We’re so used to filling our prescriptions at pharmacies that it’s easy to forget that more than 90% of our drugs were developed from plant compounds. There are many medical systems around the world that have long-standing knowledge of beneficial plants. Ayurvedic medicine, one of the world’s oldest holistic healing systems, was developed more than 3,000 years ago in India. Ayurveda, a contraction of two Sanskrit words, ayur (life) and veda (knowledge) is based on the belief that health and wellness depend on a balance between the mind, body and spirit.
One of the plants in their arsenal is Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), also called Indian Ginseng or Winter Cherry. It’s small shrub native to India, North Africa and the Middle East and is part of the Solanaceae family, which also includes tomatoes and potatoes. Unlike some nightshades, it’s not toxic. A three foot tall perennial, it’s covered in silver-gray hairs with 2”-6” oval leaves, yellow-green, star-shaped flowers and red berries. The leaves and berries have therapeutic value, but most of the medicinal benefits are derived from the fleshy roots.
The extracts from the roots or leaves are a popular herb used to increase energy levels and improve concentration in people. Ashwagandha has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety in both animal and human studies. The main beneficial chemicals are the plant’s high concentration of withanolides, which have been shown to fight inflammation and tumor growth.
The misuse and overuse of antibiotics has resulted in a number of negative impacts for both commercial poultry producers as well as small flock keepers. The emergence of drug-resistant organisms has been an impetus in the search for alternatives to treat a variety of pathogenic microbes. The Word Health Organization (WHO) has recommended the development and use of environment-friendly alternatives to conventional pharmaceuticals to control diseases in poultry and other livestock.
Ashwagandha has been studied in both people and animals as an herbal remedy with demonstrated benefits as an antidepressant, liver-tonic, antioxidant, immune booster and anticarcinogenic.
Studies of supplementation of poultry feed with ashwagandha has shown to:
- Improves immune system response, gut and intestinal microflora, rejuvenates muscles, and protects the brain.
- Stimulates digestive enzymes, improves digestion and nutrient metabolization.
- Decreases the incidence and progression of ovarian cancer in layer hens.
- Improved immune system response to E.coli and Salmonella infection and reduced mortality rates.
- Prevents Chicken Infectious Anemia Virus (CAIV).
- Acts as an anti-viral against pathogens that target the lymphoid system and the liver.
- Combined with selenium improves feed intake, feed conversion rate and weight gain.
- Withanolides in the roots and leaves are similar to steroids in their biological activities.
- Anti-inflammatory benefits are comparable to the use of hydrocortisone.
- Antioxidant effects in the brain and tranquilizing effects on the central nervous system.
The tricky part of using ashwagandha for small flocks is to determine the correct dosage and best way to offer it. The studies I read used the powdered form added to feed at the rate of 50mg/kg (.01 tsp/2.2 lbs) or between .5 – 2% of diet. I think it would be easier to administer, and to ensure uptake, would be to add ashwagandha root tincture to their water – recommended dosage for 20% extract is 10ml per litre (.65 ounce/quart) of water.
This isn’t a product I see myself using on my flock of a couple dozen birds, but may have relevant short-term application for birds in quarantine or sick bay.
So where can you get it? It should be fairly easy to purchase the powdered or tincture form from a health food store or to order it online. The shop in my small island community (pop. 4000) had five different options: four different brands of powdered root (60 capsules ranging from $15-45) and one 100ml tincture for $30.
If you’re lucky to live in the conditions in which it thrives you can grow it yourself. I live in the Pacific Northwest: we’ve got mild winters which is good, but far too much rain, which isn’t. Ashwagandha does best in arid climates and in poor quality, alkaline soils. While most plants would suffer from severe stress in this environment, it flourishes. There is lots of information online on how to grow the plant and you can purchase seeds to start your own medicinal dispensary.
Credits: Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre; Pharma Innovation Journal; NCBI; Research Gate; Poultry DVM; Science Direct; Veterinary World. Featured Photo: Honest To Wellness