Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), is a widely used medicinal herb in Ayurveda. It is considered to be a rasayana herb, an adaptogen, and is commonly referred to as ‘Indian ginseng’. In addition to leaves and roots, other parts of the Ashwagandha plant, including shoots, seeds and berries, have also been used in daily tonics and various home remedy recipes to increase health and longevity.
Many recent studies have provided evidence for its antistress, antioxidant, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective adaptogenic, antispasmodic, immunomodulatory and immunostimulant activities.1
How Is Cancer Caused?
Cancer is a hyperproliferative disorder that involves transformation of healthy cells or benign tumors to malignant ones, dysregulation of normal cell death processes (apoptosis), proliferation by unrestricted cell division, invasion of other cells, creation of new blood vessels to support the growth of cancer cells (angiogenesis) and spread of cancer from one organ or part of the body to another not directly connected with it (metastasis).
The causative factors in formation and development of cancerous conditions can be multifactorial, including:
- physical, chemical, biological and emotional stress
- viral infections
- low immune syndrome
- environmental chemical toxins
- drug resistance and side effects
- pesticide infected food with heavy metals
- genetic processes and factors
How Does Ashwagandha Act Against Cancer?
Ashwagandha has been found to be effective in cancer treatment in multiple ways:2
- It reduces tumor cell proliferation while increasing overall survival time
- It has been shown to enhance the effectiveness of radiation therapy while potentially mitigating undesirable side effects.
- It also reduces the side effects of chemotherapeutic agents without interfering with the tumor-reducing actions of the drugs.
These effects have been demonstrated in vitro on human cancer cell lines, and in vivo on animal subjects, but human trials have been limited.
Anticancer effect of Ashwagandha is generally attributable to steroidal lactones collectively referred to as withanolides. Withaferin A (WA) appears most active against cancer among structurally divergent withanolides isolated from the root or leaf of Ashwagandha.
Ashwagandha selectively kills cancer cells.
A 2008 study found that the leaf extract of Ashwagandha effectively killed a large variety of human cancer cells (bone, breast, lung, colon, skin, cervical, fibrosarcoma, pancreas, and brain tumors). The selective cancer cell killing activity was assigned to one of its components, Withanone, also called tumor inhibitory factor.
The key component of Ashwagandha leaf extract and its components kill cancer cells by at least five different pathways, viz. p53 signaling, GM-CFS signaling, death receptor signaling, apoptosis signaling and G2-M DNA damage regulation pathway.3
Naturally occurring withanone (Ashwagandha) has also been found to bind with and cause inactivation of the TPX2-Aurora A complex, which plays a critical role during mitosis and cytokinesis and is found upregulated in several cancer types.4
Ashwagandha acts as a radiosensitizer (a drug that makes tumor cells more sensitive to radiation therapy) and as a chemotherapeutic agent (toxic to cells with high proliferation rates).
The alcoholic extract of the dried roots of the plant as well as the active component withaferin A isolated from the extract showed significant (sensitizer enhancement ratio of 1.5) antitumor and radiosensitizing effects in experimental tumors in vivo, without any noticeable systemic toxicity (at a non toxic concentration of approximately 2 microM).5
Ashwagandha Action Against Different Types Of Cancer
Ashwagandha is an important candidate for the therapeutic treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, as it’s constituents are able to reconstruct neuronal networks and synapses, regenerate axons and dendrites and improve memory deficits.6
Glioblastoma is the most common and difficult malignant brain tumor to treat. Despite the use of different treatment strategies, including surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy, most patients die within a year of diagnosis. Differentiation therapy (treating malignant cells so that they stop dividing and resume the process of maturation) is an attractive alternative therapeutic approach.
Ashwagandha and its components have the potential to induce senescence-like growth arrest and differentiation in glioma cells. Ashwagandha extract and its constituents therefore, offer a differentiation-based milder and effective glioma therapy.7
An open-label prospective non-randomized comparative trial was conducted on 100 patients with breast cancer in all stages undergoing either a combination of chemotherapy with oral Withania somnifera or chemotherapy alone. Patients who consumed Ashwagandha experienced lower fatigue as compared to those who did not.8
Ashwagandha modulates several functionally important classes of genes and molecular signalling mechanisms, which are associated with immune response, inflammation, signal transduction, cell signaling, transcriptional regulation, apoptosis and cell cycle regulation. This makes it an effective chemopreventive agent relevant to prostate cancer progression.9
Ashwagandha has been found to induce cell death in Caki human renal cells by down-regulating the STAT3 signalling pathway, inhibiting JAK2 phosphorylation and suppressing the expression of harmful proteins.10
A study was conducted on Swiss Albino mice with induced skin cancer. Treatment with Ashwagandha root extract resulted in a significant decrease in incidence and average number of skin lesions; biochemical parameters were also returned to near normal. The researchers inferred that the antioxidant/free radical-scavenging constituents and the anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory properties of Ashwagandha extract might be responsible for its chemopreventive action.11
It has been suggested that Ashwagandha is able to control cancer, as well as help reduce adverse effects of other cancer treatment approaches such as radio and chemotherapy, because of its unique combination of beneficial effects that work on multiple cancer-causative factors.12 Ayurveda has always extolled Ashwagandha’s virtues as a wonder herb that improves the body’s immunity and vitality. With backing from age-old traditional medicine as well as modern research, Ashwagandha presents itself as a herb that holds great promise for integrative cancer care.
|↑1||Shah, Navjot, Hardeep Kataria, Sunil C. Kaul, Tetsuro Ishii, Gurcharan Kaur, and Renu Wadhwa. “Effect of the alcoholic extract of Ashwagandha leaves and its components on proliferation, migration, and differentiation of glioblastoma cells: combinational approach for enhanced differentiation.” Cancer science 100, no. 9 (2009): 1740-1747.|
|↑2||Winters, Marie. “Ancient medicine, modern use: Withania somnifera and its potential role in integrative oncology.” Alternative Medicine Review 11, no. 4 (2006): 269-278.|
|↑3||Widodo, Nashi, Yasuomi Takagi, Bhupal G. Shrestha, Tetsuro Ishii, Sunil C. Kaul, and Renu Wadhwa. “Selective killing of cancer cells by leaf extract of Ashwagandha: Components, activity and pathway analyses.” Cancer letters 262, no. 1 (2008): 37-47.|
|↑4||Grover, Abhinav, Rumani Singh, Ashutosh Shandilya, Didik Priyandoko, Vibhuti Agrawal, Virendra S. Bisaria, Renu Wadhwa, Sunil C. Kaul, and Durai Sundar. “Ashwagandha derived withanone targets TPX2-Aurora A complex: computational and experimental evidence to its anticancer activity.” PloS one 7, no. 1 (2012): e30890.|
|↑5||Devi, P. Uma. “Withania somnifera Dunal (Ashwagandha): potential plant source of a promising drug for cancer chemotherapy and radiosensitization.” Indian journal of experimental biology 34, no. 10 (1996): 927-932.|
|↑6||Kuboyama, Tomoharu, Chihiro Tohda, and Katsuko Komatsu. “Neuritic regeneration and synaptic reconstruction induced by withanolide A.” British journal of pharmacology 144, no. 7 (2005): 961-971.|
|↑7||[Shah, Navjot, Hardeep Kataria, Sunil C. Kaul, Tetsuro Ishii, Gurcharan Kaur, and Renu Wadhwa. “Effect of the alcoholic extract of Ashwagandha leaves and its components on proliferation, migration, and differentiation of glioblastoma cells: combinational approach for enhanced differentiation.” Cancer science 100, no. 9 (2009): 1740-1747.]|
|↑8||Biswal, Biswa Mohan, Siti Amrah Sulaiman, Hasanah Che Ismail, Hasmat Zakaria, and Kamarul Imran Musa. “Effect of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) on the development of chemotherapy-induced fatigue and quality of life in breast cancer patients.” Integrative cancer therapies 12, no. 4 (2013): 312-322.|
|↑9||Aalinkeel, Ravikumar, Zihua Hu, Bindukumar B. Nair, Donald E. Sykes, Jessica L. Reynolds, Supriya D. Mahajan, and Stanley A. Schwartz. “Genomic analysis highlights the role of the JAK-STAT signaling in the anti-proliferative effects of dietary flavonoid—‘Ashwagandha’ in prostate cancer cells.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 7, no. 2 (2010): 177-187.|
|↑10||Um, Hee Jung, Kyoung-jin Min, Dong Eun Kim, and Taeg Kyu Kwon. “Withaferin A inhibits JAK/STAT3 signaling and induces apoptosis of human renal carcinoma Caki cells.” Biochemical and biophysical research communications 427, no. 1 (2012): 24-29.|
|↑11||Prakash, Jai, Suresh Kumar Gupta, and Amit Kumar Dinda. “Withania somnifera root extract prevents DMBA-induced squamous cell carcinoma of skin in Swiss albino mice.” Nutrition and cancer 42, no. 1 (2002): 91-97.|
|↑12||Singh, N., P. Verma, B. R. Pandey, and M. Gilca. “Role of Withania somnifera in prevention and treatment of cancer: an overview.” International Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Drug Research 3, no. 4 (2011): 274-279.|