Health Benefits of Ashwagandha
Native to India, the Middle East, and North Africa, ashwagandha has been cultivated and used in ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years, and now grows all over the world. It can be purchased in almost any health food store or supplement aisle, usually among other “adaptogens”.
What is an adaptogen?
To be considered adaptogenic, herbs have to meet three specific criteria:
Non-toxic to the body Reduce and regulate stress by helping the body adapt to it Benefit overall well-being
These qualifications were developed by Russian scientist N.V. Lazarez, who studied plants that help the body adjust to stress. Lazarez is best known for discovering other adaptogens, like Siberian ginseng, and teaching research scientist Israel Brekhman, who would build a 45 year career around studying adaptogenic plants.
What are the health benefits of ashwagandha?
In Ayurveda, ashwagandha is classified as a “Rasayana”, or tonic: used for whole body rejuvenation.
The traditional health uses of ashwagandha are so numerous it can be a lot to process! Here are some of the ways ashwagandha has been used in Ayurvedic medicine, according to a comprehensive overview of the herb in the international journal, African Journal of Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicines:
Digestive health Insomnia Fever Eye health Endurance Stress Cognitive health Energy
Today, researchers are exploring ashwagandha supplementation more than ever before, investigating new ways this small herb can impact the body.
Ashwagandha and anxiety
Adaptogens are herbs that help the body adapt and adjust to stress, and stress reduction is still ashwagandha’s best known application.
Workplace stress has risen nearly 20% in the past 3 decades, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder rates continue to rise, particularly among young people. According to the mayo clinic, common symptoms of anxiety include worry, sweating, insomnia, exhaustion, and rapid breathing.
Adaptogenic supplementation may provide an alternative to pharmaceutical treatment, as some studies suggest its effectiveness in reducing moderate to severe anxiety. Even in cases of chronic anxiety, ashwagandha has been shown to reduce cortisol levels, and boost individuals’ resistance towards stress.
Ashwagandha and thyroid health
The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located in your neck. When the thyroid is off kilter, it can lead to a host of issues like weight gain, hair loss, and brain fog. Many people with under or over active thyroids seek alternative herbs to support proper functioning, including ashwagandha.
While there are few studies on the direct link between ashwagandha and thyroid health, some researchers highlight the herb’s impact on cortisol levels as a potential benefit.
Stress boosts cortisol production in the body, and chronic overproduction of cortisol can lead to a set of other health issues. By restoring balance in the stress response, ashwagandha can aid overall adrenal health. Additionally, a recent study from 2018 in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that ashwagandha might be beneficial in normalizing thyroid levels in specific thyroid disorders.
Ashwagandha and depression
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America states that Major Depressive Disorder affects more than 16 million adults every year in the US, making the disease the leading cause of disability for people aged 15-44.
Researchers are interested in Ashwagandha’s ability to alleviate the symptoms of depression, particularly when used in conjunction with other lifestyle changes. While there have been no conclusive, clinical results, initial studies have yielded positive results. In 2012, a study found in a randomized, placebo-controlled trial that ashwagandha root improved the ability to deal with stress. An older study from 2000 also reported ashwagandha to have a positive effect on mood.
Ashwagandha and cognitive function
Cognitive function is one of the biggest health concerns of older adults - and no fear looms larger than Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s is a fatal brain disorder, and the sixth leading cause of death in the United States according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
The grim reality is that alzheimer’s can’t be stopped or reversed, but its cognitive symptoms can be alleviated.
A 2017 report studied ashwagandha root's impact on participants with cognitive challenges, including general memory loss, feeling overwhelmed, and an inability to focus. The study yielded positive results, showing that after eight weeks the ashwagandha-group reporting increased feelings of calm and improved focus.W hen compared to placebo, the ashwagandha group reported more improvements in short-term and overall memory as well as brain function, attention span, and information-processing speed.
The Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation notes that while ashwagandha is used to improve cognitive function, the results available from research are very limited, but promising.
Ashwagandha as cancer treatment
It is important to note that there are no current scientific studies that confirm ashwagandha to stop cancer.
However, there is a growing body of research on ashwagandha and its cancer fighting potential. The ASCO Post, a publishing partner of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, reports: “In preclinical studies, withanolides were found to be effective in arresting growth of breast, colon, and lung cancer cells16 without affecting normal cells.” Withanolides are naturally-occurring steroids found in ashwagandha.
Another cancer study done on mice with ovarian tumors used ashwagandha alone and in combination with anti-cancer drugs. The mice used experienced a 70–80% reduction in tumor growth, and the spread of cancer to other organs in the body was also limited. Animal studies are not a substitute for human studies, but they can point us in the right direction for what to study next.
Ashwagandha and immunity
Ashwagandha is known as one of the most potent immune supporters in Ayurvedic tradition for people young and old.
University of Michigan Medicine notes that ashwagandha is an immune system stimulant, helping the body fight off infection. One animal study found that ashwagandha strengthened the immune system in mice after seeing an increase in white blood cells.
Ashwagandha and stamina
As witnessed by the rise of companies like Hims and Ro, sexual drive is a major health concern for men, especially as they age.
Medical conditions, stress, and lifestyle all play a role in sexual wellness and function. Ensuring that the body gets the nutrients it needs is a key player in sexual health for both men and women. Ashwagandha supports reproductive health and stamina in men by improving sperm count and semen quality. Its soothing effects on stress are also likely a factor, according to further research.
But this herb boosts more than just sexual stamina. Ashwagandha also improves cardiovascular endurance in healthy athletes that are already regularly working out. It is also associated with increases in muscle mass, muscle strength, and overall strength.
Ashwagandha and blood sugar
With processed sugar everywhere, keeping blood sugar levels in check has never been harder.
Studies show strong support in favor of Ashwagandha helping to regulate blood sugar. A small study of six individuals with Type 2 diabetes found that ashwagandha effectively reduced blood sugar levels in the body. Shockingly, the results were comparable to what was experienced with oral medications.
Another report published in International Journal of Molecular Sciences found that specific plant compounds - in this case, flavonoids - in the roots and leaves of ashwagandha successfully helped rats achieve normal blood sugar levels.
All of this is great news for people with insulin sensitivity, and merits a discussion with a licensed healthcare professional, if blood sugar is a concern.
Ashwagandha and arthritis
Arthritis is a chronic problem, which means pain medication needs to be taken long term. This can often lead to unwanted side effects, and people who suffer from arthritis often seek treatment solutions with minimum tradeoffs to their health.
Ashwagandha is a long-standing Ayurvedic remedy for arthritis and is usually taken in conjunction with other herbs like boswellia and turmeric to increase benefits. Ashwagandha contains steroidal compounds that are beneficial to people with arthritis, and - most importantly - can taken indefinitely without side effects. U.S. News & World Report notes that the definitive results for rheumatoid arthritis treatment are inconclusive, but hopeful when combined with other treatments.
Ashwagandha and heart health
Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the United States according to the American Heart Association, accounting for one out of every seven deaths. Because of this, heart health is one of the biggest wellness concerns today, and many people are looking for natural alternatives to help heart health.
A study done by the University of Arizona and published in the World Journal of Medical Sciences noted the protective antioxidant support ashwagandha offered the heart, in addition to its anti-inflammatory properties.
The study also noted that ashwagandha use helped bring down blood cholesterol levels. High levels of blood cholesterol increase the risk of stroke, heart attack, and other cardiovascular problems.
Ashwagandha and fertility
Stress decreases fertility, which in turn leads to more worries about being able to get pregnant.
Stress management can help break this cycle. Because ashwagandha is an adaptogen, it is an ideal herb for assisting in stress response and relief from the persistent worry that accompanies trying to conceive.
This robust herb also help support the endocrine system, which is a vital component of healthy reproduction. It enhances endocrine function by relieving adrenal stress.
It isn't just women that ashwagandha helps. Men can also nourish their reproductive hormones and reproductive functions with ashwagandha. One study found that ashwagandha’s therapeutic properties supported male infertility treatment.
Does ashwagandha have side effects?
One of the main characteristics of adaptogenic herbs is that they do not harm the body. Opium helps reduce the symptoms of stress too, but we couldn’t call it an adaptogen because of its obvious negative side effects.
But although ashwagandha should not have side effects, every body is different, and it is impossible to predict with 100% confidence how one person to the next will react when taking a new supplement.
Consumer Lab reports the most common side effects in studies reported as headache, sleepiness, and stomach upset. They also note that ashwagandha may potentially lower blood pressure and blood sugar, and increase thyroid hormone levels. That is why it is so important to discuss taking new supplements with a licensed medical practitioner or your personal physician.
Can ashwagandha be taken on an empty stomach?
Ashwagandha can be taken on an empty stomach and some people find that it works better that way. It can also be paired with a small snack if you are concerned about discomfort on an empty stomach.
How long does it take for ashwagandha to start working?
How quickly supplements begin to work in the body greatly depends on other factors in your life.
There is no magic pill for good health. Supplements can help to nourish your body, especially in conjunction with other healthy habits. It is essential to eat a balanced diet and get enough exercise in order for your body to receive the herbal benefits that nature has to offer.
When used in conjunction with a healthy lifestyle, ashwagandha can begin to impact the body beneficially within two weeks. The quality of your ashwagandha supplement is what will make the biggest difference. A high-concentration, full-spectrum extract is required to make the biggest impact in your body. At least 600 mg per day is also recommended to improve your ashwagandha experience.
Herbalist K.P. Khalsa recommends higher doses for improved results while using ashwagandha. This is especially necessary for people who regularly engaging in poor diet and lifestyle h bits and experience elevated levels of stress. Khalsa also notes that continued use produces the best results.
You cannot take ashwagandha overnight and expect it to start working right away. Most of the time, it takes a while for herbs and natural ingredients to synergistically work with your body before feeling any benefit. Depending on your health already, it may take several months to experience or even notice big changes.