The Many Benefits Of Ashwagandha

The Many Benefits Of Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is one of the most interesting supplements available. It has tons of benefits, an excellent safety record, plenty of research, and has been used for thousands of years. Neuroprotection, enhanced virility, anti-cancer, and anti-anxiety effects are just some of the benefits of this wonderful herb.

So what is this amazing plant, and what is it used for? We’re gonna take a deep look at ashwagandha, its many benefits, effective dosage, and potential side effects. But first, let’s examine what exactly ashwagandha is.

What Is Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha is a common name for the plant withania somnifera. This is a plant with tons of health benefits. It has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries to treat a number of different conditions and as a general healing tonic.

It is in a class of substances known as adaptogens. These are substances, compounds, herbs, or practices that promote homeostasis in your body. If you have high LDL (“bad” cholesterol) for example, taking ashwagandha will lower it. However, if your LDL is in the normal range, taking ashwagandha will have no effect on it.

In other words, adaptogens help your body return to normal if certain things are too high or too low. Ashwagandha has been shown to have a number of adaptogenic effects in the body.

The word ashwagandha means smell of horse. It was given this name for two reasons. First, the root has a distinct, horse-like smell to it. Second, it has been used for centuries to increase virility, giving it the reputation of making you as strong as a horse.

Unlike many newer substances with nootropic properties, ashwagandha has been around for centuries and has a lot of research to support its safety and effectiveness. Let’s look at some of the benefits of ashwagandha, and the science behind them. [Unlike many other Noo-tropics posts, citations (footnotes) are not included in the text. However, all the sources used to write this article are listed at the bottom.]

Nootropic/Mental Benefits of Ashwagandha

While it may not usually be classified as one, there are several nootropic benefits of ashwagandha.

The first nootropic effect of ashwagandha comes from its ability to reduce anxiety. Several studies have shown that it is effective at reducing anxiety and stress. Not only can it reduce stress, but it can reduce the effects of chronic stress, like high blood pressure and elevated cortisol levels.

Another benefit of ashwagandha is that it has been shown to reduce the symptoms of depression. Although its depression-reducing effects are not as strong as its anxiety-reducing ones, studies have shown that ashwagandha does have an antidepressant effect. [It should be noted that we’re not saying ashwagandha can treat any particular mood, anxiety, or other disorder – only that studies have shown it to generally reduce depression and anxiety.]

Some people also report that ashwagandha helps with insomnia. There has been some evidence to support this, but further study is needed. [Since this article was originally posted in 2016, a new randomized, placebo-controlled, clinical trial looking at ashwagandha’s effect on anxiety and sleep was published in 2019. The researchers concluded that ashwagandha was both safe and effective at reducing anxiety and improving sleep.]

Some of the anti-anxiety and anti-depressant effects are probably due to its ability to affect serotonin and GABA. These are neurotransmitters in the brain that are known to play a role in mood and anxiety.

Ashwagandha’s Cognitive Impact

Stress-free woman

Only one small study has been done to see if ashwagandha has any effect on learning and memory. No noticeable effects were found. However, more research needs to be done before we can know for sure. [A randomized, placebo-controlled study published in 2017 looked at the effect ashwagandha had on adults with mild cognitive impairment. The researchers concluded that ashwagandha may be effective at improving memory, attention, executive function, and information processing speed.]

What we do know for sure is that ashwagandha can reduce anxiety and improve mood. And we also known that doing these things, especially in anxious and/or depressed individuals, will result in an improvement in overall cognitive function.

In one study, ashwagandha was shown to significantly increase motivation. The authors speculate that increase may have been due to its ability to improve mood and reduce anxiety.

Ashwagandha also seems to promote social interaction and has been shown to reduce the negative effects of prolonged social isolation. This makes it an excellent supplement for people trying to overcome social anxiety.

While it can be effective at reducing social anxiety on its own, ashwagandha may work best when taken with other anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) substances. It potentiates the effectiveness of other anxiolytics that affect GABA, including alcohol.

Ashwagandha can greatly reduce anxiety.

To recap, here are the mental/nootropic benefits of ashwagandha:
  • Decreased anxiety
  • Decreased stress
  • Improved mood
  • Increased motivation
  • Increased/Improved social functioning
  • Reduced social anxiety
  • Reduced fatigue

Physiological Benefits of Ashwagandha

If you think all those mental benefits of ashwagandha are impressive, wait until you hear all the physical benefits. I honestly don’t know where to begin, there are so many. Let’s start with cholesterol, since I used it as an example earlier.

Improved Cholesterol Levels

Ashwagandha has been shown in several studies to decrease total cholesterol by about 10%. This is not an adaptogenic effect, as it happened to people with and without high total cholesterol.

Where ashwagandha’s adaptogenic effects come into play is with specific types of cholesterol. It has been shown to increase HDL (high-density lipoprotein, the “good cholesterol”) and reduce LDL (low-density lipoprotein, or “bad cholesterol”). These effects are especially pronounced in people with low HDL and high LDL.

Reduced Cortisol

Supplementing with ashwagandha has been shown to significantly reduce levels of cortisol.

Several studies have shown that ashwagandha supplementation can reduce cortisol levels. Reductions in cortisol levels anywhere from 14.5-27.9% have been seen with supplementation.

Laboratory blood work

Cortisol is a glucocorticoid, which is a type of hormone found in the body. It is sometimes referred to as the stress hormone. Cortisol has many functions in the body. These include increasing blood glucose (through gluconeogenesis), suppressing the immune system, and in fat, protein, and carbohydrate metabolism.

You’ve probably seen commercials for supplements that claim to burn fat by reducing cortisol levels. These “fat burners” are generally ineffective. But what’s interesting is that ashwagandha actually reduces cortisol levels more than most of these supplements.

One study found that taking ashwagandha reduced body fat a little bit, but not by a statistically significant margin. Another study found that taking ashwagandha and doing strength training may reduce fat more than strength training alone.

Increased Testosterone/DHEA/LH

Cortisol isn’t the only hormone in the body that ashwagandha has an effect on. In addition to decreasing cortisol, it can also increase testosterone, DHEA, and luteinizing hormone.

We’ll start with luteinizing hormone (LH). This is a substance in the body that helps to regulate other hormone levels in individuals. In two different studies, ashwagandha supplementation was shown to increase LH levels in infertile men. It is unclear at this time whether it raises LH in everyone or only in people with low levels.

Male with healthy testosterone

Next is dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). This is the most abundant steroid hormone in the body and it’s found in individuals. DHEA has a number of biological functions, but works primarily as a metabolic intermediate in the creation of other hormones.

In one study, ashwagandha supplementation was shown to increase serum DHEA levels by 13.2%. The participants in this study were only given a small dose of ashwagandha. It is unknown at this time whether a higher dosage would yield a greater increase in serum DHEA.

And last but certainly not least, testosterone. This is a steroid hormone. Men generally have much more testosterone than women. It is an anabolic (muscle-building) and androgenic (male characteristics) hormone.

Ashwagandha seems to have an adaptogenic effect on testosterone levels. In several studies, it was shown to increase serum testosterone levels in infertile men. However, one study done on men with testosterone levels in the normal range showed no such increase. Another study showed that ashwagandha increased testosterone levels in men engaged in a strength training program.

Ashwagandha supplementation seems to increase testosterone levels in men with low testosterone. It doesn’t seem to have any effect on women or men with normal testosterone levels, though. More research is needed to fully understand why this is.

Reduced Pulse and Blood Pressure

Several studies have shown that taking ashwagandha leads to a slight reduction in pulse and blood pressure.

Heart with pulse and stethoscope

While these changes may be small, they’re still statistically significant. Between two different studies, a reduction in systolic (the top number) blood pressure by 1.6% was noted, as well as a 5.6% reduction in diastolic (bottom number) pressure. Those same studies showed a slight decrease in resting pulse rate.

A slight increase in VO2 max was also observed in two other studies that took place over the course of 8 weeks. VO2 max is a measurement of maximum oxygen consumption during aerobic exercise.

Increased Fertility/Libido

Ashwagandha can improve sexual health.

Yet another physical benefit of ashwagandha is its ability to improve fertility and possibly libido. It has been used as an aphrodisiac for centuries. It is unknown whether ashwagandha improves libido directly, or as the result of its ability to reduce stress and anxiety, and improve mood.

What is known is that, in infertile men, ashwagandha improves all seminal parameters. This includes sperm motility, anti-oxidation status, cell count, concentration, and volume.

Ashwagandha has been shown to increase sperm count in infertile men. And infertile men that also suffer from chronic stress experience an even larger increase. It has also been shown to increase sperm quality and motility.

Although more research is necessary to know for sure, one study done on men suffering from psychogenic erectile dysfunction showed no improvement from ashwagandha. It is unknown whether or not supplementing with ashwagandha improves erections in healthy men.

Improved Immune Function

The last benefit of ashwagandha that we’re gonna examine is its immunomodulating and immunosupportive properties.

One study showed that supplementing with ashwagandha for 60 days led to a 31.6% decrease in C-reactive protein. C-reactive protein is a biomarker for atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. Reducing it is thought to lower risk for cardiovascular disease.

Another study designed to investigate the effect that ashwagandha has on lymphocytes (a type of immune cell) showed a significant increase in several types of T cells. T cells are a type of lymphocyte that play a crucial role in our immune systems. The same study showed an increase in natural killer (NK) cells. Our immune systems use NK cells fight off viruses and tumors.

Although ashwagandha has been shown to increase the number of lymphocytes (which are a type of white blood cell), it does not increase overall white blood cell count.

To recap, here are some of the potential physiological benefits of ashwagandha:

  • Improved cholesterol levels
  • Decreased cortisol
  • Increased testosterone/LH/DHEA
  • Reduced pulse and blood pressure
  • Increased fertility/Libido
  • Improved immune function

Ashwagandha Dosage

Ashwagandha Dosage

Ashwagandha works best when taken two or three times a day over the course of several weeks/months. Most of ashwagandha’s benefits will only be present after several weeks of supplementation.

However, some effects are noticeable after one dose. A reduction in anxiety and a reduction in some of the symptoms of stress have been observed after a single dose.

The lowest (potentially) effective ashwagandha dose is between 300-500 milligrams (mg). If you are using ashwagandha to potentiate another anxiolytic (alcohol, benzodiazepines, aniracetam, etc.), a smaller dose (100-200 mg) may be effective.

The optimum ashwagandha dosage seems to be around 6,000 mg every day. This is the dosage that has been shown to have the most benefits in several clinical studies. It is usually taken in 3 divided doses of 2,000 mg each and can be taken with food.

Potential Side-Effects of Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is very well-tolerated by most people. Side effects seem to be rare and easily reversible by stopping ashwagandha.

Side effects clipboard icon

If you have an autoimmune disease like Lupus, Crohn’s, Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), or others, it is theoretically possible that ashwagandha could make your condition worse. Ashwagandha can boost certain parts of the immune system, and this could (in theory) lead to a flare up of your condition. However, we could not find a single instance of this happening in the literature.

Don’t take ashwagandha if you are pregnant or nursing. If you are diabetic, you should know that ashwagandha can lower blood sugar levels. While this is often a desirable effect, be aware that it may interfere with some diabetic medications.

Ashwagandha can also irritate the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. You should not use if you currently suffer from stomach ulcers.

Lastly, ashwagandha can cause upset stomach, nausea, and vomiting. These side effects can usually be reduced or eliminated by taking it with a small meal.

And, as always, we recommend you consult a licensed medical professional before starting or stopping any new supplement, drug, plant, exercise routine, or other lifestyle change.

Also read our blog on Pterostilbene

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