Ashwagandha is a natural nootropic that helps boost brain functions. Considering its various incredible health benefits for the body and the brain, it comes as no surprise that this medicinal herb has been in use for over 2500 years.
Ashwagandha is actually an adaptogenic herb. Adaptogens enable our body to protect itself against stress. If you are facing chronic stress issues, then ashwagandha supplements can help you manage your stress and recover from it faster. It lowers cortisol levels and helps fight depression and anxiety symptoms.
What is Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is one of the most popular plants in Ayurvedic medicine. It is also known as the winter cherry or the somnifera root. This small shrub with yellow flowers grows abundantly in India and North Africa. Because of its powerful adaptogenic capabilities, ashwagandha is often called as Indian ginseng though true ginseng belongs to the genus ‘Panax’ and includes the Asian ginseng and American ginseng.
Ginseng is a highly valued adaptogenic herb used commonly in the Chinese traditional healing system. Referring to ashwagandha as ginseng shows how much value is given to this Indian herb. Both ashwagandha and ginseng have so many valuable health benefits that they seem more like magical herbs.
Ashwagandha has anti-inflammatory, antidepressant, and anti-anxiety properties. Its immune-boosting, thyroid-modulating and neuroprotective abilities are just a few of its benefits that make it so sought after.
The name ashwagandha is said to mean ‘ the strength of the stallion’. The word ‘ashwa’ refers to ‘horse’ in the Sanskrit language while ‘gandha’ means ‘smell’. The name indicates both the unique smell of the herb as well its ability to increase strength. Treatments with medicinal preparations using ashwagandha are recommended in Ayurveda for strengthening the immune system after illness.
Ashwagandha: The Mechanism of Action
Withanolides, the main chemical constituents of ashwagandha, are believed to be the reason for its therapeutic potential. Withanolides are a group of steroidal lactones. Withaferin A, withanolide D and withanone are the withanolides found in ashwagandha. These compounds are unique to ashwagandha and they exhibit different medicinal properties.
Extracts from ashwagandha root or powdered leaves of the plant are used to treat a variety of medical conditions. Since certain parts of the plant have higher concentrations of specific compounds, you have to choose where to take your ashwagandha extract from. Leaf extracts have more withaferin A than root extracts.
From treating mood disorders to preventing degenerative diseases, the benefits of ashwagandha seem innumerable. Nowadays even ayurvedic practitioners prescribe ashwagandha tablets or capsules for general health and well being. Prevention is, after all, better than cure.
Since many of these claims seem too good to be true, let’s take a closer look at the benefits of ashwagandha that have been scientifically proven.
9 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Ashwagandha
Improves Cognitive Functioning
Ashwagandha is one of the most studied herbs, especially regarding its ability to influence the functioning of brain cells. It is used in Ayurvedic medicine as a nerve tonic and memory enhancer.
A 2014 study from the Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences, Hyderabad, India, assessed the cognitive and psychomotor effects of ashwagandha extract in healthy people. 20 healthy male participants were administered capsules containing 500 mg of ashwagandha root extract, twice daily (or a placebo).
The researchers noted, “significant improvements were observed in reaction times with simple reaction, choice discrimination, digit symbol substitution, digit vigilance, and card sorting tests with ashwagandha extract compared to placebo”.
The study concluded that ashwagandha extract can improve cognitive and psychomotor performance.
Enhances Both Immediate and General Memory
Cognitive decline is a natural part of aging. Herbs like ashwagandha can help slow down this degenerative damage and even improve the cognitive functioning. A 2017 study from the Department of Pharmaceutical Technology, NSHM Knowledge Campus, Kolkata, India, investigated the efficacy of ashwagandha in improving memory and cognitive functioning in adults with mild cognitive impairment.
50 adults were given 300 mg ashwagandha-root extract, twice daily (or placebo) for a period of 8 weeks. After conducting various tests, the researchers concluded that:
“Ashwagandha may be effective in enhancing both immediate and general memory in people with MCI as well as improving executive function, attention, and information processing speed.”
Helps Repair Damaged Brain Cells
It has antioxidant properties which enable it to protect nerve cells from damaging free radicals. Ashwagandha was even found to reverse some of the damage in brain cells that occurred due to neurocognitive disorders.
A 2013 test conducted by the Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences, DRDO, Delhi, India, evaluated the neuroprotective and prophylactic (preventive) potential of WS root extract (ashwagandha) in rectifying hypobaric hypoxia (HH) induced memory impairment. The researchers treated Sprague Dawley rats with ashwagandha root extract for a period of 21 days pre-exposure and 07 days exposure to a simulated altitude of 25,000 ft.
The reduced oxygen availability at high altitudes can cause Hypobaric hypoxia wherein the body’s ability to extract oxygen from the blood decreases. Cognitive dysfunctions including memory impairment can result from high altitude exposure and hypoxia.
The research done on rats found that “administering ashwagandha root extract prevented the hypoxia-induced memory impairment along with decreased nitric oxide, corticosterone, oxidative stress and AchE activity in the hippocampal region.”
A 2012 study from the Centre for Neuroscience, Cochin University of Science and Technology, Kerala, India, investigated the effect of ashwagandha root extract and withanolide A in restoring spatial memory deficit.
Epileptic rats with impaired spatial memory were treated with ashwagandha root extract and withanolide A. They noted that the treatment with “ashwagandha ameliorated spatial memory deficits by enhancing the antioxidant system and restoring altered NMDA receptor density.” A nearly complete reversal of spatial memory impairment was observed in the epileptic rats treated with ashwagandha.
Inflammation is a much required response from our immune system to combat infections and heal injuries. But when inflammation becomes chronic, and lasts for months or even years, it becomes extremely damaging to our body. Many health problems such as diabetes, fatty liver disease, heart disease and cancer are driven by chronic inflammation.
A much valued ability of ashwagandha is that it helps reduce inflammation. Several studies have recorded that ashwagandha root extracts have therapeutic perspectives in the treatment of inflammation and pain.
A 2015 study from the Zahedan University of Medical Sciences, Iran, investigated the effects of Withania somnifera root (ashwagandha) using 48 Wistar-Albino male rats. They found that ashwagandha normalized hyperglycemia in their study subjects by reducing inflammatory markers and improving insulin sensitivity.
A 2009 study from the National College of Natural Medicine, Portland, USA, investigated the immunologic effects of Ashwagandha to determine its mechanism, on types of immune cells in humans. 5 study participants were administered 6 ml of Ashwagandha root extract, twice daily, for a period of 8 days. The researchers noted major changes in immune cell activation across the blood samples collected at different time intervals throughout the study.
Increases Muscle Strength
Ashwagandha is used to strengthen and energize people recovering from illnesses as this potent herb not only increases immune strength, it also helps increase muscle mass, reduce body weight and build up strength and endurance. Now, that’s a tall claim indeed! So let’s take a closer look at studies that investigated these benefits of ashwagandha.
The ICMR Advanced Centre for Reverse Pharmacology in Traditional Medicine at MRC-KHS, Mumbai, India, conducted a research in 2012, to evaluate dose-related tolerability, safety, and activity of ashwagandha formulations in normal individuals. 12 healthy men and women, ages ranging from 18 to 30 years, were given ashwagandha extracts for 30 days.
The dose was started at 750 mg/day, divided into two doses, for 10 days, and then at 1000 mg/day for the next 10 days and at 1250 mg/day for the last 10 days. The researchers noted that the increase of strength in muscle activity was significant. There was a reduction in total- and LDL- cholesterol. Improvement in quality of sleep was observed. A reduction was also recorded in the total body fat percentage. Even at escalated doses, ashwagandha was found to be safe and well tolerated.
A 2015 study from the Sports Medicine, Srimati Kashibai Navale Medical College, Pune, India, examined the possible effects of ashwagandha root extract on muscle mass and strength in healthy young men engaged in resistance training.
In the 8-week, placebo-controlled study, 57 men, ages 18-50 years old, were given 300 mg of ashwagandha root extract twice daily or a starch placebo. The study concluded that:
“Compared to the placebo subjects, the group treated with ashwagandha had significantly greater increases in muscle strength on the bench-press exercise.”
Reduces Cortisol Levels
The adrenal glands release the stress hormone cortisol in response to stress or when the blood glucose levels drop too low. But chronically elevated cortisol levels keep blood glucose levels high and lead to accumulation of body fat, especially in the abdominal areas.
A 2009 study from the C.S.M. Medical University, Lucknow, India, tested the ability of ashwagandha in combating stress and for treating male infertility. Their study observed 60 infertile individuals treated with 5 g/day for 3 months. The results were recorded as:
“Treatment resulted in a decrease in stress, improved the level of antioxidants and improved overall semen quality in a significant number of individuals.
Reduces Symptoms of Depression
Ashwagandha may help relieve depression. But only a few researches have been undertaken to investigate this claim.
The Department of Neuropsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry, Asha Hospital, Hyderabad, India, conducted a research in 2012 to “evaluate the safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of Ashwagandha roots in reducing stress and anxiety and in improving the general well-being of adults who were under stress.”
64 subjects with a history of chronic stress were asked to take one 300 mg capsule of ashwagandha (high-concentration full-spectrum extract), twice a day, for a period of 60 days. The study subjects displayed a significant improvement in all the stress-assessment scores and their serum cortisol levels were substantially reduced. The study concluded that:
“High-concentration full-spectrum Ashwagandha root extract safely and effectively improves an individual’s resistance towards stress and thereby improves self-assessed quality of life.”
Reduces Blood Sugar Levels
Ashwagandha can definitely affect blood sugar levels. The mechanism by which ashwagandha lowers blood sugar levels has been examined by various studies. This herb is believed to increase insulin secretion and improve insulin sensitivity in muscle cells.
The anti-diabetic activity of ashwagandha root extracts is attributed to the presence of withanolides. A 2015 study from the Institute for Drug Research, Hebrew University Medical Faculty, Jerusalem, Israel, observed a “correlation between increased content of withaferin A and anti-diabetic activity.”
A 2012 study from the ICMR Advanced Centre for Reverse Pharmacology in Traditional Medicine at MRC-KHS, Mumbai, India, treated 18 volunteers with ashwagandha for 30 days.
250 mg BID doses of ashwagandha were found to improve fasting blood glucose levels as well as cholesterol levels in the participants (95 men, 35 women), in a research study conducted by the Research and Development Centre, Natreon Inc., Salt Lake City, Kolkata, India.
Researchers from the Department of Pharmacology, Government Medical College, Nagpur, India, acknowledged that ashwagandha decreases blood glucose comparable to an oral hypoglycemic. They studied the metabolic effects of ashwagandha supplementation in schizophrenia patients. 400 mg of ashwagandha extract per capsule was administered in a dose of one capsule thrice daily for 1 month. They were able to observe and record significant hypoglycemic and hypolipidemic effects of ashwagandha in this trial.
In another Indian study from the Sri Satya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, hypoglycemic, diuretic and hypocholesterolemic effects of ashwagandha were observed on human volunteers. They confirmed that the reduction in blood glucose was comparable to that of an oral hypoglycemic drug. The researchers concluded that: the root of ashwagandha (W. somnifera) is a potential source of hypoglycemic, diuretic and hypocholesterolemic agents.
Has Anti-Cancer Properties
Ashwagandha may be a useful supplement for cancer patients as this wonder herb seems to not only kill cancer cells, it may even disrupt the growth of new cancer cells.
The anticancer value of ashwagandha was discovered over four decades ago when a crystalline steroidal compound named withaferin A (WA) was isolated from the leaves of this plant.
According to researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pennsylvania, USA, the cancer-protective role for WA has already been established using chemically-induced and oncogene-driven rodent cancer models. Their review summarized the key in vivo preclinical studies demonstrating anticancer effects of WA.
A 2014 study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, AL, U.S.A, examined the cancer-preventive activity of Ashwagandha root extracts in female transgenic mice. They were administered 750 mg/kg of diet for a period of 10 months. The treatment showed a marked reduction (33%) in mammary carcinomas of the mice in the control group. Reduced rates of cell division in the carcinomas were also noted.
A 2006 study from the University of Madras, Chennai, India, evaluated the therapeutic effects of ashwagandha, in addition to chemotherapy medication paclitaxel, on lung tumor induced in male Swiss albino mice. It was noted that treatment with ashwagandha and paclitaxel altered the damage mediated by free radicals, and it displayed a protective role by inhibiting free radical mediated cellular damage.
The All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, India, conducted a research in 2010, which recorded that the immunomodulatory effects of ashwagandha can prove beneficial in the treatment of colon cancer.
Ashwagandha dosage depends on the type of supplement being used. Crude ashwagandha leaf or root powder is less effective than extracts from the leaves or roots. Standardized root extracts are the most commonly preferred ones among ashwagandha supplements.
Ashwagandha is easily available for purchase in the form of powder or capsules, from health stores or from online shops. 400 to 600 mg of standardized root extract capsules once or twice daily is a safe and effective dose for improving memory and cognitive functioning.
Risks and Side Effects of Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is considered safe for human consumption and therapeutic use when taken in appropriate doses. Mild side effects reported include stomach upsets, vomiting and diarrhea. If you experience such side effects, reduce your dosage or take a break before starting again at lower doses.
There is some worry that ashwagandha may induce miscarriage in pregnant women. There is no safety information regarding ashwagandha consumption during breastfeeding. So pregnant or breastfeeding women are advised to avoid using ashwagandha.
Ashwagandha lowers blood glucose levels, so if you are on diabetic medication, you need to consult your doctor first. Those with thyroid issues or on thyroid medications also need to practice this precaution as ashwagandha influences thyroid functions. People taking immunosuppressants, sedatives or blood pressure medications may use ashwagandha, but only under the controlled supervision of a doctor as adverse interactions can occur.
The Final Note on Ashwagandha
Withania somnifera, commonly known as Ashwagandha, is an important ayurvedic herb that offers many health benefits. It is used as a nootropic or smart drug as it boosts brain function and cognitive abilities. It also has adaptogenic properties which help relieve stress.
Ashwagandha strengthens the immune system and helps fight off infections. It even helps build muscle mass and strengthen muscle fibers. Ashwagandha is highly valued for its thyroid-modulating, neuroprotective, and anti-inflammatory properties.
If you are looking for easy and effective ways to improve your health and productivity, then supplementing your diet with ashwagandha is a great idea.
Anju Mobin is a certified nutritionist who writes health and wellness articles online. The holder of two graduate degrees, she combines her passion for advertising with her knowledge of the health industry to create custom content for healthcare products. She is the founder and editor of the health website fitnesshacks.org. Find out more about her from her LinkedIn profile or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.