What Is Ashwagandha, and Why Is It in Your Food?

POPSUGAR Photography | Maria del Rio
POPSUGAR Photography | Maria del Rio

You may have noticed some new words on your health foods lately, from reishi to maca and everything in between. What are these things? How do you even pronounce them? Today we're going to dive into a superfood trend that's actually not so new (in fact, it's pretty ancient): ashwagandha. You may have noticed it on your kombucha labels or on supplement shelves at the grocery store, but what is it?

What Is Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha is a superherb and adaptogen used in Ayurvedic healing and traditional Chinese medicine. The shrub from which it grows — also known as withania somnifera, Indian ginseng, and poison gooseberry (yikes) — is part of the nightshade family (like tomatoes), and the fruit it yields looks like a red berry. It originally was grown in northern Africa, India, and parts of the Middle East, though now it also grows in temperate and mild climates in the United States.

The roots of the ashwagandha plant are dried and ground into the powdery herb. Ashwagandha extract is also derived from this plant for healing purposes.

What Does It Do?

In Sanskrit, ashwagandha actually means "smell of a horse," (yum) which has less to do with the actual smell of the herb and more about its revitalizing properties. This herb was known to give the "strength of a stallion" by Ayurvedic practitioners in India.

As for possible healing properties within natural medicine and holistic treatment, here are some benefits ashwagandha is used for (and some have been scientifically studied within the past 10 years!):

  • Stress relief and cortisol reduction
  • Fighting fatigue and boosting energy
  • Reducing anxiety and depression
  • Improving mood
  • Heightening focus and mental clarity
  • Increasing stamina
  • Boosting the immune system

What Do You Do With It?

You eat it! Ashwagandha is offered in capsules and powder form most often, but you can also find it in fancy drinks, teas and tinctures, and in certain types of ghee and honey. If you go the capsule route, you can add it into your vitamin or natural supplement routine. Thinking about trying the powders? Make a superfood cocoa or mix it into your smoothie or juice — maybe even a spicy veggie dish! Just want to give it a try before committing? Check out Suja's ginger kombucha with ashwagandha or Rebbl's ashwagandha chai (both of which can be found at Target).

Ashwagandha is all natural and has been used for centuries, but as with everything, be mindful about your use if you start consuming it in larger quantities. Whether you add it to your food as a supplement or start buying products infused with this superherb, it's always a good idea to consult your doctor and/or dietitian before making big changes to your supplement routine.