My favourite herb for women’s health had always been the root from the American plant false unicorn (Chamaelirium or Helonias luteum). Its ability to manage period pain, infertility and menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes was unsurpassed.
But unfortunately this slow-growing plant has become very expensive and scarce since sustainable sources aren’t readily available.
This prompted me to begin searching for a suitable alternative; one that had similar uses and efficacy, was highly regarded and, above all, was sustainable. That’s when I found the Ayurvedic herb known as shatavari (Asparagus racemosus).
Have 100 husbands?
The common name ‘shatavari’ essentially translates to ‘she who possesses a hundred husbands,’ referring to the powerful rejuvenating effect the root of this plant has on the female reproductive organs. It’s categorized in Ayurveda as a powerful rasayana (tonic, see below) and is a major herb of that system.1 In fact, shatavari has a long history of use (described as ‘centuries’) in both the Ayurvedic and Unani traditional systems of the Indian sub-continent. It’s mentioned in traditional Ayurvedic texts as a galactogogue (for milk promotion), general tonic (rasayana) and sexual tonic, and in the Unani system it’s used to promote fertility and as an aphrodisiac.
Rasayana literally means that path that rasa or the primordial tissue takes. A remedy such as shatavari that improves the quality of rasa is said to strengthen and promote the health of all the tissues of the body.
By 2003 it was estimated that around 500 metric tons of shatavari root was being used in India per year, up from an estimated 313 tonnes in 1996 to 1997. Assuming an average dose of 3g, this suggests that at least 160 million doses are consumed in India every year. This represents large and widespread use of this major herb of Ayurveda. Yet despite this widespread use, current texts note that no significant safety or toxicity issues have been reported in India.
Shatavari does not have Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status, but is freely available as a dietary supplement.6 An article in the US journal Natural Pharmacy highlighted its therapeutic uses and indicates the increasing interest in this herb.
What makes shatavari work?
Like false unicorn, the root of shatavari contains a range of steroidal saponins that exert some subtle oestrogen modulating effects in the body.8 These are known as the shatavarins, and at least 10 have been identified. No doubt, other phytochemicals in the root combine with the saponins to give this herb its outstanding adaptogenic and hormonal activity.
Lab studies reveal shatavari’s effectiveness
Oral administration of shatavari increased the weight of mammary tissue and corrected irregular, low milk yields in experimental models. It was suggested that shatavari may act directly on the mammary gland or via the pituitary and adrenal glands.
Oral pre-treatment with shatavari had the following adaptogenic effects in experimental models:
- reduced death from intra-abdominal sepsis one model used concurrent immunosuppression
- protection against neutropenia and leukopenia from immunosuppression
- increases in both the phagocytic and killing capacity of macrophages
- increased white cell count
- enhanced immune responses
- reduction of the toxic effects of the drug cisplatin19
- improved stress tolerance
- antidepressant activity
Other activities for this adaptable root that were recently seen in experimental models include a reduction in anxiety, antidiabetic effects, enhanced memory and regulation of cholesterol metabolism.25
Keeping up with the clinical proof
In one study the effect of shatavari on gastric emptying time was compared to the antiemetic drug metoclopramide in healthy volunteers.26 The open-label study was carried out in eight normal men with an average age of 40 years.
On successive visits at four-day intervals, volunteers received a test meal, a test meal plus 2g of shatavari root powder and a test meal plus 10mg of metoclopramide.
Shatavari significantly reduced gastric emptying time compared to the test meal control phase of the trial and had similar activity to the drug. This may account for the herb’s antidiabetic effects.
Aspirin damages the lining of the stomach and this damage is reflected by the presence of DNA and blood aspirated from the stomach. Shatavari prevented the presence in gastric aspirates of haemoglobin, and reduced the DNA content and the rise in pepsin caused by aspirin ingestion in healthy volunteers. Two doses of shatavari were administered (1.5g/day and 3g/day), both of which produced positive results.
An early small pilot trial examined the galactogogue or milk promoting effect of shatavari in 15 lactating mothers. The women took 160mg/day of an unspecified concentrated extract of shatavari and a positive effect was noted.
Now this has been followed by a recent larger trial. A randomized, double-blind study evaluated its effect on milk production in 60 lactating mothers (average age 26 years) by measuring their prolactin level during the study, as well as other outcomes.
The dose of shatavari root used in the larger 30-day trial was 60mg per kg of body weight (of the mother). Prolactin in the nursing women increased by 33% in the shatavari group compared to just 10% in the placebo group. This was reflected in improved weight gain in the infants of 16.1% for shatavari versus 5.7% for placebo. The subjective satisfaction of the mother increased by 1.54 points (out of a score of 5), compared to only 0.48 points for the placebo.
Similar results were obtained for an assessment of the overall well-being of the babies. The authors concluded that their study validates the traditional understanding of this herb as an important galactogogue.
A final word on the key uses of shatavari
Based on traditional wisdom, clinical insights and experience, and on scientific evidence, shatavari has a wide range of therapeutic uses, particularly \for women.
Specifically, it can be used to promote lactation, to alleviate menopausal symptoms and to promote fertility and libido (in both sexes). In addition, its adaptogenic properties deliver a bonus effect, an overall feeling of well-being, extra energy and a healthy stress response.
Shatavari is much cheaper and more sustainable than other options such as false unicorn and maca (which has become very expensive due to Chinese interest), and now plays a key role in my herbal repertoire.
To your better health,
Nutrition & Healing
Vol. 9, Issue 5 • May 2015
Full references and citations for this article are available in the downloadable PDF version of the monthly Nutrition and Healing issue in which this article appears.