Ashwagandha is a medicinal herb that has been used to treat several health conditions and is an essential element of ayurvedic medicine.
Most prominently, it is considered an adaptogen that possesses impressive features that can help the body adapt to and reduce stress.
Although more research needs to be done, contemporary science finds the potential health benefits.
What is Ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera)?
Ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng, winter cherry, and Withania Somnifera, belong to a class of plants known as adaptogens which present health benefits when ingested as tinctures, teas, powders, capsules, or pills.
Adaptogens are known in alternative medicine to help the body deal with mental and physical stressors like anxiety and inflammation in modern medicine.
People who use herbal medicines for different conditions often prefer this ayurvedic treatment option. In traditional medicine, Indian ginseng is considered a drug of Rasayana, indicating that it promotes health in youth and longevity.
Typically, ashwagandha root extract is used as additional short-term support to improve energy, overhaul overall health, boost the immune system, and decrease pain and anxiety.
Traditional medicine often uses the Ayurvedic herb ashwagandha alongside nutrition, exercise, and mindfulness practice to promote balance between the body, mind, spirit, and the environment.
How Does Ashwagandha Work?
Many of the benefits of ashwagandha are attributed to its anti-inflammatory properties and the ability to decrease cortisol.
The winter cherry herb contains bioactive compounds, including alkaloids, amino acids, lactones, and glycosides. Higher concentrations of these present antiangiogenic properties inhibit inflammation and tumor growth.
In particular, the withanolide content in Withania Somnifera, which is naturally occurring steroidal lactones present in the root, gives it most of its medicinal power and benefit.
It also works as an adaptogen in ayurvedic medicine and an alternative treatment for producing antifatigue, antidepressive, neuroprotective, and Central Nervous System stimulating activity.
Like other herbal supplements with adaptogenic features, its stress-protective activity improves cell-mediated immunity.
Several studies also show ashwagandha to demonstrate potent antioxidant activity that shields against cellular damage brought on by free radicals (1).
What Are The Health Benefits of Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha benefits are highly varied, covering everything from stress and anxiety to improving muscle strength and even boosting the reproductive system and eliminating sexual dysfunction.
These health benefits come from the plant’s medicinal properties, whose roots and berries are processed into different forms.
Current research shows that it decreases cortisol and boosts testosterone levels, presenting the primary ashwagandha therapeutic potential.
Improves Cognitive Function
According to different studies, taking ashwagandha may improve brain function, memory, and cognition.
For example, Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is often an early indicator and can lead to Alzheimer’s disease. Therefore, studies suggest that the ashwagandha may improve memory and executive brain function, attention, and information processing in subjects with MCI.
One study enrolled 50 adults over 35 diagnosed with MCI in a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study.
Participants reported MCI- related brain function symptoms such as general forgetfulness, rambling thoughts, missing important events, and feeling overwhelmed by decision making.
The treatment group received 300 mg of the ashwagandha root extract in a capsule twice daily for eight weeks. The control group received the same dosage of placebo capsules, with both groups undergoing the same cognitive tests.
Researchers observed that the ashwagandha group demonstrated significantly higher scores than the placebo group showing beneficial effects on memory and cognitive function (2).
Relieves Stress and Anxiety
Ashwagandha has anxiolytic effects on the nervous system and promotes the normalization of the stress hormone cortisol.
It has traditionally been used in Ayurveda to treat chronic stress and anxiety disorders for ages, and research shows it to help reduce the stress response.
Several studies show it lowers cortisol levels and manages stress, depression, and anxiety symptoms (3).
This anxiolytic antidepressant activity has been found to help reduce anxiety and specifically help agoraphobia.
Scientific evidence also shows it relieves stress in individuals who suffer from nervous depletion and sleeplessness.
Other research indicates that even without measuring cortisol levels, ashwagandha still yields stress-relieving properties.
When paired with the other interventions, it can help stress-related conditions linked to mental health, energy levels, concentration, depression, social functioning, vitality, and overall quality of life (4).
Ashwagandha significantly improves sleep quality and may treat conditions like insomnia.
Preliminary research suggests that ashwagandha may help people fall asleep faster, spend more time sleeping, and experience improved sleep quality.
After taking the herb for six weeks, participants describe their sleep as being 72% better on average (5).
One study shows it to benefit sleep quality where researchers confirmed that participants given doses of the herb slept better than others who received placebo doses (6).
These sleep-inducing properties of ashwagandha may be attributed to compounds like triethylene glycol. Or, it may be that active compounds act on GABA receptors which are a vital part of the sleep-wake cycle.
If you are using ashwagandha for sleep, it is essential to follow the instructions of your preferred product carefully, as the optimal dose is still under debate.
Ashwagandha is prominent in ayurvedic medicine, where it is mashed into a paste and applied for ulcers to relieve pain and ease inflammatory discomfort in the joints.
Human studies establish ashwagandha to increase natural killer cell activity which are immune cells that fight infection and help people stay healthy.
At the same time, other studies show that it may also reduce inflammatory markers such as C reactive protein CRP (7).
Some preliminary clinical trials suggest that the anti-inflammatory effects of this herb may help fight inflammation, making it a potential treatment for rheumatoid arthritis.
A small study suggested that when combined with other ayurvedic treatments for arthritis, ashwagandha powder could ease swollen and painful joints in people with rheumatoid arthritis (8).
So, while there is some evidence to support ashwagandha’s potential anti-inflammatory properties, more research is still needed.
In addition, since no safe or effective dosage has been established, you should only use supplements when recommended by your health care provider.
Increases Muscle and Strength
Ashwagandha may be beneficial for boosting physical performance. This is an area where studies have looked explicitly at muscle gain versus fat reduction and found that people who took the herb had significant improvements in muscle mass and strength (9).
The researchers found from one study that healthy adult males consuming ashwagandha root extract alongside resistance training for eight weeks showed a more significant increase in muscle strength, size, and body fat percentage over a placebo group.
The participants also had a greater reduction of exercise-induced muscle damage.
The same study also indicated that supplementation with ashwagandha extract might improve testosterone levels, followed by a higher decrease in body fat percentage.
Reduces Blood Sugar Levels and Fat
Ashwagandha may help treat blood sugar and help to manage diabetes looking at the few human trials in this area.
One study found that the extract could reduce blood sugar as much as oral diabetes medication in people with type 2 diabetes (10).
Another similar study showed people who took high dosages of ashwagandha experienced a drop in fasting blood sugar levels.
Some people also use ashwagandha to improve heart health and its related aspects of lowering high blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides to prevent heart disease.
Some research has shown that Withania Somnifera could potentially lower both total and LDL cholesterol, befitting heart health (11).
Likewise, other studies found that using ashwagandha for 30 days can promote the reduction of triglyceride and cholesterol levels in healthy young adults.
However, there are limited human trial results to support the heart health benefits of ashwagandha.
Boosts Sexual Function and Fertility
Among other benefits of ashwagandha, there is the promise of boosting reproductive hormone levels and male fertility.
Research has shown that using ashwagandha may also offer support to improve sperm count, sperm quality, and sperm motility (12).
Another clinical study suggests that the herb could boost fertility in males struggling with infertility. Study findings showed that the partners of 14% of the participants taking ashwagandha became pregnant by the end of the study.
Yet another evidence-based systematic review and meta-analysis reveal an increase in sperm concentration, semen volume, and sperm motility after 90 days of ashwagandha treatment (13).
So, while the eligible studies provide promising results, their sample size remains small and larger studies are needed to establish the role of ashwagandha in treating male factor infertility.
May Offer Cancer Protection
Laboratory and animal studies suggest the promising potential for ashwagandha to stop the growth of cancer cells.
This research covers the areas of making ashwagandha a potential treatment for stalling cancer cell growth in breast, lung, brain, ovarian, prostate, and colon cancers, as seen in animal studies.
However, there is no current evidence from human studies that suggest the herb may lead to cancer reduction, including the ability to kill cancer cells.
Thus, more research is needed to establish these benefits with human studies.
How To Take Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha supplements are available in many forms, including powder, extract or capsules, tincture, and even tea.
Regardless of the form of ashwagandha, they all yield equal efficacy and can be used to treat different conditions. It is often paired with black pepper, which helps absorption and digestion.
The ashwagandha powder form works best for people who do not like working with tablets, capsules, or pills of any sort. Instead, they can dissolve the powder in a beverage of their preference and drink it up as needed.
Tea is also another option for people who find swallowing supplements inconvenient.
Scientific studies have worked with dosages around 500 mg taken twice a day, although there is no officially recommended dosage for ashwagandha extract.
Typical doses to help with sleep-related issues are generally between 250 to 600 mg, and you should not use ashwagandha for more than three consecutive months.
To experience effects of ashwagandha to lower cortisol levels, experts recommend taking between 500 to 600 mg a day for six to 12 weeks.
To manage blood sugar levels, it is recommended to take between 250 to 300 mg split into two or three equal doses throughout the day.
If you use a supplement with the standardized extract, it is essential to remember that most experimental studies looked at the effects over 8 to 12 weeks.
This means that you need to give your supplement time to work before deciding whether it is a treatment worth continuing or not.
Always start with a lower dose to see how well the supplement works for you before going to high doses.
Depending on why you are using ashwagandha will also determine how often you should take it. In most cases, it is usually taken twice a day after meals for optimal efficacy.
The best time to take ashwagandha may also depend on the type of supplement you are taking.
For instance, ashwagandha tea can be consumed in the morning, tablets or capsules may be taken twice a day after meals, or powdered ashwagandha roots can be mixed into the milk before bed to help with sleep issues.
Does Ashwagandha Have Side Effects?
It is easy for most people to tolerate ashwagandha extracts reasonably well, and the herb seems to have a relatively low incidence of side effects.
Researchers stress that people with a thyroid condition should be careful when using this Ayurvedic medicine. This is because it can increase thyroid function by promoting thyroid hormone conversion to its more active form.
As such, people with a borderline hyperactive thyroid may be prone to hyperthyroidism if they use ashwagandha unsupervised.
Ashwagandha should also not be used by pregnant women or those who are breastfeeding unless given the green light by their doctor.
Other people with underlying health conditions or autoimmune diseases should also warrant caution when using ashwagandha.
Anyone with rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, type one diabetes, and lupus should only use ashwagandha when authorized by their health care provider.
If you follow a diet that eliminates nightshade plants, you should probably not take ashwagandha supplements as it belongs to this group.
You should also be wary of taking this herb alongside sedatives as it may cause too much sleepiness.
Other than this, most healthy adults can safely take the supplement and the most common side effects reported are nothing more than diarrhea, some vomiting, nausea, or minor gastrointestinal discomfort.
Ashwagandha is one of the most potent herbs used in Ayurveda, with a long history of improving mental health, overall wellness, and quality of life.
The herb has various parts that are used medicinally, with the extract yielding excellent rejuvenating properties.
It is generally considered safe to use for reducing stress and anxiety, increasing low testosterone levels, and other possible medical conditions.
However, certain groups should avoid using ashwagandha without first consulting their doctor.