The benefits of ashwagandha are vast. With anxiety and sleep disorders on the rise, it’s no surprise many busy professionals are turning to options such as ashwagandha for its amazing benefits. In many cases, it can be a great alternative to pharmaceutical drugs.
What is Ashwagandha?
Withania somnifera, known as ashwagandha, is a healing plant in the Solanaceae, or nightshade family. It originates in India, but the shrub can handle dry climates and weather from 10 to 40 degrees celsius. Its leaves and roots have been used for centuries for improved thinking, sleep, arthritis, cancer, anxiety, and more.
Ashwagandha root is popular in Ayurvedic medicine (Indian medicine) and has been used for over 3,000 years. The root offers countless benefits to the body and mind. Ayurveda commonly uses it as a sleep aid and to correct conditions that arise from ‘vata dosha’ imbalances. It encourages vitality and longevity.
Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, a substance defined by properties that help the body adapt to environmental challenges such as stress. Adaptogens are a unique class of healing plants that help balance, protect, and restore the body. These plants are loved by the herbalist community for their ability to correct imbalances in the body and mind.
Ashwagandha offers numerous benefits to the body and mind. Balancing blood sugar, improving depression and anxiety, and improving thyroid function are just the start of ashwagandha’s studied benefits. Studies on both animals and humans have helped us identify the wide spectrum of ashwagandha benefits.
- Reduces stress & anxiety
- Improves thyroid function
- Reduce blood sugar levels
- Anti-cancer properties
- Reduce depression
- Increase testosterone and fertility in men
- Boosts immune system
- Improved memory and brain function
1. Reduces Stress & Anxiety
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S, affecting 40 million adults. For those struggling with high-stress and anxiety, ashwagandha may be a good option to try.
The most studied and known benefit for ashwagandha is anxiety relief and stress reduction. The measured improvements to are impressive, without any notable side effects. Individuals have reported better stress management after taking Ashwagandha and experienced a greater sense of calm. Studies show the changes in biomarkers to validate these self-reported improvements.
A study with 64 people who struggled with stress showed significant improvement in stress levels over a 60 day period. These results were from taking 300mg of high concentration extract per day. 1
In a different study, 88% of participants with anxiety disorders reported a reduction in anxiety after taking Ashwagandha for six weeks, compared to 50% who took a placebo. 2
In a double-blind randomized study, Ashwagandha reduced experiential and biochemical indicators of stress without any adverse effects. Specifically, it reduced serum cortisol, serum C-reactive protein, pulse rate, and blood pressure. 3
Ashwagandha has been proven to balance the following :
- reduces stress and anxiety
- decreases c-reactive protein levels
- decreases cortisol
- improves memory formation
- may help with neurodegenerative diseases
Given the results from a range of studies over the past two decades, there is a good chance Ashwagandha can help with nervousness, anxiety, and stress.
2. Thyroid Regulation
Symptoms such as fatigue, tiredness, mental slowing, concentration and memory impairments, weight gain, and depression are common among those who struggle with hypothyroidism. This happens when your thyroid doesn’t produce enough triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) hormones. On the other end of the spectrum, hyperthyroidism is when you have an overactive thyroid which can lead to symptoms such as weight loss, rapid heart rate, increased appetite, nervousness, sweating, and changes in bowel movements. Thyroid hormones are critical for regulating proteins, body temperature, heart rate, and uses of fats and carbohydrates.
Ashwagandha has been shown to support thyroid regulation and is commonly prescribed for those struggling with hypothyroidism. Rather than overcompensating one way or another, adaptogens such as ashwagandha help return the body back to a state of balance.
Many claim ashwagandha is also beneficial for hyperthyroidism, but there is limited research to back up these claims. Ashwagandha can help the body convert T3 and T4 hormones which could be beneficial for those who struggle with an overactive thyroid. However, if excess hormones are produced, this could intensify hyperthyroid disorders.
A randomized, double-blind, single-center placebo-controlled study was performed on 50 subjects with elevated TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) levels. Those in the treatment group were given 600 mg of ashwagandha root extract daily for a period of 8 weeks. The results The treatment group showed improve serum TSH, T3, and T4 levels compared to the control. The results suggest ashwagandha may be beneficial for normalizing thyroid indices in subclinical hypothyroid patients. 4
A randomized clinical trial was performed on 60 patients with bipolar disorder. The study measured thyroid levels as a safety measure but was not the primary goal of the study. Those in the treatment group were given 500 mg of standardized ashwagandha extract (Sensoril) for 8-weeks, in addition to their existing medication regimen. Some of the participants showed increases in thyroid hormones compared to baseline. The results were not statistically significant, but suggest benefits for those who struggle with Hypothyroidism. 5
Ashwagandha has been shown to improve thyroid regulation for those who struggle with hypothyroid. Many suggest it can help with hyperthyroid, although this hasn’t been validated with human studies.
3. It Can Reduce Blood Sugar Levels
Blood sugar (glucose) is an important source of energy for the cells that make up your muscles and tissues. It’s also your brain’s main source of fuel. However, when glucose levels are too high, it can lead to serious health problems.
Ashwagandha can provide anti-diabetic effects with its ability to help balance blood sugar levels. While human studies are limited, the results available are encouraging. There are also numerous animal studies with significant results showing decreases insulin resistance and improved blood sugar regulation.
A randomized, double blind, placebo controlled, clinical trial was conducted on 30 patients who were undergoing treatment for schizophrenia. Those in the treatment group received 400 mg of Ashwagandha extract daily for one month. While no change was found in the placebo group, there was a significant decrease in fasting blood sugar levels for individuals in the test group. 6
Animal Study – A study on medically induced diabetic rats were given ashwagandha leaf and root extract for a period of 8 weeks. Over the period, those in the treatment group had normalized blood sugar levels. 7
Animal Study – A study on diabetic rates were given ashwagandha for a period of 5 weeks. The treatment group had reduced elevated levels of blood glucose, increased glucose tolerance, and improved insulin sensitivity. 8
The information available in studies suggests ashwagandha could be helpful in the regulation of blood sugar levels and it may improve insulin sensitivity.
4. It has Anti Cancer Properties
Cancer is a disease most of us have dealt with first-hand, whether it be a friend, family member, or yourself. Cancer is a disease we would not wish upon anyone, and it’s a disease we all wish we had the ultimate solution.
While ashwagandha may not be the ultimate solution, it offers cancer-fighting properties that can prevent tumor cell formation and growth and can even reduce harmful side effects from common treatment options such as chemotherapy. Ashwagandha is thought to have the ability to activate apoptotic pathways in cancer cells, compared to most successful cancer treatment approaches that remove or destroy impaired cells. 9
A nonrandomized study was performed on 100 patients with breast cancer who were undergoing different stages of chemotherapy. Those in the treatment group were given 2g of ashwagandha every two hours throughout the chemotherapy treatment. Those in the treatment group had less fatigue and reported a better quality of life. After two years, the survival rate for those in the treatment group was 74% compared to 56% in the control, although this measure did not reach statistically significant results.10
Ashwagandha root and leaf extracts are shown to confer protection against chemically-induced cancers in experimental rodents and retard tumor xenograft growth in athymic mice. 11
Another compound in ashwagandha induces cell death in certain tumor cells. One study found this property successful in killing prostate cancer tumor cells. 12
Additional animal and culture studies have shown ashwagandha to support treatment breast, lung, colon, brain and ovarian cancer. While studies involving ashwagandha cancer impact on humans are limited, the preliminary research suggests this root could help with longevity.
5. Reduce Symptoms of Depression
Depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates 16.2 million adults in the U.S. have had at least one major depressive episode. 13 It can be hard to break out of the deep ruts and many struggle with the side-effects associated with pharmaceutical drug options available.
In a 2000 experimental study on rats, ashwagandha efficacy was compared to the antidepressant medication imipramine. Researchers found that ashwagandha exhibited antidepressant effects that were comparable to imipramine when rats were exposed to “behavioral despair” and “learned helplessness” tests. It was concluded that ashwagandha can be used as a mood stabilizer in clinical conditions of depression. 14
A study measured the antidepressant action of albino rats. The subjects were given 50-150 mg of ashwagandha and 20-40 mg of bramhi for two weeks. The rats had significant antidepressant action such as avoidance response, escape failure and immobility period. The study showed ashwagandha can be useful to take individually or in combinations with bramhi and conventional antidepressant drugs. 15
Perhaps a side-effect of balanced mood and less stress, this magical herb may also help those who are battling depression.
6. Ashwagandha Benefits for Men – Strength, Stamina, and Fertility
Great for pumping iron. With ashwagandha’s strong ability to fight stress, it also creates a better environment for male fertility. The following study led to an increase in antioxidants and improved overall semen quality. Not only can it help your little swimmers, ashwagandha can improve physical strength and stamina. 16
Another study found that Withania somnifera not only reboots enzymatic activity of metabolic pathways and metabolism but it also invigorates the balance of reproductive hormones in infertile men. 17
Another study in 2015 found out that 600mg of ashwagandha significantly increased muscle strength and recovery in young male subjects. 18
What male doesn’t want to increase strength and stamina? While this may not have the same impact as bodybuilding supplements, it could provide a healthier alternative.
7. Improve Brain Function and Memory
Get more done. For focus, memory, and concentration, ashwagandha has been proven to show benefits without overstimulation. In other words, you can enjoy the brain benefits without the jitters from stimulants such as caffeine. This herb is popular in nootropic stacks for its ability to improve focus, concentration, and mental stamina.
In a controlled study, healthy men were given 500 mg ashwagandha capsules daily reported significant improvements in their reaction time and task performance, compared to those who took the placebo.19
Contrary to pharmaceutical anti-anxiety drugs on the market, this herb can keep you calm and improve your mental performance.
8. Boosts Immune Function
Stay healthy and fit. The healing herb can help boost immune function and reduce inflammation in the body. In (mostly) animal studies, it’s been shown to modulate and boost the immune system in the following ways. 20 21
- Increase white blood cell count – attack pathogens
- Increase platelet count – helps regulate immune responses
- Increases antibodies produced by the body
- Increases Interferon gamma levels
Stress has a negative impact on the immune system, so it’s not surprising to see immunity benefits from ashwagandha as well.
Ashwagandha Doses and Types
Ashwagandha capsules are the most common option, but you can also find it as a powder or as a tincture. It is available in a ground root form or as an extract. Like many supplements, not all ashwagandha products are created equal. The best sources use good manufacturing processes to avoid heavy metal concerns. Some Ayurvedic medicines include lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury. Look for certified organic supplements that are manufactured in GMP compliant facilities. Also be wary of supplements produced outside the US.
What is Ashwagandha Extract?
Ashwagandha extracts are a synthesized version of the herb, generally with the goal of eliminating volume while maintaining the potent properties that lead to studied benefits. When purchasing an extract, it’s important to understand the process and most importantly, the withanolide percentage. Withanolides are a group of flavonoids that lead to ashwagandha’s known benefits. The balance of withanolides is also important since they have different impacts on the body. For instance, Withaferin A has proven to show cytotoxic behavior to tumor or cancer cells and may not be safe for consumption in high volumes over a long period of time. Extracts that use the leaves instead of only the roots have a higher percentage of Withaferin A levels. 22
Since ashwagandha extracts may contain different percentages of flavonoids, their efficacy will vary. Supplements using an extract should be full-spectrum, to maintain the balance of the various constituents as in the original herb, without over-representing any one constituent. The herb’s efficacy is believed to be derived from a complex blend of active constituents such as withanine, somniferine, tropine, and steroidal lactones called withanolides.
ashwagandha is “what is the right dose to take?” The majority of studies tested ranges from 50mg – 3,000mg of ashwagandha extract per day. There haven’t been major side-effects for even the higher doses, but it’s always best to start with a low intake to see how your body reacts. Given what we know from testing, you’ll likely need to consume at least 300mg – 500mg of extract per day to experience its therapeutic benefits. Keep in mind the potency varies across various extracts and the ground root powder is less potent by volume. The benefits may take over two weeks to surface.
It’s often recommended to take ashwagandha with food to avoid an upset stomach.
Unlike the pharmaceutical world, there is no magic dose to take. Keep a record of when you start taking ashwagandha and record any changes you notice to your body or mind. If you are interested in taking a higher dose, start slow and gradually build up. Many of the study results were over 6 weeks or longer, so you’ll need to give it time.
How Does Ashwagandha Work?
The exact mechanisms that cause ashwagandha to work are not entirely understood. One of the known mechanisms is the modulation of circulating levels monoamine oxidase and GABA in the brain. GABA is an amino acid that acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, to help regulate over stimulation or over-excitement in the brain (A.K.A anxiety). Animal studies demonstrate that ashwagandha exhibits GABA-like properties to enhance calmness without sleepiness or a decrease in cognitive abilities.
Ashwagandha is believed to promote the formation of dendrites, branching neuronal extensions that convey and propagate electrochemical stimulation from cell to cell. Increased dendrite formation is considered to be a marker of increased connectivity in the brain.
Ashwagandha is rich in antioxidants, tannins, and amino acids. It also contains essential steroidal alkaloids flavonoids, neurotransmitters, lactones, sterols, and lignans. This robust mixture leads to the wide spectrum of ashwagandha benefits.
Based on a study done by the International Journal of Home Science, ashwagandha had the following nutritional makeup. 23
Based on 1,000 milligrams of dried root powder:
- Protein – 0.04 grams
- Fiber – 0.32 grams
- Calories – 2.5
- Carbohydrates – 0.5 grams
- Iron – 0.03 milligrams
- Calcium – 0.02 milligrams
- Vitamin C – 0.06 milligrams
- Carotene – 0.08 micrograms
It’s worth noting this is based on dried ashwagandha root powder, so if you are looking at an Ashwagandha extract, these nutritional facts may not apply.
Where Can I Find Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha supplements (in capsule form) can be found in health inspired grocery store chains, such as Sprouts, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s. You’ll also find plenty of options to choose from online.
Ashwagandha root powder is less common, but can also be found in specialty retailers. The ground root powder is great for tea, cooking, or in your favorite smoothie recipe.
Is Ashwagandha Safe?
With the studies on both humans and animals, it appears ashwagandha is safe to consume long-term without adverse side-effects. The herb has been tolerated well in many scenarios with benefits to muscle mass, sleep quality, stress levels, and more.
One thing to watch out for is a “Heavy Metal Warning.” If you see this on the packaging, find a different solution. This is much less common over the last decade, but some of those products are still floating around. In short, the products with loose manufacturing may include arsenic or lead and mercury. Opt for U.S. manufactured products when possible and avoid products that show a heavy metal warning on the label.
Depending on your state, there are additional precautions to consider:
Pregnancy concerns: Ashwagandha is not safe for pregnant or breastfeeding women. It has abortifacient properties which may lead to miscarriage.
Hyperthyroidism: According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, ashwagandha may intensify hyperthyroidism. Many have differing viewpoints, but it’s fair to say, be careful if you have hyperthyroidism.
Medications: Ashwagandha is a mild central nervous system depressant, so it may interact with alcohol, anti-anxiety drugs or sedatives. If you are under treatment for any medical or psychiatric problems or take any prescription medications, talk with your doctor before taking ashwagandha.
When in doubt, always listen to your body.