Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a compact shrubby plant in the nightshade family, making it a botanical cousin to the potato and tomato. Its species name comes from Latin to mean "induce sleep." Its common name comes from Hindu and translates to "horse smell," a reference to the fact that the plant emits a leathery, horse-like aroma. The herb is also known by many other common names, among them koorshout, penneroo-gadda, winter cherry and, because it is used in the Ayurveda system of healing as a restorative and adaptogen, as Indian ginseng. In fact, in India, it is attributed with possessing "rasayana," or rejuvenating properties. It is also reputed to increase longevity.
According to researchers from the Exercise and Performance Nutrition Laboratory at Lindenwood University in Missouri and The Center for Applied Health Sciences in Ohio, there is evidence to indicate that ashwagandha, like ginseng, may enhance endurance and athletic performance. In a 12-week study, these scientists observed the effects of the herb versus placebo on 38 "recreationally active" men. The study participants were split into two groups -- the control group was given a daily dose of 500mg capsule of liquid ashwagandha extract and the placebo group a capsule containing rice flour.
For the duration of the study, the men underwent exercising testing that involved bench pressing and squats at a clinic four times each week, and blood analysis and body measurements were taken at frequent intervals. At the end of the study period, the researchers found a significant improvement in upper and lower body strength in the control group with less muscle soreness than the placebo group. Although this is only a preliminary study, the results support historical use of this herb as well as offer promise in the future of sports nutrition.
Ashwagandha may be encapsulated and taken as a dietary supplement. It can also a common culinary herb in Indian cuisine. The dried leaf is added to soups and stews or prepared as tea, alone or in combination with other herbs. The powdered herb is mixed with ghee (clarified butter) and honey to produce "chuma," which is used to flavor rice and vegetable dishes.
Ziegenfuss TN, Kedia AW, Sandrock JE, et al. "Effects of an Aqueous Extract of Withania somnifera on Strength Training Adaptations and Recovery: The STAR Trial." Nutrients. 2018 Nov 20;10(11). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30463324