As an adaptogenic herb, ashwagandha helps our body to protect itself against stress. Ashwagandha also has nootropic properties that enable it to boost brain functions. This medicinal herb has been used by traditional healers for thousands of years for its various medicinal properties.
In the Indian Ayurvedic treatments, ashwagandha is commonly used to enhance concentration, relieve stress, and increase energy levels. It has been found to help manage symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression by lowering cortisol levels.
What is Ashwagandha?
Withania somnifera, commonly known as Ashwagandha, is one of the most well-known plants used in ayurvedic medicine. Also called winter cherry, ashwagandha is a small shrub with yellow blooms and orange-red fruits.
It is also known as Indian ginseng, though not to be confused with true ginseng which comes under the genus ‘Panax’. One of the most valued herbs in Chinese traditional medicine, Panax ginseng includes varieties such as Asian ginseng and American ginseng.
Ashwagandha has anti-inflammatory, immune-boosting and neuroprotective abilities. It displays both antidepressant and anti-anxiety properties. ‘Ashwa’ means horse’ in Sanskrit and ashwagandha is believed to have the meaning ‘strength of a stallion’. This is with reference to its ability to boost strength and energy in its users.
Extracts or powder of its roots, leaves, and fruits are used for medicinal purposes. Ayurvedic preparations using ashwagandha are often given to those recovering from long illnesses to strengthen their immunity.
Ashwagandha: The Mechanism of Action
Ashwagandha has a group of steroidal lactones called withanolides which are believed to be the active compounds that give ashwagandha its unique medicinal properties. Withaferin A, withanolide D and withanone are its main chemical constituents, though the concentration of these compounds differs in various parts of the plant. Leaf extracts of ashwagandha contain more withaferin A than its roots.
The exact mechanism by which ashwagandha works in our body is still being researched, though clinical studies have recorded that ashwagandha does have many health benefits. A 2017 study on the effect of ashwagandha on male infertility noted that:
Oral intake of Ashwagandha roots has been found to inhibit lipid peroxidation, improve sperm count and motility, and regulate reproductive hormone levels. The molecular mechanisms of these effects, however, are yet to be unveiled.
13 Proven Benefits of Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is called the King of Ayurvedic herbs as it is said to have innumerable health benefits. To separate the myths from facts, let’s take a closer look at what other research studies say about the various health benefits of ashwagandha.
1. Ashwagandha May Reduce Cortisol Levels
Our body responds to stress by elevating our cortisol levels. As the hormone adrenaline floods our system, our heart rate increases, elevating our blood pressure, increasing blood glucose and boosting energy, preparing us to face the threat that has caused the stress. This is vital in case of life and death situations where you may need to run for your life from some dangerous animals, but when we are chronically stressed due to innumerable petty issues in our day to day lives, this can wreak havoc on our system. Chronically elevated cortisol levels in the body can lead to a whole host of diseases.
A 2009 Indian study, by researchers from the C.S.M. Medical University in Lucknow, investigated the ability of ashwagandha’s ability to treat male infertility and to combat stress. Their study involved 60 subjects who were treated with 5 grams of ashwagandha extract daily for a period of three months. They observed that there was a notable decrease in stress levels with improved semen levels as well as in the level of antioxidants.
2. Ashwagandha Reduces Inflammation
Inflammation is a natural response of our immune system to fight infections and heal injuries. But chronic inflammation that lasts for months, or even longer, can seriously damage our body. Chronic inflammation is a marker in many health issues such as heart disease, fatty liver disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Researchers from the Zahedan University of Medical Sciences in Iran studied the effects of ashwagandha root extract on Wistar-Albino male rats. They noted that ashwagandha “normalizes hyperglycemia in fructose-fed rats by reducing inflammatory markers and improving insulin sensitivity.”
A 2016 study investigated the effect of ashwagandha for treating inflammation and pain. The researchers concluded that ashwagandha “has potential valuable properties for the treatment of specific painful conditions. The antinociceptive (pain-blocking) effects of Withania somnifera (ashwagandha) appeared to be specifically mediated by the opioidergic system, although the involvement of the glutamatergic system cannot be excluded.”
3. Ashwagandha Helps Boost Immunity
As is evident with its ability to reduce inflammation, ashwagandha does have a strong impact on our immune system. In fact, in ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha is primarily used as an immunity booster.
A 2009 US study from the Helfgott Research Institute in Portland attempted to determine the immunologic mechanism of ashwagandha on four types of immune cells in humans. 6 ml of Ashwagandha root extract was given to 5 study subjects, twice a day, for 8 days. Throughout the study, blood samples were collected at different time intervals. The researchers noted major changes in immune cell activation in the collected blood samples.
A 2011 study from the Department of Pathology, University of Louisville, USA studied the immune-boosting capabilities of ashwagandha and they concluded that “a combination of Maitake mushroom-derived glucan and Ashwagandha extracts, has strong pleiotropic biological effects related to immune health and stress reduction.”
4. Ashwagandha Helps with Weight Loss
Chronic stress is associated with many illnesses, including obesity. Stress and its resultant cortisol spikes cause blood sugar to stay high in the blood, and most of this glucose gets stored as body fat eventually.
With antibacterial properties and the ability to reduce inflammation, ashwagandha has a positive effect on boosting the immune system. This helps redirect energy to the weight loss process. Ashwagandha also has plenty of antioxidants that aid weight loss and improve overall well-being.
A 2017 study, from the NSHM Knowledge Campus in Kolkata, India, treated 52 subjects with 300gms of ashwagandha (or placebo) twice daily and the researchers found that “Ashwagandha root extract can be used for bodyweight management in adults under chronic stress.”
5. Ashwagandha May Improve Cognitive Functioning
Another use of ashwagandha in Ayurvedic medicine is its intake as a nerve tonic and memory enhancer. Though many research studies have been conducted on the health benefits of various herbs, ashwagandha’s influence on the functioning of brain cells is perhaps the most investigated one.
A 2014 Indian study investigated the memory-enhancing properties of ashwagandha extract. They used 20 healthy male subjects to observe their cognitive and psychomotor changes on the administration of 500 mg of ashwagandha root extract, twice daily over a period of 14 days. They noted an increase in both cognitive and psychomotor performance in their study subjects.
Compared to placebo, it was recorded that “significant improvements were observed in reaction times with simple reaction, choice discrimination, digit symbol substitution, digit vigilance, and card sorting tests with ashwagandha extract”.
6. Ashwagandha May Help Repair Damaged Brain Cells
With its antioxidant properties, Ashwagandha may be able to protect your brain cells from free
radicals. Brain cells can also get damaged due to neurocognitive disorders and ashwagandha has been found to help reverse some of these damages.
A study conducted in 2013 by the Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences, DRDO, in India, investigated the neuroprotective and prophylactic effects of the ashwagandha root extract in treating memory impairment. Rats with hypobaric hypoxia (HH) induced memory impairment were treated with WS (ashwagandha) root extract for 21 days before exposing them to a simulated altitude of 25,000 ft. The treatment continued for another seven days after the exposure as well.
Hypobaric hypoxia occurs due to the decreased oxygen availability at high altitudes and the body’s reduced ability to absorb oxygen from the blood. high altitude exposure and the resulting hypoxia can lead to cognitive dysfunctions including memory impairment. The researchers found that ashwagandha was effective in preventing hypoxia-induced memory impairment in the test subjects. They also noted a reduction in nitric oxide, corticosterone, and oxidative stress in the hippocampal region of the brain.
Another Indian study conducted in 2012 observed the effect of ashwagandha root extract and its active ingredient withanolide A in restoring spatial memory deficit In epileptic rats with impaired spatial memory were treated with ashwagandha root extract and withanolide A. They noted an almost complete reversal of spatial memory in their study subjects as ashwagandha improved the spatial memory deficits by “enhancing the antioxidant system and restoring altered NMDA receptor density.”
7. Ashwagandha May Enhance Memory
As we age, our memory and cognition may start to decline. Though this is a natural part of aging, ashwagandha may help slow down this degeneration and even enhance our memory and cognitive functioning.
A 2017 Indian study, from the NSHM Knowledge Campus in Kolkata, evaluated the effectiveness of ashwagandha in increasing memory and cognitive functioning in 50 adults suffering from mild cognitive impairment. For a period of 8 weeks, they were administered either a placebo or 300 mg ashwagandha-root extract, twice a day.
The researchers found that Ashwagandha enhanced both immediate and general memory in adults with mild cognitive impairment. Improvement was also noted in their attention, information processing speed, and executive function.
8. Ashwagandha May Help Treat Male Infertility
Stress is considered as a causative factor in male infertility. Ashwagandha’s stress-combating properties may be the reason why this helps improve sperm quality and treat male infertility. There have been many studies that have documented the effects of ashwagandha in the management of male infertility.
A 2013 Indian study, from the Trupti Hospital & Santati Fertility Center in Thane, Maharashtra, evaluated the spermatogenic activity of Ashwagandha root extract in oligospermic (low sperm count) patients. The researchers treated 46 male patients with oligospermia with a 675 mg/d Ashwagandha root extract for 90 days (or a placebo). They noted a 167% increase in sperm count and a 57% increase in sperm motility,
9. Ashwagandha May Improve Insulin Sensitivity
Various studies have been conducted over the years to evaluate how ashwagandha lowers blood sugar levels. Ashwagandha has been observed to increase insulin secretion. It also increases insulin sensitivity in muscle cells. The withanolides in ashwagandha are believed to be behind the anti-diabetic activity of ashwagandha root extracts.
In fact, a study from the Institute for Drug Research, Hebrew University Medical Faculty, Jerusalem, Israel, evaluated the anti-diabetic activity of W. somnifera extract and purified withanolides. They noted an association between increased withaferin A content and anti-diabetic activity. Another Indian study from the Research and Development Centre, Natreon Inc., in Kolkata, India treated 95 men and 35 women with ashwagandha extract and they found that fasting blood glucose and cholesterol levels in the participants improved significantly.
10. Ashwagandha May Improve Cholesterol Levels
In a research conducted by the Sri Satya Sai Institute of Higher Learning in Anantapur, India, six subjects were treated with powdered ashwagandha root for 30 days. The researchers studied the hypoglycemic, diuretic and hypocholesterolemic effects of ashwagandha on these human volunteers. They tested blood and urine samples of their subjects before and at the end of the treatment period. They noted that:
“Decrease in blood glucose was comparable to that of an oral hypoglycemic drug. Significant increase in urine sodium, urine volume, a significant decrease in serum cholesterol, triglycerides, LDL (low-density lipoproteins) and VLDL (very low-density lipoproteins) cholesterol were observed indicating that root of W. somnifera is a potential source of hypoglycemic, diuretic and hypocholesterolemic agents.”
11. Ashwagandha May Help Treat Cancer
The withaferin content in ashwagandha may help in treating various types of cancer. Withaferin was found to disrupt the growth of new cancer cells in many ways. It helps in inducing apoptosis (death of cancer cells). It also encouraged the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in cancer cells, which in turn disrupts their functioning.
A 2014 study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pennsylvania, USA noted that the “Cancer-protective role for WA (withaferin A ) has now been established using chemically-induced and oncogene-driven rodent cancer models.”
12. Ashwagandha May Help Alleviate Depression
Considering that ashwagandha is an adaptogen that helps deal with stress, it’s not surprising that it may help reduce symptoms of depression as well. We all get depressed at some point in our lives, but chronic or severe depression can lead to many other health problems. So it’s important to get treatment at the earliest. Rather than relying on prescription medicines with undesirable side effects, ashwagandha can be a more healthy alternative to reduce the symptoms of depression.
Researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore, India, investigated the efficiency of Ashwagandha treatment in patients with anxiety disorders. The study used 39 human subjects and concluded that “ethanolic extract of Withania somnifera has useful anxiolytic potential and merits further investigation.”
A 2012 study from the Department of Neuropsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry, Asha Hospital, Hyderabad, India, found that “high-concentration full-spectrum Ashwagandha root extract safely and effectively improves an individual’s resistance towards stress and thereby improves self-assessed quality of life.”
13. Ashwagandha May Boost Muscle Strength
There are so many supplements in the bodybuilding industry that claim to boost muscle mass and strength. If you take a closer look at their ingredient labels, don’t be surprised if you find ashwagandha listed among them. Ashwagandha has been found to reduce body fat, increase muscle mass and muscle strength in studies conducted by various researchers over the years.
A 2015 Indian study investigated the effects of ashwagandha root extract on muscle mass and strength in men performing resistance training. The double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical study, used 57 males in the age group 18-50 years old. For an 8-week period of resistance training, they were given 300 mg of ashwagandha root extract twice daily (or a placebo). Muscle strength, muscle size, body composition, serum testosterone levels and muscle recovery were measured at the beginning and end of the study period.
The researchers concluded that “ashwagandha supplementation is associated with significant increases in muscle mass and strength and suggests that ashwagandha supplementation may be useful in conjunction with a resistance training program.”
The Dosage of Ashwagandha Supplements
Ashwagandha is available online or in health shops and can be easily purchased without any prescription. The dosage of Ashwagandha depends on the brand you buy and the type of supplement used. Root or leaf extracts of ashwagandha are more potent than crude versions of powdered ashwagandha leaf or root. Even among various ashwagandha extracts, standardized root extracts are the most preferred ones.
For improving memory and cognitive functioning, 400 to 500 mg of standardized root extract capsules can be taken once or twice daily. This is considered as a safe and effective dose. Visible results can be expected within an eight week period of consistent usage.
Risks and Side Effects of Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is generally said to be safe for consumption if taken within the recommended doses. First-time users may experience mild digestive discomfort, vomiting or diarrhea. Reducing your dosage may help overcome such side effects. If it persists, then take a small break of a few days to a week and then start again at a lower dose. Build up gradually as your body adjusts to the medication.
Ashwagandha has been found to lower blood glucose levels as well as cholesterol levels. So those taking medications for diabetes or hyperlipidemia should consult their doctor before starting on such supplements. If you experience such side effects, reduce your dosage or take a break before starting again at lower doses. Ashwagandha impacts thyroid functions, so those on thyroid medications or suffering from thyroid disorders are best advised to consult their doctors first.
There are some concerns over miscarriage risk in pregnant women due to ashwagandha supplementation. Since information is lacking in this regard, it is best that pregnant and breastfeeding moms avoid taking ashwagandha supplements. Those who have been prescribed sedatives, blood pressure medications or immunosuppressants should take dietary supplements like ashwagandha under the doctor’s supervision to avoid adverse drug interactions.
The Final Note
Ashwagandha, one of the most important herbs in the Indian Ayurvedic treatments, is well known for its adaptogenic and nootropic capabilities. It not only reduces stress and anxiety, but it can also boost cognition and memory.
Ashwagandha helps fight pathogens and infections by strengthening your immune system. It is rich in antioxidants and reduces inflammation. It has neuroprotective and thyroid modulating properties. Considering its amazing health benefits and that it may have only minor and temporary side effects such as headaches or nausea, ashwagandha is definitely a dietary supplement that everyone should try out. Check out our list of top 10 ashwagandha supplements to choose one that suits your needs the best.