Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is described as a rasayana in Ayurvedic medicine. In Ayurveda, rasayanas are used as Traditional Chinese medicine uses tonic herbs, and they correspond to the herbal category of adaptogens, a term first used to describe a limited number of immune tonics by Russians used in Western herbal medicine.
Tonics, adaptogens, and rasayanas like ashwagandha are used to treat weakness, low energy, immune deficiency and to promote longevity. They generally have nonspecific actions which earn them a special classification as herbs that are more food-like and as the TCM say, “make normal.”
Besides having energy-building and immune potentiating properties each of them have special properties unique to each herb. Ashwagandha has its energy-building, immune-potentiating properties. It is profoundly calming and grounding helping with mood regulation, depression and sleep, thus its second Latin binomial, somnifera which reflects its ability to promote sleep.
The name “ashwagandha” means “like a horse.” This could be understood to increase physical strength, which it may, but actually describes its smell. It is in the Solanaceae or tomato botanical family. It has been dubbed “Indian ginseng” because of its widely recognized energy-building tonic properties. The root of ashwagandha is the part most used medicinally, although the leaves are sometimes applied externally as a poultice to promote healing of wounds, injuries and sprains.
Another unique feature distinguishing ashwagandha from other tonic herbs is ease of cultivation. Ashwagandha is a perennial shrub growing approximately 14-30 inches tall, producing small green, bell-shaped flowers that mature to into small orange-red fruit. If you can grow tomatoes, you probably can grow Ashwagandha from seed. Further, unlike ginseng which takes at least 6 years to reach an acceptable degree of potency, ashwagandha roots can be harvested in from one to two years.
All of these unique features of this herb have resulted in ashwagandha becoming the 7th best-selling herbal supplement in the country with yearly net sales of $12.5 million reported in Herbal Gram in 2018. Most Ayurvedic doctors in India consider Ashwagandha to be among their most valuable herbal medicines. While ashwagandha is widely adopted by Western herbalists, it has yet to be integrated into TCM.
My first encounter with ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) was with seeds I planted in the garden of my Santa Cruz healing center called the “Garden of Sanjivani” some time in the mid to late 1970s. I smuggled some of the bright orange-red seed-laden fruits from plants I found growing in a ditch in Southern India in my luggage. Happily, they sprouted and grew and kept sprouting new plants each year afterwards. Before that, ashwagandha was little known in the West and I had only read about it in books. I freely distributed ashwagandha seeds to anyone living around the country who wanted to try their hand growing this then rare but valuable herb. A few years later, word spread about ashwagandha treating chronic immune deficiency and low energy, not to mention, impotence and low libido in both men and women, arthritis, chronic insomnia, stress and the myriad conditions caused by stress.
Rasa (taste): Bitter, astringent, sweet
Virya (energy): Heating
Doshas affected: Reduces Vata (excess nervous energy) and Kapha (dampness and fat)
Alkaloids: Ashwagandhine, withanine, isopelietierine, anaferine
Steroidal lactones: Withanolides, withaferins
Phytosterols: Sitoindosides, Beta-sitosterol
— (Bone 1996, Williamson 2002)
Much Ado about Milk
As we are talking about a famous Ayurvedic rasayana, it’s important to address the way such tonics are administered in their source medicine tradition. Tonics are usually prescribed for two reasons 1. To regenerate a weak, deficient body and 2. To support and to maintain health and wellness. With regard to the first use, Ayurveda recommends tonics, especially ashwagandha, be taken with warm, scalded milk.
Since the introduction of Buddhism in India during the 2nd century, India has become a largely vegetarian nation, however much they are growing away from that mode of eating due to Western influence. The classic Ayurvedic texts, the Charaka and Sushruta Samhitas, were compiled around the 200 to 400 CE, and specifically recommend that weak and deficient people should be given meat as part of their diet, and that herbs like ashwagandha should be prepared with meat to provide the vital protein and nutrients necessary for rebuilding.
With meat being prohibited from the Buddhist and Hindu religions, the next best thing is milk. In Ayurveda, one who is healthy is described as glowing with an abundance of ojas. Ojas is the essence that gives physical and spiritual strength and endurance and can be seen emanating from individuals as the “glow” of health.
Both ashwagandha and milk promote ojas and the two taken together work better as a promoter of health and well-being than either taken separately.
In general, the West has taken a dim view regarding the value of milk as a food. Perhaps it is due to the quality of milk factory-produced no longer by “contented cows” as Carnation company used to describe who used to post as a guideline to their dairymen:
“The RULE to be observed in this stable at all times, toward the cattle, young and old, is that of patience and kindness….Remember that this is the home of mothers. Treat each cow as a mother should be treated. The giving of milk is a function of motherhood; rough treatment lessens the flow. That injures me as well as the cow. Always keep these ideas in mind in dealing with my cattle.” 
Human mothers know well that if they become angry and upset stress hormones contaminate their ‘milk of human kindness’ that often results in their nursing children becoming ill and cranky. I doubt that factory-produced milk cares for anything more than the amount of milk a cow produces.
There is controversy around the pasteurization of milk. Milk is intended to be ingested warm and fresh which is how it comes from the teat. Scientifically, milk is said to have only one molecule different from blood thus it is described as filtered blood. For this reason, it is prone to bacterial proliferation and pasteurization or scaled milk is recommended, even mandated by law in some states.
What is the difference between scalded and pasteurized milk? The difference is that pasteurization is when milk is quickly brought up to a temperature sufficient to kill harmful bacteria and then quickly cooled. People who object to pasteurized milk on the basis that it is somehow denatured would have a problem with scalded milk because it is usually raised to 180 degrees, enough until the point where milk begins to rise in the pan, and then slowly cooled.
Professional bakers know that scalded milk used in baking bread and cakes results in a lighter, spongier texture. Unless milk is taken warm, directly from the teat, the rich protein in milk, casein (which is 80% in cows compared to between 20 and 45% in humans), may prove to be a problem for some to digest. Considering that casein is one of the best proteins, it is worth considering breaking down the casein by scalding milk to prevent allergies and facilitate assimilation by humans including babies who are unable to be nursed.
Many people are concerned that drinking whole milk will result in excessive weight gain. Milk contains a near-perfect blend of protein, fat, calcium and other vital nutrients, provides energy that raises metabolism resulting in faster weight loss and most important especially for the aged, muscle loss.
Scalded Milk and Ashwagandha
Finally, it is commonly known that a cup or glass or warm milk before bed generally results in a sounder night’s sleep. This brings us back to the somnifera part of ashwagandha’s binomial, referring to the herb’s calming and sleep promoting effects. To get the most from taking ashwagandha, the herb, it is usually recommended to take it with scalded warm milk, honey and a small amount of ghee (clarified butter). These are taken as anupans or what Ayurveda describes as substances taken to carry certain nutrients deeper into the tissues.
Apart from taking ashwagandha and milk before bed for insomnia, it is the best way to take it for counteracting deficiencies associated with certain diseases, lack of energy and endurance. In fact, I would say that not taking it with milk is practically a waste of one of the best tonic herbs on the planet.
I would recommend beginning with taking a half to one level teaspoon of powdered ashwagandha purchased from a supplier of quality ashwagandha powder such as Banyan botanicals (I get no financial kickback recommending this company) stirred into a cup of scalded warm milk to which one may add a teaspoon of honey and half to one teaspoon of ghee. This tastes quite good and its calming, sleep-inducing effect can be supplemented with the addition of a half teaspoon of nutmeg.
My friend and Planetary Ayurvedic herbal colleague Todd Caldecott writes, “Ashwagandha has sedative rather than a stimulant action on the central nervous system, making it superior medicine for exhaustion with nervous irritability.”  Further, he says, “It can be taken before bed to relax and nourish the body in deficiency diseases, but is seen to be efficacious when used on a sustained basis.” Taken in this way ashwagandha lives up to its reputation as being not only good for sleep but as a treatment for all anxiety and to provide calm, vital energy throughout the day.
Ashwagandha’s regenerative and immune-potentiating properties makes it extremely useful as adjunctive treatment for individuals with all chronic life-threatening diseases including muscle wasting, failure to thrive, arthritis, diabetes (you may omit the honey in this case), cardiovascular diseases including hypertension, and individuals undergoing chemo and radiation therapy.
There are many formulas one can find incorporating ashwagandha as part of a healing regime and one can create one’s own. Nut or another milk alternative may be substituted for cow’s milk.
Finally, I will conclude this article with an effective and delicious ashwagandha recipe I found at Bon Appetit called “Moon Milk.”
- 1 cup scalded whole milk or unsweetened nut milk (such as hemp, almond, or cashew)
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
- ¼ to ½ teaspoon ground ashwagandha.
- 2 pinches of ground cardamom
- Pinch of ground ginger (optional)
- Pinch of ground nutmeg
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon virgin coconut oil or ghee
- 1 teaspoon honey, preferably raw
 Ayurveda: The Divine Science of Life ,pgs 18-169, Publ. by Mosby