accustomed to it being touted on wellness sites and even popping up in our lattes, many of us are still at a loss for what ashwagandha is. "Ashwagandha is the much revered 'rock star' of adaptogens—a class of herbs that help the body to cope with stress," describes Amy McKelvey, who we tapped to spill her wealth of knowledge on the miracle herb. "While its history of usage dates back for thousands of years, it is just now reaching notoriety in the U.S. in some beautiful ways."
Meet the Expert
Amy McKelvey is an integrative herbalist, natural products consultant, and CEO of Her Vital Way.
Before its recent explosion of popularity stateside, ashwagandha was one of the best secrets of Ayurveda, the traditional system of medicine in India, but its historical usage spans throughout Africa, India, Asia, and the Mediterranean or Mediterranean-type climates such as Southern California, says McKelvey. "Aptly named, the Sanskrit meaning of ashwagandha comes from the unusual smell of its root, which is similar to that of a sweaty horse," she explains. "Ashua means horse, gundha means smell. Purported to give one the strength or stamina of a stallion, ashwagandha has traditionally been prescribed to help people strengthen their immune system after an illness and depletion."
What Is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda is the traditional Hindu system of medicine which is based on the idea of balance in bodily systems and utilizes specific regimens of diet, herbal treatment, and yogic breathing.
There are many proven ashwagandha benefits. McKelvey has used the herb personally and extensively in her own practice and admits she's amazed by the many deeply healing aspects that this woody shrub from the nightshade family holds. She frequently prescribes the nourishing and calming nervine for chronic fatigue, anxiety, insomnia, coughs, anemia, general debility and exhaustion, memory loss, nerve conditions, and insomnia. "Where this magical plant shines though is for the common ailment of our time: To nourish adrenal fatigue and a tapped nervous system," notes McKelvey. She underscores that ashwagandha offers unique healing qualities for people of all ages.
Improves Ability to Cope with Stress
McKelvey explains that ashwagandha improves the ability to cope with stress and reduces anxiety and depression. "Ashwagandha helps normalize the entire Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) axis that governs the complicated and integral set of signals known as hormones—including steroid and stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline," she describes. "By soothing the HPA and reducing cortisol levels, one's ability to deal with stress is greatly improved."
Improves Sleep Quality and Minimizes Fatigue
"By nourishing the nervous system and reducing anxiety, one's ability to sleep is improved," notes McKelvey. "Anxiety is one of the main causes of insomnia and disruptive sleep cycles, so ashwagandha is superb for those who are chronically tired and suffering from stress-related exhaustion."
Enhances Immune Function
"By increasing white blood cell production, ashwagandha helps to ward off illness and chronic disease," says McKelvey. "It has even been shown in some studies to be anti-tumor and a wonderful adjunct to chemotherapy and radiation."
Promotes Mental Clarity and Memory
"Stress can have such damaging effects on the brain and the nervous system," notes McKelvey. A powerful antioxidant and anti-microbial, ashwagandha has been shown in studies to possibly "protect brain cells from stress and free radical degeneration, and clients often experience a heightened sense of mental clarity."
Balances and Normalizes Thyroid Function While Improving Mood
"Ashwagandha is believed to reduce oxidative degradation of lipids by encouraging the scavenging of free radicals that cause cellular tissue damage to the thyroid," explains McKelvey. "As mentioned above, ashwagandha soothes the hypothalamus, which brings about an overall improvement to one's mood."
Minimizes Unhealthy Sugar and Carbohydrate Cravings and Stabilizes Blood Sugar
"Ashwagandha has been used for many years as a way to aid in limiting or suppressing sugar cravings by reducing stress and regulating blood sugar levels," says McKelvey.
Increases Endurance and Enhances Sexual Prowess and Function
McKelvey describes how ashwagandha—which is purported to be an aphrodisiac—can be used in endurance sports and in the bedroom "to increase stamina of all systems, particularly cardiovascular strength and blood flow."
How to Add Ashwagandha into Your Diet
"If you're feeling depleted and finding it hard to get the rest and relaxation that you desperately need; if your thoughts are all over the place and you can't get a deep night's sleep; if you have known yourself to be someone who has endured a great deal of emotional and physical stress; or if you are in need of more energy in the foundation of your being so that you can find your zest for life again, try ashwagandha every day for at least one month," suggests McKelvey. "You'll be amazed."
For her clients, McKelvey typically prescribes 500 mg of ashwagandha twice a day but assures that benefits can be seen with as little as 300 mg per day and as much as five grams, "depending on the severity of the symptoms and the individual's constitution." She notes that taking capsules that contain ashwagandha whole root and extract is not often the easiest way for most people to get the benefits they desire in a timely fashion, but "incorporating the whole root powder into drinks is a wonderful way to make this powerful herb a part of one's regular health routine and ritual."
"As ashwagandha's main healing action is in the root, it is important to look for an organic or pesticide-free source that has been third-party tested for purity. Due to its aromatic strength—remember, it's called scent of a horse—most folks prefer to take ashwagandha as a tincture or supplemental capsule to avoid the taste. All herbs require commitment to experience true healing, and most clients will take something regularly if it is easy and pleasant to take. It is, however, customary to take the whole herb powder heated in milk with ghee, and jaggery (wonderfully unprocessed traditional brown sugar that is mineral-rich and delicious). This drink is an acquired taste for some but a soothing treat for others. I've made this drink and added cocoa powder and cinnamon for some very picky clients with great success." See below for McKelvey's favorite golden milk recipe.
Deeply Nourishing Golden Milk Recipe
1 cup whole milk or unsweetened nut milk (such almond or cashew)
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground turmeric or 1 tsp. grated fresh
1/4 to 1/2 tsp. ground ashwagandha
2 pinches of ground cardamom
Pinch of ground ginger (optional) or 1/2 tsp. grated fresh
Pinch of ground nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tsp. ghee (or coconut oil)
1 tsp. jaggery (or honey, preferably raw)
Add 1 tsp. of cocoa powder (optional)
Bring milk to a slow simmer in a saucepan over medium to low heat.
Whisk in all herbs. Whisk vigorously to break up any clumps.
Add ghee and jaggery and continue to lightly simmer for 10 minutes (or longer for a stronger flavor and more medicine).
Remove from heat, pour into your favorite mug, and drink warm. Best consumed about an hour before bedtime.