The ashwagandha plant is a shrub native to North Africa, India and the Middle East. It belongs to the tomato family, and bears small red fruits.
Ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng, has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. Its name is Sanskrit for "the smell of a horse" – its use was thought to confer the energy and vitality of a stallion.
The withanolides found in ashwagandha root are believed to have a mild sedative effect on the body. As a supplement, ashwagandha is used to relieve anxiety and depression, and studies suggest that it may be effective in reducing cortisol, the stress hormone.
Ashwagandha is also sometimes used to treat insomnia and to promote healthy sleep.
The plant has natural anti-inflammatory compounds which are thought to help reduce the pain of arthritis and to help with pain management in chronic conditions.
Research suggests that ashwagandha is an adaptogen, which means that it helps the body to combat physical stress, especially following illness. For this reason, the herb may be of use to those who are emerging from a long period of illness, or whose immune system has been compromised following treatment.