Ashwagandha is a plant that is native to Southeast Asia, and grown particularly in India. It has a few uses in cooking but is primarily used medicinally, and people are likely to find herbal preparations of the plant in a variety of countries. The name of these preparations may not always be the same, and other names under which medicines made from the plant might be sold include winter cherry, withania somnifera, and Indian ginseng.
In its natural form, ashwagandha is often compared in appearance to tomatoes, which is not surprising since both plants belong to the nightshade family. The fruit of Indian ginseng though, looks more like berries. These berries are typically the part of the plant used in cooking. They make a fine substitute for rennet, which is needed to create cheese.
Uses of winter cherry in cooking are perhaps least common. Instead, the plant is best known in the areas in which it is native, for its use in Ayuvedic medicine. The leaves and berries typically aren’t used, but instead the root has been considered effective for millennia in treating a variety of ills.
Some of the things ashwagandha has been thought to help conquer include insomnia. It has also been noted in anecdotal evidence that herbal preparations of the plant may increase sexual potency and fertility, and the medicine made from ashwagandha also is said to help with coughing and with tuberculosis, asthma and bronchitis.
People who suggest ashwagandha to those looking for herbal medicine may do so because it is considered an adaptogen. Adaptogens are herbal medications that raise stress resistance. However Indian ginseng is only one of the plants that is adaptogenic, and others might be more appropriate depending on symptoms.
The other properties which ashwagandha is known for include its analgesic (pain-relieving) benefits, and its antioxidant or anti-aging potential. There is a tiny amount of research suggesting the herb may also have cancer-fighting ability. In early 2000, as with many formerly little known plants, several countries rushed to place patents on the herb in order to potentially reap the rewards if the plant turned out to work miracles. The plant has not been thus far been revealed to be a magic bullet for ending aging or curing cancer, but herbal preparations have become increasingly popular in the western world.
As with many herbal medicines, there are few if any clinical double blind studies that support the use of ashwagandha. It’s not clear how safe it is, though the counterargument to this is that it has been used in Ayuvedic medicine for about 3000 years. It is still not recommended for children, and pregnant or breastfeeding women, as few studies exist to suggest it is safe. Its function and efficacy is also in question because there have been too few clinical studies to truly verify claims about how or if this herb works.
People may find ashwagandha in a variety of preparations. It may be sold as pills or in tincture form. There are several ointments made that contain it. A non-medicinal form of the plant is sold in what is called an “oil” but this contains other ingredients like almond and rose oil, and is usually used as topical facial treatment only.