How many times have you fallen sick and heard your doctor or your worried parent say that you need to work on your immunity? Immunity is our body’s ability to ward off diseases. The immune system is a group of biological structures and processes within an organism that protects us against disease by distinguishing the pathogens, such as disease-causing bacteria, from the healthy cells of our body.
Key Immune System Entities
The immune system functions through the lymphatic system, consisting of the primary lymph organs (bone marrow and thymus), secondary lymph organs (spleen, tonsils, appendix, and lymph nodes), and lymphatic vessels.
Most of the pathogen-fighting agents are produced in the bone marrow and travel via the lymphatic vessels to the lymph nodes across the body, where they act against potentially dangerous “foreign” bodies.
- White blood cells (WBC) identify and attack invading entities. There are multiple types of WBC, such as neutrophils, macrophages, B cells, and T cells, each with their own way of eliminating pathogens, typically by engulfing them or by secreting chemicals that kill them.
- Platelets are able to sense invading pathogens and infection-induced inflammation. They produce molecules that directly regulate adaptive immune responses and bind with infectious agents causing direct destruction. They also attract other pathogen-attacking agents, including neutrophils, monocytes/macrophages, dendritic cells, B cells, and T cells.1
- Antibodies detect and attach themselves to foreign entities, and either directly block
them from functioning or mark them for other immune agents to act on.
- Interleukin 2 (IL2) is a protein that regulates the activities of white blood cells.
- Interferon gamma (IFNγ) is a key protein that acts against viral, and some bacterial and protozoal infections, and also stimulates and modulates the overall immune response.
What Is Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha or Indian ginseng is revered for its medicinal properties and is used in Ayurvedic treatment. It is an excellent adrenal supportive herb and is beneficial for not just the immune system but the muscles and the reproductive system as well. It has a rejuvenating effect on the human body and provides benefits ranging from stress relief to fighting diseases.
Traditionally, all parts of the ashwagandha plant—leaves, roots, bark, fruit, and seeds—are believed to hold medicinal properties and are consumed. But it is the root of the plant that is regarded to be the best for therapy.
Ancient Ayurvedic texts such as the Charaka Samhita recommend ashwagandha as a rasayana herb to improve vitality, longevity, and resistance against infections and diseases.2 Modern science confirms that ashwagandha’s bioactive molecules (withanolides, withanosides, indosides, and withaferin A, among others) have significant immunomodulatory, anti-inflammatory, and stress-reducing properties in support of the traditional view.
Ashwagandha As An Immunity Booster
While ashwagandha has a variety of benefits, the most widely recognized one is its ability to modulate and boost the immune system. An immunomodulator has the ability to either suppress, enhance, or induce an immune response in your body. Studies, mostly on rats, have found that ashwagandha modulates immune response through multiple mechanisms:3
- Increases WBC count
- Increases platelet count
- Increases the number of stem cells in the bone marrow, which is measured as bone marrow cellularity
- Prevents myelosuppression, a condition where bone marrow is not able to produce enough red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets
- Activates peritoneal macrophages and enhances their ability to ingest invader cells, by inducing an increase in nitric oxide (NO) production4
- Increases the amount and diversity of antibodies produced by the body
- Increases Interferon gamma levels
- Increases Interleukin 2 levels
- Causes proliferation of T cells and improves their ability to secrete IL2 and IFNγ5
- Inhibits delayed-type hypersensitivity reactions
Chronic stress has been shown to suppress immunity. Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb. Adaptogens are herbs that improve an individual’s ability to cope with stress. These herbs, when taken in times of increased stress, normalize the physiological process of the body and help the body adapt to changes.
Human studies have also shown that ashwagandha root extract safely and effectively improves an individual’s resistance toward stress and thereby improves the quality of life.6
Counters Chemotherapy Effects On The Immune System
Anticancer drugs can depress the immune system by causing myelosuppression, which leads to neutropenia, a condition where the levels of neutrophils (one type of WBC) are reduced to dangerously low levels.
In addition to preventing cancer and enhancing the effectiveness of cancer therapies, ashwagandha root and leaf extracts alleviate the side effects of radiation and chemotherapy, possibly by boosting immunity.7.
Mice studies have shown that ashwagandha reverses neutropenia. The authors suggest that ashwagandha holds great promise as an adjuvant during cancer chemotherapy for the prevention of bone marrow depression associated with anticancer drugs.8
Dosage And Possible Side Effects
Taken in moderate amounts, this innocuous-looking shrub can provide you a plethora of health benefits. Commonly ingested in powdered form, it is recommended to have 300–500 mg of ashwagandha root extract every day, alongside meals. It can also be consumed in liquid form or as tea.
Ashwagandha is generally safe when taken in the prescribed dosage range. Large doses have been shown to cause gastrointestinal upset, diarrhea, and vomiting. It is also best avoided during pregnancy as it could lead to miscarriage. Those allergic to herbs belonging to the Solanaceae family should also exercise caution.
|↑1||Semple, J. W. “The immune system as seen through the eyes of a platelet.” ISBT Science Series 9, no. 1(2014): 198203.|
|↑2||Mishra, LakshmiChandra, 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): 334346.|
|↑3||Agarwal, Ramesh, Sham Diwanay, Pralhad Patki, and Bhushan Patwardhan. “Studies on immunomodulatory activity of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) extracts in experimental immune inflammation.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 67, no. 1 (1999): 2735.|
|↑4||Iuvone, Teresa, Giuseppe Esposito, Francesco Capasso, and Angelo A. Izzo. “Induction of nitric oxide synthase expression by Withania somnifera in macrophages.” Life sciences 72, no. 14 (2003): 16171625.|
|↑5||Khan, Sheema, Fayaz Malik, Krishan A. Suri, and Jaswant Singh. “Molecular insight into the immune upregulatory properties of the leaf extract of Ashwagandha and identification of Th1 immunostimulatory chemical entity.” Vaccine 27, no. 43 (2009): 60806087.|
|↑6||Chandrasekhar, K., Jyoti Kapoor, and Sridhar Anishetty. “A prospective, randomized doubleblind, placebocontrolled study of safety and efficacy of a highconcentration fullspectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults.” Indian journal of psychological medicine 34, no. 3 (2012): 255.|
|↑7||Benefits of Ashwagandha for Cancer Treatment. Curejoy. May 2016.|
|↑8||Gupta, Y. K., S. S. Sharma, K. A. M. A. L. A. Rai, and C. K. Katiyar. “Reversal of Paclitaxel Induced Neutropenia by Withania Sominifera in Mice.” Indian journal of physiology and pharmacology 45, no. 2 (2001): 253–257.|