Ashwagandha, long revered in Ayurveda, is gaining a reputation in the West as an excellent herb to control inflammation. A new study sheds light on how ashwagandha may be doing this. NF-kappaB (NF-κB) is a transcription factor; these proteins control what genes are actively used or expressed inside your cells at any given time. Geneticists are finding that our cells are able to control which parts of our genetic blueprints we translate at any given time and that this can be influenced by outside factors. We are shaped not just by our genes, but also by how our body uses that DNA. NF-κB induces the creation of inflammatory mediators by triggering the use of the associated genes. When NF-kappaB is functioning normally our body is able to respond to injury or infection by creating an acute inflammatory response which triggers an immune reaction and healing cascade. When NF-kappaB is abnormally expressed, it can contribute to cancers, auto-immune disorders, and other inflammation-based diseases.

NF-kappaB is what is called a rapid acting transcription factor. This means that right now every cell in your body, regardless of your inflammatory state, has many dormant copies of NF-kappaB just waiting to be activated and alter your gene expression. These structures are inactive because they are bound to another molecule called inhibitor of kappa B protein (IκBα). When your body desires (or is induced) to ramp up an inflammatory response an enzyme called IKB-kinase (IKK) is activated by inflammatory mediators to trigger the breakdown of the IκBα “leash” and free the NF-κB to migrate to the nucleus and begin its job of activating your genes to create pro-inflammatory cytokines. A recent study conducted in Belgium has found that a component of ashwagandha called withaferin A creates bonds with a particular amino acid in the enzyme that activates NF-kappaB [1]; this is like supergluing a pebble to your front door key, thus making it unable to unlock and activate NF-κB.

Ashwagandha can literally change the expression of your genome! It helps our body halt out of control inflammation by stopping it at the source, our DNA. This is just one example of the amazing findings and implications of this new field called epigenetics. We are not just the sum of the genes our parents gifted us, we, through our choices, can create our own physical, internal reality! By utilizing health-promoting herbs such as ashwagandha we can improve the wellbeing of ourselves and others.