Ashwagandha, or withania somnifera, is amongst the most popular herbs in traditional Indian medicine, Ayurveda.
The plant itself is a small, yellow flowering shrub native to the sub-continent. Its name actually translates to ‘smell of the horse’ in Sanskrit, which refers both to the plant’s unique scent and its supposed ability to boost strength.
Don’t let the smell put you off, though. Its use stretches back centuries – millennia, even – with people using it to alleviate the symptoms of stress and improve energy levels, focus, and concentration.
In other words, it’s good stuff.
These days, extracts and powders ground from the plant’s roots are used to treat a range of health and wellbeing concerns, with a growing body of clinical data to justify its ongoing use.
Why Take Ashwagandha?
There are plenty of health and wellness benefits to be gained from including ashwagandha in your supplement regime. I’ve listed some of the most common reasons people might consider taking them here, though it’s hardly an exhaustive rundown.
It can alleviate stress and anxiety
Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, a compound that helps the body to better deal with stress. This has always been one of its key traditional uses. More recent data has begun to show firstly that it does indeed help with stress and anxiety, and perhaps why it does so.
Primarily, ashwagandha has been shown to aid in controlling stress mediators, including the stress hormone cortisol, alongside eat shock proteins (Hsp70) and stress-activated c-Jun N-terminal protein kinase (JNK-1).
It can also dampen hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activity. This is a bodily system that comes into play during your stress response.
Regardless of the actual mechanism, it’s been shown with a considerable degree of certainty that ashwagandha can help you with your stress and anxiety levels. In one study, participants taking between 250 and 600 mg of ashwagandha extract daily for two months had significantly reduced perceived stress levels, significantly lower levels of cortisol, and greatly improved sleep quality, compared to a control group.
A second study found that taking just 240 mg of ashwagandha extract per day for two months can significantly reduce anxiety levels, again measured against a control, placebo group.
There is as yet no real consensus on dosing, but early evidence is so far justifying what Ayurvedic medicine has been preaching about ashwagandha for thousands of years.
It may bolster overall mental wellbeing
Alongside its ability to diminish symptoms of stress and anxiety, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that ashwagandha may play a part in reducing symptoms of other common mental health conditions. It can allay symptoms of depression, for instance, generating a more overall positive outlook.
In fact, a ten-year-old study showed that 600 mg of ashwagandha extract daily can lead to a nearly 80% reduction in depression in people also suffering from stress. The placebo group only saw a 5% reduction.
In one study, schizophrenia patients who were experiencing comorbid depression and anxiety were given 1,000 mg of ashwagandha extract every day for three months. Researchers found reductions in both compared to patients taking placebos. Another study showed that ashwagandha may diminish the impact of total symptoms and perceived stress in schizophrenia patients.
It also shows promise for bipolar patients. A study from 2013 shows that it may improve cognitive impairment for them, though more data are needed.
It can improve your sleep quality
We’ve already hinted at this, but ashwagandha has been shown to improve sleep quality even in those not suffering with significant stress or anxiety levels. In one study looking at older adults, a three month daily course of 600 mg of ashwagandha improved sleep quality by a significant amount over a placebo group. Mental alertness on waking was also significantly improved.
Another review found a significant, positive effect on overall quality of sleep through ashwagandha use.
Results are generally more drastic in those struggling with insomnia, and through longer term use and/or at stronger doses.
It can be good for athleticism
Physical performance markers like strength and oxygen use during exercise may be positively affected by ashwagandha usage. A meta-analysis of a dozen studies showed that doses ranging 120 mg and 1,250 mg per day may be effective.
Another analysis found that maximum oxygen consumption (VO2 max – a measure of the maximum amount of oxygen available during intense physical effort) in healthy adults can be enhanced by regular ashwagandha intake.
An improvement to VO2 max has been firmly linked with a lower risk of suffering from heart disease.
Ashwagandha has also been linked with increased muscular strength and hypertrophy in men. This likely has a lot to do with our next point…
It can raise testosterone output and improve male fertility
Ashwagandha can make you as strong as a horse, as we have seen… well, maybe not quite, but it goes a long way. A large part of this will be the boost it can give to testosterone output, especially in men.
A study looking at overweight men aged 40 to 70 struggling with fatigued (a common symptom of low testosterone levels) showed that ashwagandha consumption boosted DHEA-S production by 18%. DHEA-S is a sex hormone that is involved in producing testosterone.
Participants had a nearly 15% increase in testosterone levels compared to a placebo group.
A review linked ashwagandha treatment with a significant increase in sperm concentration and mobility, as well as semen volume, in male participants struggling with low sperm count.
It’s an anti-inflammatory
Ashwagandha is a potent anti-inflammatory. A study from 2008 showed that two months’ of ashwagandha use can significantly reduce levels of C-reactive proteins, a common marker of inflammation.
A more recent study looking at covid-19 patients saw a week’s course of Ayurvedic drugs, including ashwagandha, reduced levels of the inflammatory markers TNF-α, CRP, and IL-6.
It could bring blood sugar levels down
A small body of data support the idea that ashwagandha may help to treat people with high blood sugar levels, including those suffering with diabetes. Treatment with ashwagandha has been linked with lower blood sugar, hemoglobin, blood lipids, insulin, and markers of oxidative stress.
More data are needed to better understand these effects and their causes.
It is a solid nootropic option
Ashwagandha has been linked with improved cognitive function, putting it foremost in the world of nootropics – so called ‘smart drugs’.
A recent review of five clinical studies found evidence that ashwagandha could improve cognitive ability in certain adult populations, including older adults, those suffering with cognitive impairment, and those suffering with schizophrenia.
Another study looking at healthy adults found that a daily dose of 600 mg of ashwagandha extract for two months led to improvements in areas such as executive function, attention span, reaction time, attention span, cognitive task performance, and information-processing speed.
These benefits likely come in part from ashwagandha’s anti-inflammatory properties. Certain chemicals found in ashwagandha, like WA, bring anti-oxidant benefits directly to the brain.
Ashwagandha has plenty of potential benefits. It also has no known short- or long-term side effects, making it safe for pretty much anyone to take. A meta review of nearly seventy studies has found ashwagandha root to be safe and effective for managing plenty of health concerns – including insomnia, anxiety, and depression – with no ill effects.
Another study looked at 80 healthy adults taking daily doses of 600 mg of ashwagandha for two months and found no ill side effects in any of the participants.
However, there will always be certain portions of the population who should be wary of supplementation.
If you have any underlying health concerns, for example, or are worried about taking ashwagandha for any reason, it’s always worth talking to your healthcare provider first. If you are on any kind of medication, you should talk to your doctor before taking anything new. They will be able to advise you with your own personal and medical history in mind.
Ashwagandha use may impact the thyroid, though this process is poorly understood. Therefore, if you have any thyroid issues, such as thyroid disease or hypothyroidism, you should talk to a specialist before taking ashwagandha.
As above, there is no set, agreed-upon dosage for ashwagandha. Studies have looked at anything from 250–1,250 mg and beyond, finding different strengths viable for different uses.
Ashwagandha doesn’t appear to have an acute effect. This means that you won’t feel the benefits immediately. Compare this with something like caffeine, which makes its presence felt in just a few minutes. You will therefore have to wait for it to build up in your system over time to begin noticing the benefits, and to make the most of them.
Ashwagandha is pretty widely produced and sold, so should be easy to find online or in any health food shop. It should never cost more than a few dollars per bottle, with a bottle hopefully lasting a month or two. For instance, the relatively generic brand I take costs around twelve dollars for three months’ worth.