Science Sunday: Ashwagandha and Parkinson’s

“Live neither in the past nor in the future, but let each day absorb all your interest, energy and enthusiasm. The best preparation for tomorrow is to live today superbly well.” William Osler

“It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.” Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.)

Background: Ayurveda medicine started in India and other south Asian countries over 3,000 years ago. Ayurveda is from the Sanskrit words ayur (which means ‘life’) and veda (‘to know’). Other sources reveal that Ayurveda translates as “the scripture for longevity.” Ayurveda is a holistic form of medicine using therapies typically derived from natural substances combined with mind-body work that includes treatment strategies like yoga and meditation. The ultimate goal of Ayurveda medicine is to promote or correct an imbalance between the body, mind, spirit, and the environment. This blog post concerns a single herb known as Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) and its overall physiological effects, primarily focused on the brain and central nervous system.

“Look to the nervous system as the key to maximum health.” Galen

Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) describes the use of medical products and techniques not typically seen in the normal state of Western medical practice. Thus, Complementary medicine is nonconventional medicine when used side by side with traditional Western medicine. Alternative medicine follows the nonconventional therapeutic path and is typically derived from long-existing medical systems deep-rooted in healing practices from China, India, and Africa. Thus, the most common CAM techniques have been used for thousands of years within ancient medical practices and include methods such as acupuncture, massage, yoga, mindfulness, and botanical compounds for therapy.

“The art of healing comes from nature and not from the physician. Therefore, the physician must start from nature with an open mind.” Paracelsus

Ashwagandha: Among the plants most often used in Ayurveda are, in the descending order of importance: (i) Ashwagandha, (ii) Brahmi, (iii) Jatamansi, (iv) Jyotishmati, (v) Mandukparni, (vi) Shankhapushpi, and (vii) Vacha. More recently, numerous studies have been using rodent models of disease to explore the effectiveness of Ashwagandha and several human-based clinical trials. There are hundreds of products being sold today as Ashwagandha, and one should be careful not to exceed any recommendation doses due to potential contaminants from the plant.

Like most CAM products, the chemical composition of Ashwagandha is complex and includes alkaloids, steroidal lactones, and saponins. It is beyond the scope of this blog post to discuss the various chemical structures just mentioned. However, the take-home message is that when dealing with CAM’s like Ashwagandha, the chemical composition makes it virtually impossible to discern which substance is responsible for measuring medicinal effects. This medicinal herb is anti-inflammatory and has positive benefits working to reduce anxiety, reduce stress, and possibly boost cognition. In addition, Ashwagandha has been used in the treatment of Parkinson’s. Thus, Ashwagandha has several important medicinal uses.

“All that man needs for health and healing has been provided by God in nature, the challenge of science is to find it.” Philippus Theophrastrus Bombast that of Aureolus  Paracelsus (1493-1541)

The Action of Ashwagandha in Experimental Studies: Many review articles conclude that Ashwagandha is one of the most valuable medicinal herbs. Scientific proof is slowly coming to prove this comment of the wealth of Ashwagandha to treating human disorders. However, numerous studies in animal models (mice and rats) have shown some of the medicinal uses of Ashwagandha to treat several conditions. What is lacking, and what will likely not happen quickly, are human studies to validate animal work. Some of the highlights of activity for Ashwagandha are given below and have been obtained from the references highlighted at the end. Due to the very broad actions of Ashwagandha, I have left out the biological processes/details and just briefly mentioned the actions (please search out the details from the citations given below):

•Anti-stress effects- Ashwagandha has been used in several studies to reduce stress, increase physical stamina, and prevent stress-induced ulcers (now these were in rodent scientific studies).

•Improvement in memory and cognition- Ashwagandha has been shown in human studies to help promote cognition and memory, especially seen following head injury, and advanced age.

•Treatment of neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s- Ashwagandha has been reported to help promote repair of neurons damaged in Parkinson’s, likely due to its antioxidative activity. In animal studies, it was shown to alter glutathione levels and reverse other anti-oxidants generated in this mouse model of Parkinson’s.

•Calming Action- Ashwagandha has been found to be both a calming and an anti-depressant in animal studies.

•Anti-inflammatory agent- Ashwagandha has been found to be a potent anti-inflammatory substance, which could be due to interactions with mitochondria within the cells.

“If we doctors threw all our medicines into the sea, it would be that much better for our patients and that much worse for the fishes.” Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendel Holmes

Final Comments and Other Reviews: Two thorough overviews of Ashwagandha were recently posted by Healthline (click here to read it) and Web MD (click here to read it).

When one has a disorder like Parkinson’s, one reads a lot and sometimes follows a CAM treatment strategy. I have always approached my treatment this way, and several years ago starting taking Ashwagandha daily*. Unfortunately, it is hard to say if it has had any beneficial effect. Still, it has several reported actions that potentially make it helpful in treating Parkinson’s (**NOTE: please read the medical disclaimer statement below).

*I take 1 capsule per day (650 mg) of the following Ashwagandha product from Amazon.com (click here).

**Medical Disclaimer: As with any advice given here, please consult your Neurologist before taking Ashwagandha. While Ashwagandha may have been used for thousands of years to treat a lot of medical disorders, that does not mean it is right for you to take for your Parkinson’s.

References:

Mukherjee, Pulok K., Subhadip Banerjee, Sayan Biswas, Bhaskar Das, Amit Kar, and C. K. Katiyar. “Withania somnifera (L.) Dunal-Modern perspectives of an ancient Rasayana from Ayurveda.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 264 (2021): 113157.

RajaSankar, Srinivasagam, Thamilarasan Manivasagam, and Sankar Surendran. “Ashwagandha leaf extract: a potential agent in treating oxidative damage and physiological abnormalities seen in a mouse model of Parkinson’s disease.” Neuroscience letters 454, no. 1 (2009): 11-15.

Ziauddin, Mohammed, Neeta Phansalkar, Pralhad Patki, Sham Diwanay, and Bhushan Patwardhan. “Studies on the immunomodulatory effects of Ashwagandha.” Journal of ethnopharmacology 50, no. 2 (1996): 69-76.

Mishra, Lakshmi-Chandra, Betsy B. Singh, and Simon Dagenais. “Scientific basis for the therapeutic use of Withania somnifera (ashwagandha): a review.” Alternative medicine review 5, no. 4 (2000): 334-346.

Singh, Narendra, Mohit Bhalla, Prashanti de Jager, and Marilena Gilca. “An overview on ashwagandha: a Rasayana (rejuvenator) of Ayurveda.” African Journal of Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicines 8, no. 5S (2011).

Zahiruddin, Sultan, Parakh Basist, Abida Parveen, Rabea Parveen, Washim Khan, and Sayeed Ahmad. “Ashwagandha in brain disorders: A review of recent developments.” Journal of ethnopharmacology 257 (2020): 112876.

Atal, C. K., and A. E. Schwarting. “Ashwagandha—an ancient Indian drug.” Economic Botany 15, no. 3 (1961): 256-263.

Salve, Jaysing, Sucheta Pate, Khokan Debnath, and Deepak Langade. “Adaptogenic and anxiolytic effects of ashwagandha root extract in healthy adults: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical study.” Cureus 11, no. 12 (2019).

Lopresti, Adrian L., Peter D. Drummond, and Stephen J. Smith. “A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study examining the hormonal and vitality effects of ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) in aging, overweight males.” American journal of men’s health 13, no. 2 (2019): 1557988319835985.

Lopresti, Adrian L., Stephen J. Smith, Hakeemudin Malvi, and Rahul Kodgule. “An investigation into the stress-relieving and pharmacological actions of an ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) extract: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study.” Medicine 98, no. 37 (2019).

Brar, Gursimrat Kaur, and Mehak Malhotra. “Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)–a herb with versatile medicinal properties empowering human physical and mental health.” Journal of Pre-Clinical and Clinical Research 15, no. 3 (2021): 129-133.

Gupta, Girdhari Lal, and A. C. Rana. “Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha): a review.” Pharmacognosy Reviews 1, no. 1 (2007).

“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.
Where a man can live, he can also live well.
Remember that very little is needed to make a happy life.
You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.
Your life is what your thoughts make it.”
Marcus Aurelius

Cover image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Ayuverda substances Tamanna Rumee from Pixabay

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