The featured herb for Autumn is… Ashwagandha!
I chose this herb for the fall newsletter for a couple reasons. First, because it is one of my most favorite herbs and thus it is easy to talk about and give high high praises! Secondly, it is specific for balancing vata, which is currently on the rise. I mean this in a couple ways. One because it is fall and as you now know-the fall season tends to increase vata, but also because our modern world is so hectic that vata is constantly being provoked. I bet you can already guess what some of this herbs qualities might be. See, your already thinking in the magical language of Ayurveda.
Details: As with most herbs, there are several names for Ashwagandha. The Latin name is Withania somnifera. Sometimes Ashwagandha is referred to as “Indian Ginseng” and another common name for it is Winter Cherry. I think that is what the Brits called it. However, the most common name today is ‘Ashwagandha’, which is it’s traditional Sanskrit name. This name gives us clues to this herbs special powers. This was common back in the day. Where prized herbs were concerned, the ancient rishis of Ayurveda cared to give them honorable names that helped trigger an overall understanding of the herb for the common people. I love this, as opposed to the western practice of naming an herb after oneself because that person was the “first” to discover it. Ashwagandha is a perfect example of helpful and honorable. “Ashwa” means horse or stallion and “gandha” means smell, fragrance or earthy. Thus, many translate Ashwa-gandha simply as “the smell of a horse”. I greatly prefer this translation by one of my most admired herbalists, and a Sanskrit pro at that “Ashwagandha means “the rooted power of a horse” or “being strong and valuable like a stallion.” Prashanti De Jager. When the root of the word “gandha” is broken down we see this- “gan” means to value and “dha” means to bestow. Together “gan-dha” means smell or the value bestowed. Sanskrit is neat like this as anyone who looks up the many meanings of the words can essentially come up with a translation. My personal translation is -“this herb will bestow on you the value of a horse” which before machines and cars was a BIG value! Anyway, Ashwagandha’s name, as well as centuries of use, both tell us that it is a prized herb which: supports endurance, increases strength and stamina, gives enduring vitality and yet promotes a calm, centered and stable nervous system.
In Western Herbalism there is a special category that some herbs fall into called “adaptogens”. Herbs in this category, “adaptogenic herbs”, help the body “adapt to” stress. This is achieved in myriads of ways and many of the methods are still not understood by modern scientists. I want to make a comparison here between adaptogens and stimulants. Stimulants can stimulate us to feel more awake, and even more vigorous, but when they wear off, the net effect is that we drop down below where we started. They are also fast acting and if used with regularity can have a negative effect on the nervous system as well as the adrenals. Adaptogens on the other hand, work slowly over time, as they build up in our systems. They support the nervous system and the adrenals so much that they give us energy by increasing our overall vitality. These are the herbs for the modern world, yet the modern world thinks it needs stimulants. Ashwagandha defines adaptogen for it helps support a healthy immune system, rebuilds the body’s energy reserves, supports kidney function, relieves exhaustion, yet keeps you feeling peaceful and relaxed enough that it allows the body to fall asleep with ease. It is a balm for the nervous system!
“In a world where eighty percent of all disease can be attributed to stress it is not surprising that we are attracted to the Ayurvedic herb, Ashwaganda. This amazing herb neither stimulates nor sedates, it offers a deep rejuvenation to the whole body and mind that no herb has yet to match.”
— Dr. John Douillard, Doctor of Ayurvedic Medicine
In Ayurveda there are two main categories that herbs or treatments can fall into- “brimhana” toning or nourishing and “langhana” reducing or detoxifying. Brimhana treatments or herbs are anabolic, they use therapies that promote earth and water elements to build, while langhana treatments lighten by using the catabolic ether, air, and fire elements to reduce. Ashwagandha is most defiantly brimhana. The part of the herb used is the root and like many roots it stores both energy for the plant and nutrition. It is high in earth and water elements, which balance the ether and air of vata. It offers powerful nutritional support to rejuvenate both the mind and body. It does this by nourishing the nervous system and by minimizing the negative effects of stress, which are catabolic. Again this helps to increase endurance and stamina but will not cause insomnia but actually helps it.