Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has a methodical and organized system for the classification of herbal medicines. These classifications have been developed over many hundreds of years of careful observation and documentation of each of the traditional herbs and their effect on the human body. Due to isolation and long distances between different countries and cultures, certain significant herbal medicines (such as Ashwagandha from India) are not currently classified per TCM principles.
The systems of Ayurveda and TCM are juxtaposed, herein, to establish a parallel between the two systems. In TCM, each herbal substance has its distinct attributes; therefore, a side-by-side comparison was made between each relevant herb and Ashwagandha. Because of this comparison, in the TCM herbal classification system, Ashwagandha can be categorized as “Tonify Qi” and “Tonify Blood and Essence”. This comparison, depicted in (Table 1), provides evidence to classify Ashwagandha in TCM accurately and establishes a methodology by which other relevant herbal medicines can be joined with Chinese medicine and classified under TCM categories and terms.
Keywords: Abortifacient; Adaptogen; Ashwagandha; Ayurveda; Chínese Medicine; Dunal; Qi; Materia Medica; TCM; Withania somnifera
Abbreviations: PDR: Physicians’ Desk Reference; TCM: Traditional Chinese Medicine
The Compendium of Materia Medica (written by Li Shizhen), upon which TCM is based, lists and classifies, among grasses and plants, those herbs that were found or known to exist in China at the time of its writing during the Ming Dynasty (the first draft completed in 1578). The essence and purpose of this paper is to propose well-documented herbs outside of the historical TCM "universe" be included in Materia Medica; and by doing so, certain herbal medicines, such as Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)–a foundational herb in traditional Indian Ayurveda (Ayurvedic Medicine)–can be used effectively in accordance with existing TCM diagnostic criteria and treatment protocol.
Withania somnifera and Withania somnifera (Dunal) are interchangeable scientific names for the herb Ashwagandha. Michel Felix Dunal (1789-1856) was a French botanist and professor of botany in Montpellier, France. Some herbal experts use “Dunal“to acknowledge the professor involved in classifying the Solanaceous plant genus, under which Ashwagandha is listed. (The name Withernia somnifera is sometimes seen in the literature, mistakenly or not).
This paper is the first in a series of papers; the series title being “Merging Ayurvedic Ashwagandha with Traditional Chinese Medicine”. This first paper’s subtitle is “Foundation in Ashwagandha: Physiological Effects, Clinical Efficacy, and Properties”. The subsequent papers will investigate apoptogenic herbs; physiological effects; TCM herb classification and Ayurvedic herb classification, and a comparison thereof; and a conclusion that supports the recognition of Ashwagandha in TCM and its inclusion in Materia Medica which is TCM’s herbal equivalent to Western medicine’s pharmaceutical PDR. Each paper is stand alone, and can be read as such if the reader simply has an interest in one topic. However, the papers will also be linked resulting in an in-depth review of the herb, Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha), and its proposed inclusion and role as a fundamental herb in TCM.
1.1 The Proposition for the Inclusion of Ashwagandha in
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has a
5,000-year history and describes the 2,000-year-old tradition of medical
theories and herbal classification and applications for the intervention in and
prevention of illness and for maintaining health and well-being. In TCM, the
primary therapeutic component is herbal substances. The herbs utilized have
been methodically classified and organized following Chinese medical theories,
which have culminated in several monumental works detailing the discovery and
therapeutic development of herbal medicines. The following are three classical
written works (Chinese herbal texts) dating back to 125 CE:
Nong's Herbal Classic (Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing) (200-250 CE)
Medica Tang Edition (Tang Ben Cao) (1057 CE)
Compendium of Materia Medica (Bencao Gangmu) (1578 CE)
Two contemporary texts in English are as follows:
Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology, 1st Edition, by J.
Chen and T. Chen (2004)
Materia Medica, 3rd Edition, by Dan Bensky, et al. (2015)
past century, with the worldwide dominance of Western medical science and its
pharmaceutical intervention orientation to health management, many herbs have
been counter-classified regarding their physiological effects and potential.
These herbs have now been arranged based on their direct physiological impact
on the body from a microbiological perspective. In this regard, many herbs fail
to meet scientific criteria on par with the anecdotal evidence of historical
and contemporary proponents and users of the herbs or derivatives. Empirical
studies are required to prove efficacy. These studies and observations must be
of high quality-with
peer-review acceptance-making them suitable for the scientific and medical
The TCM “herbal classics”
include mainly herbs found in China and surrounding areas; those were the herbs
principally at hand during the period these herbs were commonly used, and
subsequently documented. However, some of the herbs included were those found
in other parts of the world, beyond China, where they were recognized for
medicinal properties in those different cultures and countries. As trade
foreign trade found its way with China, “foreign” herbs found their way into
the TCM system through the purview of Chinese herbal medicine scholars and
Withenia somnifera (Dunal) is referred to in Indian Ayurvedic
medicine as Ashwagandha. This extraordinary herb, with its significant healing
and medicinal properties, warrants inclusion in the TCM Materia
In this way, Ashwagandha would be included in TCM textbooks, taught at TCM
schools, and recognized by TCM practitioners as an effective herbal medicine in
the treatment and prevention of certain diseases (Table 1).
Note: Comparison of
characteristics of Ashwagandha with traditional TCM herbs evidencing
Ashwagandha’s similarities thus supporting the case for its inclusion in Materia
Medica. Copyright © 2016 by Michael Forman.
1.2 Classification and Etymology of Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is scientifically classified
as Withania somnifera (Dunal); it
belongs to the botanical family Solanaceae. Long revered as a cure-all herb in
India and its importance in Ayurvedic medicine. Ayurveda is a traditional
system of healing that can be traced back to 6,000 BC. Ashwagandha’s reputation
is one of the essential herbs in Ayurvedic medicine. This “famous” herb is
classified as Rasayana (a tonic), e.g., a group of plants having properties to
rejuvenate the body, promote the body’s defense against disease, slow the aging
process, and enhance memory .
Ashwagandha derives its name from the
Sanskrit words “ashva” (meaning horse) and “gandha” (meaning smell) due to the
horse-like odor of the roots. Another reason for its name is the belief that
consuming the plant’s extracts will give a person the strength and vitality of
a horse .
in India, the root of the plant is considered the crucial component which is
crushed and used as a fine powder, called “churna”. This powder form allows for easy
blending with water, milk, honey or other fluids . Ashwagandha has
been used as an aphrodisiac, liver tonic, diuretic, astringent, and
It has been given to children as a tonic and to elderly for rheumatism,
insomnia, constipation, and nervous breakdown .
1.3 Description of Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha grows as a small, woody shrub,
usually 2 to 5 feet tall. It has oval, small yellowish-green leaves with
five-petaled flowers and has red and yellow berries (Figure
Though the leaves and berries have also
been tested and used for medicinal properties, Ashwagandha’s main therapeutic
components are found in its whitish-brown roots that can grow up to 2 feet in
length Withania Somnifera, 2004
The plant commonly grows in India,
especially in areas closest to the Himalayan region. It has been found growing
in Africa and the Mediterranean. It blooms year-round and can survive in hot,
arid conditions where many other plants cannot. In Ayurveda, plants that can
survive in harsh conditions are considered to have strong healing and
tonification properties Withania
Ashwagandha is a known adaptogen;
therefore, each TCM herb that was used for comparison is considered
apoptogenic. A comparison of the active chemical constituents was made,
including phytochemicals and alkaloids, to demonstrate a distinctly close
relationship-on a chemical level-among the herbs compared.
According to the online dictionary
meriam-webster.com, an adaptogen or apoptogenic substance is “a
nontoxic substance, and especially a plant extract, that is held to increase
the body's ability to resist the damaging effects of stress and promote or
restore normal physiological”; in other words, an herb used to restore
from the website medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com: “adaptogens may act
on serum glucose, leukocytes, temperature, blood pressure or pulse by
increasing or decreasing the substance of interest” (Table
Note: Comparison of
classification and actions of adaptogens among various disciplines. Adapted
from D. Winston and S. Maimes .
is primarily prepared and used as a fine powder made from drying and crushing
the roots. It has, however, been prepared in a variety of ways. In Ayurveda,
the preparation of many herbs corresponds to the effect one is trying to
achieve with that herb .
The most common traditional
preparation of Rasayanas is called the “milk decoction”. The usual method
is to mix one-part herb with eight parts of milk and thirty-two parts of water
and boil it with low heat until the water is evaporated.
case of Ashwagandha, however, the preferred method is to cook the herb directly
with milk. It is said that milk augments the tonifying and nutritive effects of
the herb. It is important to note that the preparation should take place in an
earthenware pot; it is also said that earthenware combines with the herbs in a
similar way plants combine with the soil. Currently, Ashwagandha is most often
taken in the form of a powder extract of high concentration, usually in
2.1 Ashwagandha’s Active Constituents
studies have sought to discover the constituents responsible for Ashwagandha’s observed and
professed medicinal properties. Alkaloids are the primary chemical constituents
of the plant including Isopelletierine,
Anaferine, Cuseohygrine, Anahygrine, Somniferine, Somnine, Somniferinine,
Withananine, Pseudo-Withanine, Tropine, Pseudo-Tropine, and Cuscohygrine . It also contains significant amounts of
saponins and steroidal lactones including withanolides and withaferins [8-10].
twelve alkaloids including thirty-five withanolides and many sitoindosides
(withanolides containing glucose at C-27) have been isolated from the plant and
studied. The withanolides have been extensively investigated and are believed
to be the main constituents responsible for Ashwagandha’s medicinal
effects. Two withanolides, withaferin A and withaferin D, were found to be the
most medicinally active .
Withanolides are steroidal and resemble the ginsenosides found in Panax ginseng
(Ginseng) both in structure and activity .
2.2 Alkaloids, Withanolides, and Sitoindosides (Glycowithanolides)
are active compounds, found in naturally occurring substances, consisting of
nitrogen-containing bases. There are many well-known alkaloids, such as
morphine, strychnine, quinine, ephedra, and nicotine. They are found in
flowering varieties of plants and have been studied extensively. Alkaloids are
believed to be the waste materials given off by a plant during the metabolic
process and are very powerful. It has been suggested that they may play a role
in a natural insecticide action as a mechanism to preserve plant quality . The primary chemical structures of alkaloids
contain at least one nitrogen atom in an amine type structure. They are called
alkaloids because, like their inorganic counterparts, they react with acids to
form salts .
medical properties of alkaloids are well known; they are potent and have been
the basis for the formation of many, if not most, pharmaceutical drugs over the
past 100 years. Many analgesics, like morphine and codeine, are derived from
plants, and less addictive substances have been developed that treat cardiac
and respiratory impairments. One of the more common alkaloids is nicotine
derived from the tobacco plant and smoked in cigarettes, cigars, and pipes.
Many hallucinogens are alkaloid-based substances, such as mescaline and
psilocybin mushrooms; these have given way to inorganic hallucinogens like LSD
made from lysergic acid .
a type of alkaloid found in Ashwagandha, are believed to be the active
ingredient that provides the healing effects. The primary withanolides, which
have been isolated chemically, are withaferin A and withaferin D. These two
isolates are steroidal; they are fat-soluble organic compounds that synthesize
readily in the body and can function as signaling molecules to affect the cell
membranes. These characteristics help explain many of the anti-inflammatory and
analgesic properties associated with Ashwagandha, like those found in other
alkaloid plant compounds .
Sitoindosides (Glucowithanolides) are withanolides containing a glucose
molecule at carbon-27. The active sitoindosides are sitoindoside VII and VIII;
they have been shown to have a dramatic inhibitory effect on the inflammatory
2.3 Doses and Contraindications
has been recognized for thousands of years as an herb that can be taken long
term with no toxic effects. It is extremely safe when used in a predefined
range of doses. Many toxicity studies have indicated Ashwagandha to be
completely safe . A
study by Sharma et al., as cited in Aphale, Chhibba, Kumohakarna, Mateebuddin,
& Dahat (1998) ,
showed that Ashwagandha exhibited no toxic effects in laboratory rats after
eight months of continuous daily dosing. A follow-up study by Aphale et al.
also showed no significant organ damage from prolonged doses of Ashwagandha.
A study by
Raut, Gege, Tadvi, Solanki, Kene, et al. (2012)  on the human tolerability of Withania
which 18 subjects were given doses of aqueous extract of Ashwagandha root in
doses of 750mg per day graduating to 1,250mg per day for 30 days) found no
immediate intolerance or adverse effects in any vital functions or organ
health. Also, no adverse effects were noted in the quality of sleep, appetite
or bowel habits. Padmavathi, Rath, Rao, & Singh (2005)  showed that
continuous doses of Withania had no adverse effects on the P450 system in
laboratory mice and body weight gain profile.
recommended dosage of the roots is different for each form of the herb and
different depending on the source. Yance (2013)  suggests–for an average size adult–the raw dried
root can be taken in doses of 3-10 grams per day, a standardized powder extract
(1:1) up to 1000 mg per day or a concentrated liquid extract 2-8 ml per day.
Other researchers suggest slightly higher doses; with all agreeing that staying
within recommended ranges is critical for long-term safety. As with any substance, large doses should be avoided and have been
associated with gastrointestinal upset, diarrhea, and vomiting. Large
quantities may also be abortifacient and should, therefore, be used with
caution during pregnancy .
Chinese Medicine has a 2,000-year recorded history. Most of TCM’s historical
findings, prescriptions, and practices are noted in the extensive Materia
Medica which was compiled over twenty-seven years during the Ming
Dynasty by a scientific
naturalist, Li Shizhen; the first draft was completed in 1578 AD. At that time, due to the long distances and lack of
prompt communications between other countries and cultures, many herbs,
renowned in their country of origin–such as Ashwagandha from
India’s Ayurvedic tradition–were not known or included in these earlier Chinese
reference books. Even though Ashwagandha has
been proven over Ayurvedic’s 6,000-year history, it is yet to be
included in TCM’s Materia Medica. Currently,
studies are underway to investigate Ashwagandha’s bioactive physiological
components on a microbiological level that seem to support certain
practitioners’ and patients’ historical health benefit claims.
Ashwagandha is scientifically classified
as Withania somnifera (Dunal); it belongs
to the botanical family Solanaceae. It is a sturdy plant, of 2 to 5 feet in
height, able to survive in hot climates. Ayurvedic considers such plants to
have strong healing and tonification properties. Its whitish-brown roots are
rich in bioactive ingredients of alkaloids, withanolides, and sitoindosides (glycowithanolides); therefore, it
is usually ingested in the form of a powder in a liquid mix or capsule form. If consumed in the recommended doses, Ashwagandha can be taken long
term without any significant adverse effects. Caution must be used in pregnancy
as Ashwagandha has potential abortifacient properties. In
a side-by-side comparison of Ayurvedic and TCM herbs, Ashwagandha can be categorized
in TCM as having the properties to “Tonify Qi” and “Tonify Blood and Essence”.
subsequent articles, Ashwagandha will be investigated as an adaptogenic herb.
Also, the physiological effects of Ashwagandha will be explored including
anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, immunostimulating and immunoprotective
properties, neuroprotective and neuroregenerative properties, anticancer and
anti-tumor properties, among others. A review of TCM and Ayurvedic herb
classifications will follow, as well as a specific and comparative study
between Ashwagandha and five fundamental TCM herbs. The series will conclude
with a summary and support for Ashwagandha being included in Materia
in more specific and effective treatment by Traditional Chinese Medicine
practitioners, in being readily available and confidently utilized by the
public, and in gaining further recognition, acceptance, and integration by
Western allopathic medicine.
5. Conflict of Interest Statement
declare that this paper was written in the absence of any commercial or
financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of
Figure 1: Image of the
Ashwagandha plant (Withania somnifera) with its typical smallish green leaves
and red and yellow berries. Public domain.
Figure 2: Image of the
Ashwagandha plant (Withania somnifera) with its native whitish-brown roots.
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Citation: Forman M, Kerna NA (2018) Merging Ayurvedic Ashwagandha with Traditional Chinese Medicine Part 1. Foundation in Ashwagandha: Physiological Effects, Clinical Efficacy, and Properties. Curr Res Complement Altern Med. CRCAM-133. DOI:10.29011/2577-2201/100033