Ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng or winter cherry, is a widely used medicinal herb, best known for its anti-inflammatory and anti-stress properties. Ashwagandha is derived from the roots of the Withania somnifera plant and is an evergreen shrub native to India and Southeast Asia. Ashwagandha has been used in Ayurvedic medicine (the traditional healthcare system in India) for over 3,000 years and is used in the Ayurvedic discipline of Rasayana, which promotes youthfulness and longevity. (3)(14)
Ashwagandha health benefits
Outlined below are some of the many health benefits of ashwagandha.
Improves anxiety and balances cortisol levels
Classified as an adaptogen, ashwagandha may enhance the body’s ability to better manage stress. Adaptogens are a class of herbs that aid in the regulation of hormones involved in the stress response during times of stress. They help the body adapt to stressful situations and resist the damaging effects of long-term stress. In addition, adaptogens have been shown to improve sleep and support adrenal health. (20)
Daily use of ashwagandha root extract may be effective in reducing physical symptoms of stress, including elevated blood pressure, heart rate, and feelings of anxiety. Additionally, ashwagandha may lower serum levels of cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone. (4) While cortisol is required for many physiological functions, including blood sugar regulation and blood pressure control, chronically elevated cortisol levels may contribute to adverse health conditions, such as hypertension and type 2 diabetes. (6)
Promotes better sleep
Ashwagandha’s species name, somnifera, translates to “sleep-inducer” in Latin, hinting at its sleep-promoting effects. (22)
Daytime fatigue is commonly caused by inadequate or nonrestorative sleep and prolonged sleep onset (an extended amount of time to fall asleep). Chronic poor sleep may be a factor in many health conditions, such as depression, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. (7)(5) Research has shown that ashwagandha supplementation may improve sleep quality and reduce the time it takes to fall asleep, thus minimizing daytime fatigue. Supplementation appears to be particularly beneficial for individuals struggling with anxiety and insomnia. (12)
Ashwagandha has been shown to decrease markers of inflammation, such as C-reactive protein (CRP), a protein synthesized by the liver and released into the bloodstream in response to inflammation in the body. (2)
In one animal study, powdered ashwagandha was administered orally to arthritic rats to measure potential improvements in symptoms. Ashwagandha supplementation minimized symptom severity and restored functional motor activity. These findings suggest that ashwagandha acts as an anti-inflammatory agent and may be beneficial in the management of inflammatory symptoms. (9)
Increases muscle mass and strength
Research has shown that using ashwagandha in combination with a strength training program may increase muscle size and strength.
A study of 57 males found that ashwagandha supplementation, twice daily for an eight-week period, yielded greater muscle strength and muscle size compared to the placebo group who consumed a capsule containing starch. Additionally, the group supplementing with ashwagandha experienced a decrease in exercise-induced muscle damage and a larger reduction in body fat percentage. (23)
Improves male fertility and raises testosterone levels
Ashwagandha may be effective at improving male fertility. A meta-analysis of four clinical trials concluded that ashwagandha contributes to increases in sperm concentration and motility in men experiencing low sperm count. Additionally, serum testosterone and luteinizing hormone (a hormone that, in males, supports testosterone production) levels increased with supplementation for 90 days. (1)(8)
Another study investigated the connection between psychological stress, male infertility, and the effects of ashwagandha. In participants, ashwagandha decreased serum cortisol levels and perceived stress levels measured via a survey. Overall fertility measures significantly improved amongst the participants. Participants were also monitored for an additional three months following the conclusion of the study, after which a significant portion (14%) of the participants’ partners became pregnant. (1)
Enhances memory and focus
Ashwagandha may contribute to improved memory and focus. Results from an eight-week study of individuals with mild cognitive impairment suggest that ashwagandha may improve memory, attention, and response speed as determined by a series of cognition tests. Another study of healthy, young males demonstrated a significant improvement in psychomotor performance (reaction time) during a two-week period in which participants received ashwagandha supplementation. (16)
Preliminary research also suggests that ashwagandha supplementation may offer some benefits for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease; however, human studies are limited. (18) One animal study demonstrated that ashwagandha may reduce memory loss associated with aging and neurodegenerative disorders. (10)
May normalize thyroid markers in hypothyroid patients
Ashwagandha may be useful in the management of hypothyroidism, a condition characterized by an underactive thyroid gland. One eight-week study found that ashwagandha significantly improved levels of the thyroid hormones TSH, T3, and T4 in individuals with subclinical hypothyroidism (mild underactive thyroid) compared to a placebo. (19)
Supplementing with ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is widely available in four supplement forms: capsules, powders, tablets, and tinctures (liquid herbal extracts). When choosing ashwagandha supplements, search for products with extracts from the ashwagandha root instead of extracts derived from the leaves. The root contains the highest concentration of the active ingredient, withanolides, and root extracts are more extensively researched than leaf extracts. (21)
Powdered ashwagandha can easily be added to foods and beverages, and its strong bitter flavor can be masked by other flavors. Try blending some in a smoothie, stirring into coffee or tea, or adding to soup. Consult your integrative healthcare practitioner for guidance and dosage instructions specific to your desired goals.
Ashwagandha supplementation is safe for most healthy individuals; however, some populations should avoid taking ashwagandha.
Avoid supplementing with ashwagandha while pregnant or breastfeeding. (15) Diabetics should exercise caution as ashwagandha may lower blood glucose levels, thus interfering with medications. Ashwagandha may also stimulate the immune system; therefore, individuals with autoimmune conditions, such as multiple sclerosis (MS), lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis, should avoid use unless directed by a practitioner. (15) Additionally, as ashwagandha may increase thyroid hormone levels, individuals with thyroid conditions, such as hyperthyroidism, should only supplement under practitioner supervision. (17)
Ashwagandha may interfere with some prescription medications. Possible drug interactions include:
- Antihypertensive drugs
- Diabetes medications
- Thyroid medications (15)
Consult your practitioner regarding potential drug interactions before supplementing with ashwagandha.
The bottom line
Ashwagandha boasts many health benefits, including improved sleep, decreased inflammation, and increased muscle strength. Its positive effects on mental health are the most promising and extensively researched. However, before using ashwagandha and other adaptogens, consult with your integrative healthcare practitioner to be sure they’re appropriate for you.
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- Auddy, B., Hazra, J., Ghosal, S., Abedon, B., & Mitra, A. (2008). A Standardized Withania Somnifera Extract Significantly Reduces Stress-Related Parameters in chronically stressed humans: A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study. JANA, 11(1).
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