Ashwagandha root is an important herb in Ayurvedic medicine, where it has been used for around 3,000 years to support the body’s resilience in the face of stress. The botanical name for ashwagandha is Withania somnifera, and the herb is a member of the nightshade family of plants.
It is sometimes known as Indian ginseng, and its active constituents include saponins, steroidal lactones (such as withanolides and withaferins), and alkaloids (such as isopelletierine and anaferine).
As an adaptogen, ashwagandha helps us to better handle stress, but that’s not the only benefit of this herb. Adaptogenic herbs help to promote balance in key systems of the body, including the endocrine and reproductive systems, immune function, and overall energy metabolism.
In this post, we’ll take a look at the seven (7) key benefits of ashwagandha root.
What are the benefits of Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha lowers stress levels
Chronic stress is a disease of modern society, with more than two thirds of all visits to primary care physicians related to stress and its negative effects on health.1 Unchecked, stress can contribute to depression, anxiety, gastrointestinal ulcers, impaired immunity, and even heart disease and other cardiometabolic conditions. Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to manage stress naturally, including by using stress-busting adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha.
One of Ashwagandha’s best known benefits is to reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone associated with the physiological effects of stress. While we need some cortisol to stay alive, chronic stress can lead to persistent or extreme elevations in cortisol, with adverse effects on blood glucose regulation, blood lipids, body composition, hormone balance, digestion, sleep, immune function, and cognitive health.
In a 2005–06 multi-phase, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial, people who took ashwagandha had a 30.5% reduction in serum cortisol compared to those who took placebo.2 They also had a 32.5% increase in levels of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), the hormone that counterbalances the activity of cortisol.
Ashwagandha was also associated with:
Increased energy and reduced fatigue
Improvements in sleep
Enhanced overall feeling of wellbeing
Other studies have observed similar benefits for ashwagandha, including one placebo-controlled clinical trial involving 64 volunteers with a history of chronic stress. Those who took 300mg of ashwagandha twice a day had significant reductions in stress and a 27.9% decrease in serum cortisol levels after 60 days.3
As an adaptogen, ashwagandha helps to support the health of the adrenal glands, combating fatigue and enhancing energy levels. It also helps to reduce anxiety related to stress, and may enhance memory and cognitive function in general, while aiding relaxation. The anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects of ashwagandha may be due, in part, to the ability of its constituent withanolides to mimic the activity of the calming neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). As such, the herb appears to wind down overactivity in neurons, acting as a nerve tonic that can help lessen anxiety, promote good sleep, and elevate mood.4
Ashwagandha supports energy levels
Thanks to its adaptogenic activities, ashwagandha helps to support normal energy metabolism as well as testosterone production and thyroid health. This makes it an especially useful herb for fighting fatigue associated with stress.
Ashwagandha has been associated with increases in serum T4 (thyroxine), which suggests that the herb helps to support or enhance thyroid function, thereby promoting better energy levels as well as supporting mood and immune function.56
Ashwagandha supports immune function
Better energy and stress management have significant benefits for immune health, with studies showing that stress can dramatically reduce our ability to fight off infection.7 In addition to supporting our ability to handle stress, ashwagandha goes a step further by stimulating immune system cells themselves.
Studies show that the herb can stimulate lymphocytes (white blood cells) and macrophages, and increase white blood cell count, as well as increase hemoglobin concentration, red blood cell, and platelet counts. In one study, researchers found that phagocytosis (the immune system’s process of consuming and destroying infectious agents) decreased by 25% in mice subjected to stress. Giving the mice an ashwagandha extract helped to restore normal levels of phagocytosis, and also helped to stimulate production of two important cytokines involved in immune function, namely interleukin-2 and interferon-gamma.8
Ashwagandha also provides antioxidant protection and can have anti-inflammatory effects that influence immune system activity. 9
In several studies, ashwagandha has been seen to relieve joint inflammation related to infection in animals.10 And, in vitro research has found that an ashwagandha extract resulted in a 65% inhibition of the inflammatory enzyme 5-lipoxygenase (5-LOX), suggesting that it could be useful for managing inflammatory diseases.11
Ashwagandha may protect brain health
Several animal and in vitro studies suggest that the withanamides in ashwagandha exert neuroprotective effects, including against beta-amyloid-induced cytotoxicity and simulated traumatic brain injury (TBI). Constituents of ashwagandha may help to reduce expression of the cell death factor Bax, while reversing the injury-induced reduction in the length of neurites that project from neurons. These active constituents of ashwagandha can cross the blood-brain barrier and are being investigated as a therapeutic agent for stress-induced neurological disorders.1213
Ashwagandha has also been seen to enhance memory and other cognitive functions. In one study involving 50 adults, those who took 300mg of an ashwagandha extract twice daily for eight weeks, compared to placebo, had significant improvements in immediate and general memory including better scores on Wechsler Memory Scale III subtests:
Logical memory I and II
Verbal paired associates I and II
Faces I and II
Family pictures I and II
The volunteers who took ashwagandha also had significantly greater improvement in executive function, sustained attention, and information-processing speed, compared to those taking a placebo for 8 weeks.14
Ashwagandha can increase testosterone levels and support sexual function and fertility
Not only does ashwagandha help you feel more energized in general, it may also have positive effects on your libido, sexual performance, and fertility! In part, this is because of the antioxidant effects of ashwagandha. However, the herb also helps to regulate hormones, including enhancing testosterone levels in men.15
In one 8-week, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, men aged 18-50 years old with little experience in resistance training either took a placebo or 300mg of ashwagandha root extract twice daily while engaging in resistance training. Those taking ashwagandha had much greater increases in testosterone over the 8 weeks as well as in muscle size and strength, compared to placebo, and experienced greater reductions in exercise-induced muscle damage and body fat percentage.
Ashwagandha has also been seen to improve semen quality in infertile men. In a 3-month trial, infertile men who took ashwagandha had reduced levels of reactive oxygen species, leading to a reduction in sperm death, and significant improvements in important minerals in semen, including zinc, iron, and copper.16 Other studies have shown that ashwagandha may help regulate hormones important for male reproductive health.17
Women can also benefit from ashwagandha, with one study finding that healthy women who took 300mg of the herb twice daily for 8 weeks enjoyed significant improvements in arousal, lubrication, orgasm, satisfaction, and the number of successful sexual encounters and improvements on two psychometric scales, the Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI) Questionnaire and the Female Sexual Distress Scale (FSDS).18
Ashwagandha may have anti-tumor effects
The antioxidant effects of ashwagandha may help to protect against cancerous cell mutations, and the herb has also been seen to suppress the expression of oncogenes that promote ovarian cancer development. Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women in the United States. Current treatments include doxorubicin (which is toxic to the heart muscle) and cisplatin, which work by targeting cancer cells themselves. Unfortunately, these chemotherapeutic agents do not affect cancer stem cells, which makes it more likely that cancer will reoccur.
Several studies now show that withaferin, a constituent of ashwagandha, has beneficial effects that might help prevent the reoccurrence of ovarian cancer. Withaferin significantly reduces the expression, in a dose-dependent manner, of ALDH1 and Notch1, genes that influence the growth and renewal of cancer stem cells. Withaferin may, therefore, be a useful therapy, alone or in combination with chemotherapeutic agents for ovarian cancer.
DOXIL is a liposomal preparation of the chemotherapeutic agent doxorubicin. It is preferred over doxorubicin as a second line option treating recurrent ovarian cancer because it is less toxic overall. DOXIL has a much lower response rate though, only working in less than 20% of those treated, and it is still associated with toxic effects on the heart. Research suggests that combining withaferin with DOXIL could improve treatment response, reduce reoccurrence of ovarian cancer, and minimize side effects from DOXIL, improving survival rates for ovarian cancer.19
In one study in mice with ovarian tumors, those treated with a combination of DOXIL and withaferin had a 60-70% reduction in tumor growth, and complete inhibition of metastasis (the spread of cancer cells to other tissues), compared to control mice.20 In another study, mice bearing tumors grown from human ovarian cancer cells were treated with withaferin and cisplatin alone or in combination. Compared to controls, the treated mice had a 70-80% reduction in tumor growth, and metastasis to other organs was completely inhibited.21
Ashwagandha supports heart health
A healthy stress response is important for cardiometabolic health, as too much cortisol can raise your risk of insulin resistance, unhealthy weight gain, central adiposity (visceral fat), high blood pressure, and high cholesterol and triglycerides. Together, these increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, arterial disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Ashwagandha has been shown to influence several of these risk factors for poor cardiovascular and metabolic health. In one study, volunteers who took an ashwagandha supplement had:
So, not only does ashwagandha help keep you energized so you actually feel like exercising, it also supports healthy metabolism and cardiovascular function in more direct ways.2
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As you can see, ashwagandha has a whole host of beneficial effects on human health. That said, anyone with myeloproliferative disorders (related to your blood) should talk to their health care practitioner prior to using ashwagandha, as should anyone taking medications or supplements with sedative qualities.
Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT
Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT, is a health and wellness writer for Gene Food specializing in plant-based nutrition. Read her full bio here.
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