Ashwagandha, Herbal Supplements, and Store-Bought Capsules

by health and nutrition advice journalist
In this herbalist’s opinion, store-bought capsules are not your best option. There are more appropriate routes of administration.

In a recent Facebook post, I asked those using ashwagandha
as a nutritional supplement to reconsider the use of store-bought capsules, trying
an ashwagandha tincture instead. Through a series of private messages and
emails, I discovered many were using capsules for supplementation; and,
everyone wanted to know why capsules weren’t the best means of oral intake. Instead
of answering everyone individually, I realized an educational opportunity for
the community existed. I’m addressing that need through this blog. Realize a full
understanding of this subject requires a bit more than an explanation of the
benefits of tincture; it requires a basic understanding of all routes of
delivery (teas, decoctions, herbal capsules, plant-extract capsules, folk
tincturing, tincturing by percolation/titration). My Facebook post was about
ashwagandha, an excellent adaptogen. Every herb has its best method of
administration, a tincture being the best method of dosing for ashwagandha, but
realize that for ALL herbs, store-bought capsules are never your best option
unless one is referring to encapsulated plant-extracts. To understand and
appreciate the information about capsules I’ll be presenting, one must
understand the concept of tea, and to separate the concept of medicinal
teas from flavorful teas (such as black or green teas), I will refer to medicinal
teas as tisanes, an older term used for this herbal remedy.

Focusing on ashwagandha, let’s define a tisane, and then
look at the standard dosing guidelines given in most herbal books on the market
(if you need an herbal monograph for ashwagandha, please write to me at ochanilele@gmail.com).

To make sure everyone is thinking about the same herb, I’m
writing about Withania somnifera. There are a few common names by which
this adaptogen is known: winter cherry, Withania, and Indian ginseng being
three of the most common names by which it is known. Hindi people know it as asgandh.
The Bengali know it as ashwagandha. Botanists, herbalists, nursery workers, and
community gardeners tend to use the Latin binomial W. somnifera. Latin
binomials (genus and species) are a scientific naming system used for positive identification
of all plant life in science writing. While any plant can have dozens of common
names, every plant has only one Latin binomial. Knowing genus and species
avoids mistake in literature.

In an herbalist’s best standard of practice, ashwagandha has
two (and only two) effective administration methods: a tisane and a tincture. Only
a novice would attempt to provide ashwagandha supplementation through capsules.
The reason for that is simple – the roots are the plant-part with true
medicinal value, and the roots are very tough and very woody. They do not give
up their phytochemicals easily. It’s like this for almost all plant roots. Even
when fresh, they are tough. That means cell walls are all but impossible to
break down, and it’s inside cell walls that we find the phytochemicals we want
and need.

A tisane is made one of two ways: infusion or decoction.
Infusions are created by first boiling water, and once the water is brought to
a boil, it is removed from the heat source. The delicate plant matter is added
to the water; the lid is applied; and this is allowed to steep, covered, for 10
to 20 minutes depending on the strength of tisane desired. Plant matter
suitable for steeping are mostly flowers and leaves. Harder parts, such as
bark, wood, and roots are prepared by decoction. These are put in a pan with
cold water; the lid is applied, and the water is brought to a boil. Once achieving
a rolling boil, the heat is turned down so the parts can simmer anywhere from
30 minutes to 4 hours. For both infusions and decoctions, once processing is
complete, the plant parts are strained out of the water. The tisane is
complete. Softer plant parts (flowers and leaves) are discarded in the trash,
or, hopefully, the compost pile. Harder roots, woods, barks, and some mushrooms
(reishi) are refrigerated and used for at least three more decoctions. No
matter how long these hard parts are boiled, it takes a few extractions to break
down cell walls and remove most of the phytochemicals. Keep in mind, however,
that after 48 hours of refrigeration, decocted plant parts should be discarded
or else they will develop molds or bacterial colonies.

For ashwagandha, the plant part used is always the root,
previously dried and diced. For a tisane, the method is decoction of 2 to 6
grams of dried root 2 to 4 times each day. Whether one chooses 2, 4, or 6 grams
per day, the same herbal material used for the first decoction is the same
herbal material used for the fourth decoction if it is kept refrigerated
between boils and is thrown out after 48 hours. Keep all that in mind. Note that
it is acceptable to used ground up and/or powdered roots for the decoction. In
the case of a course grind to fine powder, most discard the herbal material
after one boil – it just gets too messy to use that material more than once.

Now, this brings us to the subject of ashwagandha
supplementation by encapsulation. Due to the nature of the roots used, the
human digestive system is very ineffective when it comes to breaking down those
cell walls and releasing phytochemicals into the body. Ineffective does not
mean impossible, and some digestion might occur, but the herbal matter inside
those capsules provides more fiber than phytochemicals. Also, consider the size
of each capsule. Even if each is a generous size 00, a very fine herbal powder
would provide 1 gram of root matter, while a very course grind would give about
.58 grams of herb in each capsule. Keep in mind dosing directions for the brand
purchased. The label of “Nature’s Way” ashwagandha directs consumers to take
ONE capsule two to three times a day with meals. They cost $16.49 per bottle of
60 caps; and according to the nutrition label, each capsule holds 500 milligrams.
500 milligrams equals ½ of a gram. For $16.49 you have a bottle with 30 grams
of herbal matter.

Do some quick math. The “maximum” daily dose of ashwagandha
delivered to the human body by tisane (decoction) is six grams. Every month,
one needs 180 grams of ashwagandha to complete dosing. According to the bottle
of “Nature’s Way” capsules, the maximum dose is 3 capsules per day, and 90
capsules are needed to complete a month of dosing. You would need ONLY 45 grams
of ashwagandha root for one month of dosing, and at $16.49 per 60 cap bottle,
you would spend $24.75 to accomplish that.

And how much does ashwagandha root cost? Roughly $1.63 per
ounce. One ounce equals 28.35 grams. Two ounces (57 grams) costs about $3.26
and gives you 12 grams more than a 30 day supply of capsules, and costs about
$21.00 less than a bottle of caps. Considering the extremely low dose taken
through capsules, and considering the low bioavailability of root matter, you’d
be better off saving the money spent on capsules and you’d get, more or less,
the same benefit taking NOTHING as you would swallowing on of those caps.

So, capsules equate with “micro dosing”  when it comes to herbal supplementation due to
low dose and low digestive potential. Now, here’s the slap in the face when it
comes to a tisane (decoction), or even a tisane made by infusion: water is an
excellent solvent, but it only extracts and dissolves water soluble
phytochemicals
. Some of the herbal goodness found in ashwagandha can only
be extracted with alcohol. Water neither extracts nor suspends those
phytochemicals only responding to alcohol extraction.

But we’ll examine this issue in part two of this blog. And
that, my friends, is forthcoming in a day or two. But by now I think you’ll
agree with me when I say you should stop taking those store-bought capsules,
and start using a more appropriate method of herbal dosing.

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