Ashwagandha 101: An Ancient Plant in the Modern Wellness Spotlight

    Although few can spell it correctly, ashwagandha is the talk of the town. The nutraceutical or adaptogenic plant is showing up in everything from multivitamin supplements and trendy smoothie mixes to CBD tinctures, and even one of Coca Cola’s latest Smart Water flavors. 

    To better illuminate why a plant with 5,000-year-old roots in Ayurveda, the traditional system of medicine in India, is on the minds of the largest food and beverage companies in the country, Jeff Johnson, the founder of Portland Ashwagandha Farm, shed some light on this fascinating nightshade.

    Jeff Johnson (left), founder of Portland Ashwagandha Farm, gives a tour.

    “When we’re talking about ashwagandha as you see it in stores now, we’re talking about the nutritive herbal root,” says Johnson. “But it’s a whole plant—it’s got leaves, stems and fruits, too. There’s been some really interesting recent studies on the medical properties of the leaves. This is one of the most studied plants in the world, and yet we’re only at the beginning of understanding it.”

    Prior to founding PAF in 2015, Johnson ran a biodynamic CSA farm also in Portland, Ore. He had always connected with the study of spiritual science like Ayurveda and counts botanist Luther Burbank as a personal hero, so growing by these practices and harvesting by the moon brought him even more “in tune with the plants” he grew. The CSA sold vegetables and herbs at farmers markets, as well as its own pickled items and homemade tinctures direct to consumers. The one that people kept coming back for was ashwagandha.

    “When I would ask people what’s been bothering them, the refrain was, I’m tired. I’m exhausted. I’m stressed. I can’t sleep. I gave them ashwagandha, and things would get better. They’d come back, squint their eyes, lean forward and say, ‘Jeff—I’m sleeping!’”

    Also known as American or Indian ginseng, the plant itself has oval-shaped leaves and little red berries. There are many different ways to grow it—depending on the soil, climate, and seed genetics, according to Johnson—but on average, it’s a 200-day plant. And it is indeed a deeply studied one. Numerous reports from the National Library of Medicine demonstrate how the plant enhances brain function and aids the nervous system. It also improves the function of the reproductive system and regulates thyroid issues. 

    From our glands through our deep tissue to our very DNA strands, ashwagandha seems to enhance the body’s resilience to stress in a real, long-term way. There is also a psychological effect that relieves stress in real time, creating an environment for your body and mind to release stress while it gets better at dissolving it. Johnson has an ashwagandha prayer, a sort of mantra he says the plants once said to him: “May the traumas of life turn to a fine dust and blow away in a warm breeze.”

    Although its uses in Ayurveda, Urdu traditions, and North African communities can be described as religious in nature by modern terms, it’s important to note the difference in how these cultures approach the harmony of spiritual and physical wellbeing.

    “Throughout the 20th century, the philosophy of better living through chemistry really flushed plant traditions down the toilet,” notes Johnson. “A big part of what our generation has to do is correct that miscalculation—that abandonment and domination over nature—and find balance again.”

    He sees that miscalculation as a contributor to today’s wellness trends—to people’s increased interest in alternative health remedies like ashwagandha. People, he believes, crave a connection to nature they can’t get through contemporary healthcare systems.

    “On the one hand, it’s the alienation people feel from the medical system at this point,” says Johnson, in regards to ashwaganda’s current limelight. “People feel betrayed by the whole industrial promise. People want to find a better way. I also think cannabis legalization has made plants and farming cool again, and I think it’s been a bellwether of the shift towards natural solutions. I’m all for it—it’s time to integrate science and spirituality and plants in a thoughtful way.”

    For those seeking to integrate by growing their own, Johnson advises seeding it inside and making sure it doesn’t freeze. He said to treat it like a tomato, “sort of,” and to harvest when the leaves turn yellow. Most significantly, he said to let the plant do its thing.

    “It’s a nightshade, which is a plant that really shows how unbothered it is by its surroundings. Whenever, wherever, up out of the side of sidewalks. When a stem snaps in half, it’ll grow a whole other plant out of the broken stem. It’s like flipping trauma the bird and saying, ‘I don’t care, I’m just going to grow.’ That is the essence of ashwagandha.” 

    Maybe it will help anyone ingesting it do the same.

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