What Is Ashwagandha? Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is one of the most well-known ancient medicinal herbs in Ayurvedic medicine. In Sanskrit, ashwagandha means smell of the horse, which is attributed to the herb’s distinct smell and its ability to strengthen the body’s immune system after sickness. Other names of this herb are winter cherry and Indian ginseng.
Extracts from the leaves and roots of ashwagandha are used for the treatment of various health conditions due to its high withanolide concentration. Studies show that natural withanolides from Withania somnifera possess pharmacological properties that can fight inflammation along with low levels of adverse side effects (1).
Ashwagandha is also best known as an effective adaptogen, which is an herb that improves the body’s ability to fight the adverse effects of stress and anxiety (2). Aside from its anti-anxiety effects, it is also used to relieve stress-induced depression and insomnia.
Using ashwagandha can help boost the physical performance of athletes and people who live a sedentary lifestyle. It also has the ability to lower total cholesterol levels and levels of low-density Lipoprotein (LDL) without any adverse effects (3).
Health Benefits of Ashwagandha
Aside from its anti-anxiety and anti-inflammatory properties, other important benefits of ashwagandha include:
- Lowers Blood Sugar Levels
Several studies have shown that ashwagandha is effective in reducing blood sugar levels.
According to one study, both insulin secretion and insulin sensitivity in muscle cells have improved due to ashwagandha use (4).
Other human studies have also proven ashwagandha’s ability to lower blood sugar levels in people with diabetes and those who do not (5, 6).
In one small study, the fasting blood glucose levels of six participants who have type 2 diabetes have reduced after taking ashwagandha for 30 days. The effects were also similar to the effects of using oral medications for diabetes (7).
- Improves Memory and Brain Function
Ashwagandha has antioxidant activities that help protect nerve cells against the harmful effects of free radicals.
There are animal and test-tube studies that suggest the neuroprotective properties of ashwagandha, particularly when it comes to problems in memory and brain function caused by diseases or injuries (8, 9, 10).
One study used ashwagandha as treatment for spatial memory impairment of rats with epilepsy. The results demonstrated a significant decrease in oxidative stress in these rats and an almost total reversal of their spatial memory impairment (11).
The powerful antioxidants contained in ashwagandha are responsible for the improvement of cognitive function. Withanolide D and withaferin A are the major withanolides present in ashwagandha. Withanolides are regarded as naturally occurring steroids that help enhance cell outgrowth, eliminate plaque buildup, reverse behavioral deficits, and decrease amyloid-beta load, which is particularly involved in Alzheimer’s disease development (12).
Although Ayurvedic medicine promotes the use of ashwagandha to boost brain function and memory, there are only few research studies that involve human subjects in this area.
- Has Anti-Cancer Properties
Both test-tube and animal studies have demonstrated the ability of ashwagandha in promoting apoptosis, which is programmed tumor cell death. According to these studies, ashwagandha may be an effective treatment for different types of cancer (13).
Withaferin A in ashwagandha also helps induce cell death in several types of tumor cells but not in normal cells (14). Other animal studies have also suggested the benefits of ashwagandha when it comes to treating several types of cancer, such as brain, breast, lung, ovarian, and colon cancer (15, 16, 17, 18).
Supplementing cancer treatment using ashwagandha has also shown a correlation with increased white blood cell (WBC) count in the body, which means that using this herb promotes an immune system boost to fight harmful substances or diseases. One of the main concerns of cancer treatment is a weakened immune system after chemotherapy. For this reason, using ashwagandha may be a good complementary treatment to standard cancer treatments (19).
- Boosts Testosterone Levels and Male Fertility
Ashwagandha is also used in Ayurvedic medicine to promote male fertility and boost testosterone levels (20, 21, 22). In a study, a group of 75 infertile men were treated using ashwagandha. The results of this study showed improve sperm motility and increased sperm count along with an increase in the levels of testosterone.
Another study found that better sperm quality and higher antioxidant levels were demonstrated by men who have taken ashwagandha for stress. Moreover, 14 percent of the men’s partners became pregnant after taking this herb for three months.
- Helps Increase Strength and Muscle Mass
Research shows that ashwagandha may help increase strength, muscle mass, and reduce body fat in men (23, 24,). In one study, men who took a daily dose of 750 mg to 1,250 mg of ashwagandha developed increased muscle strength after a month (25).
Aside from developing an increase in muscle mass, the joints should also be strong enough. According to clinical trials that involve the study of general joint pain related to rheumatoid arthritis, ashwagandha has helped relieve major joint pain without any recognized side effects (26, 27).
Warnings and Precautions
For most people, ashwagandha is a safe herbal supplement to take. However, pregnant and breastfeeding women should not take this herb. People with certain medical conditions, such as lupus, type 1 diabetes, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis should also consult with a healthcare professional before using ashwagandha. Blood pressure and blood sugar levels may also decrease with ashwagandha use. For this reason, dosages of medications may be adjusted if ashwagandha is taken.
Dosage – The daily dosage of ashwagandha usually ranges from 125 mg to 1,250 mg. However, the recommended daily dosage is usually 450 mg to 500 mg 1-2 times a day. Higher dosages of this herb often generated dramatic results in certain studies.
Final Thoughts – You can get ashwagandha supplements online and in health food stores. Ashwagandha usually comes in the form of powders and capsules. Ashwagandha’s most popular form is its root extract. However, leaf extracts of ashwagandha are also available.
Before purchasing ashwagandha supplements, check if the withanolide content is within 1-10 percent, although not all supplements indicate this information. Also make sure that you get products that are standardized for human consumption. In most cases, ashwagandha supplements that have a higher withanolide content tend to be more effective than those with a lower content.
Ashwagandha is an effective traditional herb that comes with a number of health benefits. Taking ashwagandha supplements for your health may help improve the quality of your life.
- White PT, Subramanian C, Motiwala HF, Cohen MS. Natural Withanolides in the Treatment of Chronic Diseases. Adv Exp Med Biol. (2016)
- Chandrasekhar, et al. A Prospective, Randomized Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study of Safety and Efficacy of a High-Concentration Full-Spectrum Extract of Ashwagandha Root in Reducing Stress and Anxiety in Adults. Indian J Psychol Med. (2012)
- Shenoy S, et al. Effects of eight-week supplementation of Ashwagandha on cardiorespiratory endurance in elite Indian cyclists. J Ayurveda Integr Med. (2012)
- Andallu B, Radhika B. Hypoglycemic, diuretic and hypocholesterolemic effect of winter cherry (Withania somnifera, Dunal) root. Indian J Exp Biol. (2000)
- Gorelick J, et al. Hypoglycemic activity of withanolides and elicitated Withania somnifera. Phytochemistry. (2015)
- Raut AA, et al. Exploratory study to evaluate tolerability, safety, and activity of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) in healthy volunteers. J Ayurveda Integr Med. (2012)
- Akshay P, et al. Effects of Withania somnifera in patients of schizophrenia: A randomized, double blind, placebo controlled pilot trial study. Indian J Pharmacol. (2013)
- Soman S, et al. Oxidative stress induced NMDA receptor alteration leads to spatial memory deficits in temporal lobe epilepsy: ameliorative effects of Withania somnifera and Withanolide A. Neurochem Res.(2012)
- Baitharu I, et al. Withania somnifera root extract ameliorates hypobaric hypoxia induced memory impairment in rats. J Ethnopharmacol.(2013)
- Kurapati KR, et al. Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) reverses β-amyloid1-42 induced toxicity in human neuronal cells: implications in HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders (HAND). PLoS One.(2013)
- Neha Sehgal, et al. Withania somnifera reverses Alzheimer’s disease pathology by enhancing low-density lipoprotein receptor-related protein in liver. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. (2012)
- Vyas AR, Singh SV. Molecular targets and mechanisms of cancer prevention and treatment by withaferin a, a naturally occurring steroidal lactone. AAPS J. (2014)
- Nishikawa Y, et al. Withaferin A Induces Cell Death Selectively in Androgen-Independent Prostate Cancer Cells but Not in Normal Fibroblast Cells. PLoS One.(2015)
- Khazal KF, et al. Effect of Withania somnifera root extract on spontaneous estrogen receptor-negative mammary cancer in MMTV/Neu mice. Anticancer Res.(2014)
- Chang E, et al. AshwaMAX and Withaferin A inhibits gliomas in cellular and murine orthotopic models. J Neurooncol.(2016)
- Muralikrishnan G, et al. Immunomodulatory effects of Withania somnifera on azoxymethane induced experimental colon cancer in mice. Immunol Invest.(2010)
- Senthilnathan P, et al. Stabilization of membrane bound enzyme profiles and lipid peroxidation by Withania somnifera along with paclitaxel on benzo(a)pyrene induced experimental lung cancer. Mol Cell Biochem.(2006)
- Agarwal R, et al. Studies on immunomodulatory activity of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) extracts in experimental immune inflammation. J Ethnopharmacol.(1999)
- Mahdi AA, et al. Withania somnifera Improves Semen Quality in Stress-Related Male Fertility. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med.(2009)
- Gupta A, et al. Efficacy of Withania somnifera on seminal plasma metabolites of infertile males: a proton NMR study at 800 MHz. J Ethnopharmacol.(2013)
- Ahmad MK, et al. Withania somnifera improves semen quality by regulating reproductive hormone levels and oxidative stress in seminal plasma of infertile males. Fertil Steril.(2010)
- Sandhu JS, et al. Effects of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) and Terminalia arjuna (Arjuna) on physical performance and cardiorespiratory endurance in healthy young adults. Int J Ayurveda Res.(2010)
- Wankhede S, et al. Examining the effect of Withania somnifera supplementation on muscle strength and recovery: a randomized controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr.(2015)
- Raut AA, et al. Exploratory study to evaluate tolerability, safety, and activity of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) in healthy volunteers. J Ayurveda Integr Med.(2012)
- Gajendra K, et al. Efficacy & safety evaluation of Ayurvedic treatment (Ashwagandha powder & Sidh Makardhwaj) in rheumatoid arthritis patients: a pilot prospective study. Indian J Med Res. (2015)
- S.H. Ramakanth, et al. A randomized, double blind placebo controlled study of efficacy and tolerability of Withaina somnifera extracts in knee joint pain. J Ayurveda Integr Med. (2016)