Ashwagandha, sometimes called the “king” of ayurvedic herbs, has been gaining traction in the North American marketplace. A big part of the reason is the investments in clinical science and the marketing support made by major suppliers of the ingredient, suppliers who have pursued divergent product development strategies.
In surveying the modern forms of ashwagandha available in the market, a question arises; for this ingredient, as for many others that come out of a long tradition of indigenous use, be it ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine or some other, to what extent should that ingredient mirror the traditional delivery forms in order to be able to lay claim to the same benefits?
A history as old as record keeping itself
Ashwagandha is the subject of a monograph by the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia. According to the monograph, the herb has a history of use in ayurvedic medicine that dates back as much as 4,000 years to the teaching of renowned scholar Punarvasu Atreya, and in subsequent works that make up the ayurvedic tradition. The name of the herb derives from Sanskrit, and means “smells like a horse,” which refers to the strong smell of the root which is said to be redolent of horse sweat or urine.
In its traditional uses, ashwagandha has a remarkable array of applications. It has been used as a general tonic in case of emaciation, as a rejuvenative tonic (or rasayana) and as a mile purgative. It has also been used by ayurvedic practitioners to quell inflammation, to treat asthma, bronchitis and arthritis, and to promote contraception.
Ashwagandha (Withania sonminfera) is a woody shrub that ranges in size from boot height to something over four feet. It is found in semi-arid habitats from Africa and the Mediterranean east into India. Commercial supplies are obtained from both wild and cultivated sources.
Traditional uses of the herb related to various concoctions using the powder obtained from the whole, dried root. Therefore, the most information—and clinical evidence—pertains to this form of the ingredient.
“There are a host of studies on a variety of different ashwagandha preparations; root powder, root extract, leaf, leaf extract, root and leaf extract; water extract; ethanol-water extract; solvent extract; pure withanolides,” said Roy Upton, executive director of AHP.
“If one were to collect all of the studies that have ever been conducted on ashwagandha and tally them up, the largest number of studies would be from whole powder not from any extract root or otherwise because the whole powder has simply been around a lot longer,” said Suzanne McNeary, president and managing director of NutraGenesis, a company that supplies a patented ashwagandha extract called Sensoril.
“The majority of studies, including the animal studies, clinical, safety data is available on the preparations or extracts of roots,” said Dr. Anurag Pande, vice president of scientific affacirs for Sabinsa Corporation, which supplies an ashwagandha extract.
Sensoril includes extracts of both the leaf and the root of the ashwaganda plant, which represents a departure from the traditional forms of the ingredient, Upton said.
“In terms of integrity with traditional ayurvedic medicine, consumption of the root powder itself, a decoction of the root powder, or a traditional food preparation (e.g., root powder boiled in milk or as a rasayana) would be most consistent with traditional practice,” he said.
Many innovations over the years
But that runs counter to the modern development of dietary supplement ingredients. Some botanical ingredients present in the modern marketplace are prepared for sale in ways that would be familiar to practitioners of a bygone age save for the addition of some mechanization. But for many ingredients, new technologies have been applied to ease processing, remove impurities or boost the concentration of active compounds.
“Most extracts would represent ‘innovation’ that have occurred in modern times,” Upton said. “For example, high alcohol content solvents, hexane, and other similar solvents were not traditionally used.”
Innovation as differentiator
And innovation is key, McNeary of NutraGenesis said.
“Good science is all about innovation and improvement on the past which creates better and more efficacious ingredients for the present and future. Sensoril is a product of such innovation. The intellectual property for Sensoril is broad and covers extracts with 3% or higher withanolide content derived from root, root and leaf, etc.
“Ashwagandha research on the identified compounds in both the root and the leaf show that a large number of them are common between the two plant parts,” she said.
Emphasis on tradition
On the flip side, Ixoreal Biomed, which supplies KSM-66, a whole-root ashwaganda extract that won an award for “Best Botanical” at the recent Natural Products Expo West/Engredea trade show in Anaheim, CA, is emphasizing tradition.
“True to ayurveda, true to the root,” is the company’s motto, said Anand Bodapati, PhD, a business school professor at the University of California Los Angeles who supervised Ixoreal’s clinical trials.
“There are the people who believe in isolating ingredients (such as withanolides). There is another camp that focuses on full spectrum extract. So I think the people who are coming to KSM-66 are traditionalists who want a root extract,” Bodopati said.
But even with its emphasis on tradition, Ixoreal claims that its a proprietary water extraction technology mitigates the strong, bitter flavor of whole root ashwagandha powders prepared using traditional methods. This innovation could boost the extract’s possible use as a functional food ingredient, said Bodopati.
An adept adaptogenic
In its modern forms, ashwagandha is most often mentioned for the way it helps keep users on an even keel.
“The prime role of ashwagandha is as an adaptogen. Studies have shown that apart from adaptogenic function, it has role as anxiolytic and antidepressant, reducing chronic stress,” said Sabinsa’s Pande.
“Adaptogen” is a term coined by Russian pharmacognosist Nikolai Lazaerev who provided a definition: a pharmacologically active substance that, in a nonspecific manner, enhances the resistance of an organism to adapt to various stressors. Ashwagandha shares with other often studied adaptogens, such as ginseng, schisandra and Siberian ginseng, the property of having many active compounds.
“Metabolomic work from a few years ago (2010) reported 62 clearly identifiable compounds in the leaf or ashwagandha and 48 from the roots. Of these, 29 compounds were common between the two plant parts. These included fatty acids, organic acids, amino acids, sugars and sterol based compounds,” Upton said.
“The activity of ashwagandha is clearly associated with a myriad of compounds; whole extracts has been associated with a host of benefits that are consistent with the actions of the individual constituents,” he said.
Among the primary active components of ashwagandha are withanolides that have anti-inflammatory and both immunostimulating and immunosuppressive activity, as well as anxiolytic and anti-depressant activity and withaferin A that has been shown to have anti-tumor and antibacterial activity.
Studies on specific ingredients
So, is the answer to achieving these benefits found in boosting the content of these compounds via a root-only extract or by extracting the leaves too? Can both approaches yield efficacious ingredients? In that both approaches represent expansions on traditional whole root powders, the many studies using these source materials would seem to be less useful in answering these questions. And it can be assumed that many of these older studies suffer from the weakness that plagues many clinical trials of botanical ingredients, namely that the source materials used are poorly characterized and/or inconsistently standardized.
So one would need to look to more recent studies using well-characterized modern ingredients. And that picture is coming into clearer focus as both NutraGenesis and Ixoreal have stepped up to the plate to fund studies using their respective ingredients.
Ixoreal recently released the results of a study that showed that 600 mg daily of KSM-66 extract when administered to test subjects for 60 days was associated with a 30% reduction in cortisol levels.
The study, published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine , also found that KSM 66 supplementation improved sleep quality, productivity and the extent of mental calmness and relaxation. This was the fifth clinical study on the ingredient, according to the company.
NutraGenesis, for its part, also recently announced the completion of its own fifth clinical trial, though none has yet been published. The studies have ranged from memory and mental cognition support with patients experiencing short term memory and focus issues, a study on the ingredient’s effect on Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and studies looking at endothelial function, cold stress and mental stress. To read our coverage of those studies, and their potential implications, please click here .
Old ingredients—new approaches
The development of new approaches to old ingredients is one of the driving forces of the modern botanical marketplace. And Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council (ABC) and an expert on herbal formulations (and their adulterants) is all for it, assuming suppliers are upfront with customers and end users about their products.
“It reflects the relative diversity and robustness of the modern herbal market, with product innovation and science being key factors in the development of new ingredients -- so long as the certificates of analyses for these ingredients and the consumer products in which they are sold accurately state the plant part(s) included,”he said.