Of all the medicinal plants used in India’s several millennia old tradition of Ayurveda, Ashwagandha, Withania somnifera, is the most highly prized. Use of the root can be traced back as far as 3,000 years. Ashwagandha is classified as a rasayan, a rejuvenating or life extending agent. The rasayan are the most esteemed of Ayurveda’s herbs, as they imbue the user with life itself. The root of the plant appears in remedies for cough, rheumatism, gynecological disorders, fatigue, emaciation, inflammation, ulcers, sore eyes, and diminished brain function.
Ashwagandha is also India’s most potent hot plant. It is used equally by men and women, and is widely prescribed by physicians to adults with low libido, and to improve sexual function. In the system of Ayurvedic medicine, Ashwagandha is king of the herbs. I was in the hot, tropical climes of southern India to research the plant, and to learn about its potent, sex-enhancing properties.
“The reason there is so much Ashwagandha here is that it is the very number one most popular plant in all of India,” Dr. Mitra told me. “A great many formulas in Ayurveda use Ashwagandha.” I asked about the sexual effects of the plant. “For that purpose it is the best of the best. Men and women take Ashwagandha to rebuild sexual vitality, and to restore proper and healthy sexual function. All doctors recommend it. It is the supreme medicinal plant.” Does Himalay Drug offer sex tonics containing Ashwagandha? “Yes, of course,” Dr Mitra assured me with a smile.
The Plant in The Ground
I found the plant pleasing to look at. A small woody shrub, Ashwagandha features elliptical green leaves, small uniform five-petaled flowers, and red seeds. The plant flowers year around. The root of the plant is the prize, which Anil Chojar showed me by having one of the SAMI farm workers hack a plant out of the ground. A long taproot and a mass of smaller roots held clumps of soil. According to the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, an acre of cultivated Ashwagandha will yield about 500 pounds of root, which when dry reduces to around 150 pounds. It takes a year to bring the plant to maturity. Harvest is usually between january and march. The plant is forgiving too, and requires little attention and no irrigation, even in the parched climate of southern India. Ashwagandha is a strong and vigorous plant, thriving where other plants wither and die.
Consider the fact that India requires thousands of tons of Ashwagandha each year to make various Ayurvedic preparations, and you get a vivid sense of the need for gigantic scale cultivation. One ton of dried root would require approximately thirteen acres of the plant under cultivation. One thousand tons would require thirteen thousand acres. Suresh Kumar explained that SAMI hoped to build up a substantial Ashwagandha cultivation enterprise, to become less dependent on other sources over time. Large scale cultivation of Ashwagandha had been ongoing for many years in both Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh states, but still demand continued to exert tremendous pressure on supply. And wild supplies, especially where most abundant in warmer regions, were being over harvested.
“Ashwagandha is used in many cases, for virtually every condition. It is also especially good for restoring vitality and full sexual potency. We work with many clinicians, and we get very good information about the results they obtain with patients. Ashwagandha is not a myth as far as its sexual effects are concerned. The root is very potent, and it unquestionably builds sexual vitality.”
“The Indian Materia Medica recommends use of Ashwagandha for general debility, impotence, general aphrodisiac purposes, brain fatigue, low sperm count, nervous exhaustion, and in any cases in which general vigor must be restored. For men and women, for the old and the young, Ashwagandha builds strength from within. ” - Chris Kilham, on Ashwagandha
I asked both Suresh and Subbaraju about the traditional use of Ashwagandha among hill tribes. For in the Nilgiri Hills, five distinct tribal groups dwell in the forests. Subbaraju has studied these tribal people, and has extensively documented their medicines. He is the definitive scientific expert on hill tribe medicines. “Among the tribals, Ashwagandha is also used for sexual purposes. This use is so effective, the tribal people, whose medicine is different from traditional Ayurveda, still use Ashwagandha for sex. You can ask any of the tribals what Ashwagandha is for, and sex will be one of the very first uses they describe.” Two of India’s most learned and scientifically astute experts in medicinal plants agreed that Ashwagandha is superior to virtually all other plants in the Ayurvedic pharmacopoeia.
Ashwagandha’s Chemical Soul
JSS College of Pharmacy boasts several modern laboratories where students and senior researchers investigate the phytochemicals – the natural plant compounds – in many medicinal plants. Researchers at JSS and other centers of plant research have discovered numerous compounds in Ashwagandha. The plant also contains alkaloids such as ashwagandhine, withanine and somniferiene. What accounts for ashwagandha’s seemingly remarkable versatility as a beneficial healer? The plant is rich in potent alkaloids, among which are withamosine, visamine, cuscohygrine, anahygrine, tropine, pseudotropine, anaferine, isopelletierine, and withaferin A. The plant contains a large number of novel compounds known as withanolides, which are novel to the plant and are typically used to standardize the potency of extracts. Whether one or two of these compounds are responsible for the plant’s remarkable health-imbuing versatility, or whether Ashwagandha value is due to an incredibly complex synergy of all its natural constituents, is a matter which may take a long time to solve by scientific means. One of the lab heads at JSS showed me some notes about components from Ashwagandha. “We work very hard to understand the plants, to know what is inside them. Then we can figure out what these compounds do in a living system, and advance the science of plant medicine.” According to research conducted at JSS and elsewhere, components in Ashwagandha possess tonic, anti-inflammatory, aphrodisiac, immune enhancing, anxiety-relieving and nerve sedative properties.
Animal and Human Studies
I would like to say that a plethora of human studies show that Ashwagandha is a superior sex-enhancer. But there are no studies on this use of Ashwagandha. But keep in mind that the root enjoys three thousand years of exactly such an application, by millions of satisfied people. So while no clinical studies on the aphrodisiac effects of Ashwagandha have been conducted to date, legions of people have gotten such an effect. This is in fact far more significant. In India, studying Ashwagandha to see if the root demonstrates aphrodisiac properties would be like conducting a study to see if people get wet when they take showers. These effects are self evident, reinforced by millennia of results. Of course it will be a nice corroborating touch when such a study is undertaken, but the positive results already exist in spades.
The Indian Materia Medica recommends use of Ashwagandha for general debility, impotence, general aphrodisiac purposes, brain fatigue, low sperm count, nervous exhaustion, and in any cases in which general vigor must be restored. For men and women, for the old and the young, Ashwagandha builds strength from within. Often, this strength and vitality manifests as newfound or restored sexual vigor and function. One ayurvedic aphrodisiac formula combines one part Ashwagandha to ten parts milk and one part ghee (clarified butter). You boil the mixture down until only ghee remains. This end product is called Ashwagandha Ghrita. You take about a heaping tablespoon of this mixture in the morning and in the evening, and according to ancient texts, you will experience a significant boost in libido and sexual stamina.
Ashwagandha has been studied as an adaptogen, that class of natural plant agents which enhance overall immunity and build non-specific resistance to various stresses. In one human clinical study, Ashwagandha improved overall mental aptitude and reaction time.
In animal studies, Ashwagandha demonstrates significant stress-fighting power. This is unquestionably key to the plant’s sex-enhancing powers. Stress factors of all kinds compromise virtually every system of the body, producing stress chemicals which in turn diminish the function of organs and glands. In the domino effect of stress’s ravaging of the human system, fatigue, reduced immunity and sexual debility go hand in hand. The overwhelming stresses of life leave people feeling devitalized. But when you take Ashwagandha, that equation begins to turn around. As an adaptogen, the root helps the body to normalize all aspects of healthy function in the face of stress. One of the many noticeable areas in which this turnaround takes place is sexual. Men and women who have lost their desire for sex, or have lost function, find that they become aroused again – and ready to engage in sexual activity.
A variety of Ashwagandha products have made their way into the US supplement market. If you are going to use the powdered root, then the Ayurvedic Pharmacopoeia of India recommends 3 – 6 grams daily.
Most people will prefer a tablet or encapsulated product. Some companies now offer extracts of Ashwagandha, standardized to a specified level of withanolides. A daily dose is approximately 250 – 500 milligrams of extract standardized to 4 – 5% withanolides.