Eastern and Oriental medicine practitioners have long said that Ashwagandha, an herb commonly used in the 5,000-year old practice of Ayurvedic medicine, helps fight disease when used in combination with a liquid known as anupana. Anupana may be derived from many different substances, from olive oil, to beer, to ghee.

Each liquid is thought to have different properties, so an Ayurveda practitioner selects an anupana that has the qualities that best fit a given situation. Traditionally, one method of administering Ashwagandha and milk was to boil them together.

A team of American researchers is examining whether drinking whole cows’ milk with the herb can increase the body’s white blood cells, which help boost immunity. They have found that it does.

This first-of-its-kind study was led by Heather Zwickey of the National College of Natural Medicine’s Helfgott Research Institute, Portland, OR, and her colleagues Jeremy Mikolai, Andrew Erlandsen, Andrew Murison, Will Gregory, Padma Raman-Caplan and Kimberly Brown. Mikolai, Erlandsen and Murison will be presenting the team’s findings during the 23rd annual meeting of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP; www.Naturopathic.org), being held August 13-16, 2008 in Phoenix, AZ. The full findings of the study are being published this fall.

According to Zwickey, investigations into herbal remedies rarely take into account how the herb has been administered throughout the tradition of the medicine’s life cycle, such as coupled or mixed with water, tea, or oil. While many consumers today may consume the herb with water or no liquid at all, researchers know that Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera (WS)), has typically been taken with an anupana substance. It is believed to aid in the digestion and effectiveness of the plant.

To determine if an anupana substance would help enhance Ashwagandha's immune properties, the research team used milk in a co-administered intervention along with the herb extract. Cows’ milk was chosen over goats’ milk and other potential substances because Ayurvedic medicine considers it to be a strengthening, nutritive driver for medicines. This made it an appropriate choice for an immunological study. A follow-up study will compare the results of the herb extract alone to the combination of herb with milk and to placebo controls.

To measure the effects of the herb in humans, the researchers examined the impact the herb had on cell activation in lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell and come in four forms: (1) Natural Killer cells, which are a major component of the immune system and best known for their ability to respond to virally-infected cells and tumors; (2) B-cells, which make antibodies that bind to a virus or microrganism and then destroy it; (3) CD4+ T cells (also known as helper cells), which coordinate the immune system’s response; and (4) CD8+ T cells, which kill cells that become infected.

The research team took blood samples from five healthy volunteers (three female; two male; average age 27) to set a baseline for immune cell levels. They administered an alcohol and water extract of Ashwagandha totaling approximately two teaspoons (6mL) in eight ounces of cows’ milk. The liquids were consumed twice a day for four days. Blood work was drawn again at 24 and 96 hours post-baseline to look for differences in the cells.

Consuming Ashwagandha with cows’ milk had the following effects on the human immune system:

· There was a statistically significant overall increase in the level of white blood cell activation. Cell activation was most pronounced in the CD56+ Natural Killer cells. This is important, since these cells play a critical role in the body’s response to the flu, the mumps or tumors.

· There was a statistically significant increase in the number of CD4+ T helper cells. While both CD8+ T helper cells and B cells also increased, the amount was not significant.

Recommendations for Consumers
According to Zwickey, three herbs – echinacea, astragalus and glycyrrhiza – have been extensively researched for their ability to stimulate the immune system. “I felt it was time to open the door a little wider and see what more we could find to use ancient medicine’s ability to heal the health disorders of today,” the immunologist said. “Given that conventional medicine has a lot to offer for the treatment of bacterial infections, my lab focuses on identifying those products that can address viral disorders such as sinus infections, colds and the like.”

Zwickey recommends that those who use natural products consult a naturopathic practitioner or other alternative medicine specialist first before purchasing herbal products. The most expensive is not always the best quality, and vice versa. She recommends that the public wait until additional studies are complete before beginning a cows’ milk/Ashwagandha regime in earnest.

The team will present its findings at the 23rd annual meeting of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP; www.Naturopathic.org), being held August 13-16, 2008.