Ashwagandha, Indian ginseng or “winter cherry” are common names of Withania somniera, which is a small evergreen-like shrub that grows naturally in Africa, India and the Middle East. The plant has also been introduced to the United States. The berries, leaves and roots of the herbal plant have been used for thousands of years in India as an ayruvedic medicinal remedy. The roots in particular are thought to provide symptomatic relief for people suffering from anxiety or depression.
Scientific evaluations of the plant reveal that ashwagandha contains many different chemical compounds that include alkaloids, saponins, steroidal lactones and withanolides, which act as building blocks for hormones. These compounds also give the plant compounds anti-anxiety, antidepressant and anti-inflammatory properties. Many believe that winter cherry possesses adaptogenic properties that balance hypoactive or hyperactive chemical imbalances.
The results of a study published in a 2009 issue of the “PloS One” medical journal explained how researchers performed clinical trials on the herb to determine the plant's potential benefits for the common mental health disorder. A group of participants diagnosed with anxiety were divided and provided with dietary counseling, relaxation techniques, psychotherapy, a placebo or 300 milligrams of ashwagandha daily. After 12 weeks, the group who underwent naturopathic treatments reported having substantial improvement related to mood, ability to concentrate, experiencing increased energy levels and enhanced social skills. Their results were more favorable compared to the group receiving conventional therapy and a placebo. The group taking the herbal remedy also did not suffer side effects.
A study performed in 2012 involved 64 participants who were divided into two groups. One group took 300 milligrams of ashwagandha daily and the other group received a placebo twice daily. After two months, the group taking the herbal formula had a significant reduction of anxiety symptoms. Laboratory blood tests also revealed that the herbal group had a reduction in their levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
A 2000 study published in an issue of “Phytomedicine” attributed ashwagandha root with antidepressant qualities similar to the prescription pharmaceutical imipramine. During the study, researchers administered the herbal formula or the conventional antidepressant medication to laboratory animals. Both preparations were equally effective. In 2007, Indian researchers published an article in the “Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology” following a study which evaluated the herbal's effectiveness in treating depression. Scientists claimed that the herb's ability was similar to diazempam. Other studies claim that formulations made from the plant's root are as effective as benzodiazepines.
The most common side effects experienced by individuals using ashwagandha included abdominal discomfort, bloating, diarrhea and nausea. The herbal formula should never be used by pregnant women. Herbal preparations are also likely to enhance the effects of thyroid supplements and medications that cause sedation.