Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera Dunal) is the flagship herb of Ayurveda, the traditional system of medicine from India. This herb has been known for centuries but is only now experiencing major growth worldwide because of a burst of recent studies in pharmacology and medicine. Ashwagandha promotes balance in the body. It is an adaptogenic herb that helps the body successfully adapt to stressful conditions. Ashwagandha is one of the few herbs with significant effects on both psychological and physiological aspects of human functioning.
Both in independent clinical trials and in thousands of years of traditional use, the root is the part of the plant that is used predominantly, and not the aerials parts like the leaves. The use of the roots is on far better scientific foundation in terms of human clinical evidence and period of observation than the use of leaves. Experts argue for the use of the root only versus the leaves. Consistent with this, the canonical definition of ashwagandha in reference works like the pharmacopoeias is only on the root. These reference works are the United States Pharmacopoeia, the British Pharmacopoeia, the Indian Pharmacopoeia, the Ayurvedic Pharmacopoeia, Indian Materia Medica, the Health Canada monograph and the W.H.O. monograph. The leaf is in fact not even mentioned in any of them for therapeutic use. These reference works reflect the fact that expert consensus favors the root over the leaves.
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. 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.