In many countries popularised by its Sanskrit name Ashwagandha, which literally means "horse scent", it is one of the most widely used herbs in Ayurveda (ancient Indian medicine) for the treatment of various diseases.
Ashwagandha is considered Rasãyana (from the Sanskrit ayana= way; rasa= essence, or also a certain mineral) meaning that it is a compound that promotes longevity as an adaptogenic tonic and invigorating both physically and mentally.
Adaptogens or adaptogenic substances are used in traditional medicine to balance physiological processes and promote homeostasis. In other words, if you have hypothyroidism, it will help you get to normal levels, but if you have Hashimoto's syndrome, where unexpected thyroid alterations occur , it will help too.
Think of an adaptogen as a substance that, when it enters your body, is going straight to seek balance in it.
You are probably familiar with some adaptogens: in addition to Ashwagandha, Goji berries, Cordyceps mushroom, liquorice, Rhodiola rosea, tulsi or holy basil and turmeric are all adaptogens.
As its scientific name suggests, Withonia somnifera (WS) or Ashwagandha has sedative properties of the plant, but its use in traditional Indian medicine is similar to that of Ginseng in China. This is because it is an adaptogen that improves stress resistance and significantly strengthens the immune system.
But let's see what other benefits have been found in this plant.
Anxiolytic and anti-stress
Precisely because of its adaptogenic properties, Ashwagandha is enjoying a boom as a natural remedy to reduce stress and lessen anxiety. This is most likely due to its ability to help reduce high levels of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress.
Improved athletic performance
According to studies, Ashwagandha can contribute to increased maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max) and increased strength levels in combination with specific training.
One study found that participants in the experiment showed an increase in speed and strength in their physical performance. Another study observed an increase in muscle power, along with a lower percentage of body fat and a reduction in cholesterol levels when Ashwagandha was consumed. Some participants also noted improved sleep quality, although this latter study did not compare Ashwagandha consumption with a placebo.
It might promote fertility and testosterone in men; sexual function in women
Several studies show that among the benefits of Ashwagandha are improved fertility in healthy men and men with oligospermia (low sperm count).
Not only men benefit from Ashwagandha, women can also improve their sexual function. Ashwagandha consumption resulted in significant improvements in arousal, lubrication, orgasm and satisfaction, according to the participants themselves. It also significantly improved the number of successful sexual encounters and improved metrics of distress around their sex life and sexuality. (source)
Among its components are the phytochemicals withanidolides and withanone, which help to improve brain function, increase memory and facilitate learning. Similarly, in people with cognitive impairment, Ashwagandha was found to improve their attention, reaction time and performance in cognition tests. (source)
Another study found that Ashwagandha significantly improved participants' attention span, as well as their immediate and overall memory in a series of tests.
The steroidal lactones withaferin A have been shown to affect some inflammatory signalling pathways in the body such as nuclear factor Kappa B(NH-kB) which is a mediator of inflammatory responses. Ashwagandha also promotes a decrease in plasma levels of C-reactive protein (an acute-phase protein of hepatic origin that increases following the secretion of interleukin-6 by macrophages and T-cells).
Antioxidants are synthesised or naturally occurring compounds that can prevent or delay some types of cell damage caused by free radicals. (source)
Precisely because of its antioxidant action, studies are currently focusing on the effects of Ashwagandha against the hepatocellular carcinoma cell line (source).
Improves thyroid function in people with hypothyroidism
A study published in 2017 by the National Library of Medicine, USA, indicated that eight weeks of Ashwagandha treatment significantly improved serum TSH (p < 0.001), T3 (p = 0.0031) and T4 (p = 0.0096) levels compared to placebo. Ashwagandha treatment effectively normalised serum thyroid indices over the 8-week treatment period significantly (time effects: TSH [p < 0.001], T3 [p < 0.001] and T4 [p < 0.001]). Four subjects (8%) (Ashwagandha: 1 [4%]; Placebo: 3 [12%]) out of 50 reported few mild, temporary adverse effects during this study.
Improves adrenal function
The 2 adrenal glands are located directly above each of the kidneys and are responsible for producing three hormones when we experience stress: cortisol, aldosterone and adrenaline. A person suffering from adrenal fatigue would not be producing any of these hormones properly.
Different disorders of the adrenal glands result in varying degrees of deficiency or excess of cortisol, aldosterone and androgens, depending on the enzyme(s) affected and the degree of quantitative or functional enzyme deficiency. Withania somnifera (WS), commonly known as Ashwagandha, is a medicinal plant that has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine and preclinical studies have shown that WS increases circulating cortisol levels and improves insulin sensitivity.
The National Library of Medicine in the USA reports a study in which a patient with adrenal hyperplasia underwent treatment for 6 months after which she showed a significant biochemical improvement, accompanied by a reduction in hair loss.
It may reduce high blood sugar levels
The same steroidal lactone wtihaferin A found in Ashwagandha should provide potent anti-diabetic activity and may stimulate cells to absorb more glucose from the bloodstream. (source)
Furthermore, in 24 experiments it was found that treatment with Ashwagandha significantly reduced blood sugar, haemoglobin A1c (HbA1c), insulin, blood lipids and markers of oxidative stress. (source)
Improves sleep quality
Ashwagandha as its scientific name suggests, Withania Somnifera, has been used in traditional Indian medicine to aid sleep, and may work to do this in two ways: by directly influencing sleep and by reducing stress, which indirectly benefits sleep.
A study published in 2019 experimented with 600 mg of Ashwagandha root for 10 weeks where significant improvements in several sleep markers were identified through a sensor that tracks rest time, sleep patterns and more.
If you are going to take Ashwagandha what you should consider
- Dosages, possible side effects and presentations
Remember that each person is different and consequently, each person's nutritional and medicinal requirements are unique.
There is no standard dosage for Ashwagandha extract supplements.
Studies that have looked at the different uses of Ashwagandha extract doses range from 125 mg to 5 g, often divided into 2-4 doses per day (Mahdi, 2009).
Consult with your doctor or health practitioner about your intentions to use Ashwagandha and start with 1/3 or half of the normal dose of 500 mg 1 or 2 times a day, and work your way up to see how your body responds. Normally, results will start to be experienced within 6-8 weeks of taking it.
Some side effects:
Small clinical trials on Ashwagandha sometimes show very mild side effects, such as nasal congestion (rhinitis), cough and cold, constipation, changes in appetite and drowsiness (source).
- Those who should abstain or exercise great caution
- Ashwagandha is not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women as some experiments suggest it may cause miscarriage. There is insufficient information on the effect of ashwagandha in breast milk, but as a precaution, it is best avoided.
- In people with diabetes: because people with diabetes often take medication to lower blood sugar, the addition of ashwagandha may cause blood sugar levels to drop too low unexpectedly, so it is important to consult your doctor in advance before starting to take ashwagandha.
- People with hypertension: as with diabetics, because they are taking blood pressure lowering medication, adding ashwagandha may lower blood pressure too much, so it is advisable to consult with your doctor if you wish to start using this supplement.
- People with autoimmune diseases: although it is highly recommended to take Ashwagandha to support the immune system, people with autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus and rheumatoid arthritis should not benefit (MedlinePlus, 2020) as this Ayurvedic plant can worsen autoimmune symptoms.
Be sure of the provenance of the Ashwagandha you are going to consume. Find out about the certifications, testing practices and product standards of each company. In particular, you should check that Ashwagandha is free of heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury, as exposure to these metals can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, central nervous system, immune system and reproductive system.
If you are interested in incorporating Ashwagandha into your daily supplementation routine, here are some links that may help if you are in Latin America:
- In North America it can be found in Whole Foods stores.
- In Europe, through the iHerb online shop, either within the European Union or in Switzerland.