Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera Dunal) is the most popular Indian botanical plant and has been in use in Ayurveda, the 5,000 year old Indian system of medicine, as a rejuvenative and a daily tonic for many centuries. It is only now that ashwagandha is experiencing major growth worldwide because of a burst of recent studies in pharmacology.
Ashwagandha embodies the very essence of the preventative and curative approach to health in Ayurveda. Ashwagandha operates at the level of the overall body system by helping maintain balance in the substances and processes running in the human body.
Ashwagandha is a small, woody shrub in the Solanaceae family that grows to about two feet in height. It can be found growing extensively in India as well as in a few parts of the Mediterranean and Africa. As a result of this wide ranging habitat, there are considerable morphological and chemo-typical variations in local species. However, the root phytoactives of both the wild and the cultivated species appear to be the same. The roots are the main portion of the plant that are used therapeutically.
Ashwagandha is referred to as the "Prince of Herbs" in Ayurveda because it has an impressively broad range of therapeutic effects. Such a broad range of effects arises perhaps because ashwagandha is one of the more complex herbs with many phytochemical constituents in it.
While in the natural products marketplace, much of the discussion on ashwagandha is centered around the withanolides constituents or alkaloid constituents, Ayurvedic experts and doctors emphasize that there is much more to ashwagandha than just the withanolides. The synergistic effect from this diverse set of active constituents is believed to be responsible for the multiple therapeutic properties of ashwagandha.
Some of these constituents found are: alkaloids (including withanine, somniferine, isopelietierine, anaferine, tropine, pseudotropine, anahygrine, beta-sisterol, cuscohygrine, scopoletin, somniferinine, tropanol, withananine), flavonoids, saponins, sitoindosides, iron, choline, acylsteryl glucosides, coumarins (scopoletin and aesculetin), triterpene (beta-amyrin), phytosterols (stigmasterol and beta-sitosterol), minerals, essential oils (ipuranol, withaniol), somnine, pseudowithanine, 3-a-gloyloxytropane, cuscohygrine, sopelletierine, anahydrine.
Withanolides are an important (though by no means the sole critical) set of the major bioactive constituents of the ashwagandha root. At present, more than 140 withanolides from this plant have been isolated and are being studied. Ashwagandha is thought to be an amphoteric, meaning that it may help regulate important physiological processes.