Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha: Usage, Health Benefits & Side Effects

Ashwagandha is a supplement that is derived from a plant originating from South and Southeast Asia. Its leaves and roots are made into a tonic to treat dozens of conditions.

Today, in the age of science and information, we look towards scientific studies to see if Ashwagandha really is as powerful for improving our health as popular websites say it is.


 

What is Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), also known as Indian ginseng, is an herb that has been used for centuries for a range of ailments and conditions, from enhancing memory to promoting longevity and increasing sex drive (1, 2).

In the past, it was best known as a powerful substance to use in traditional medicine, specifically Ayurveda, the traditional medical system of India (1).

Ashwagandha, despite being called Indian Ginseng by some, is harvested for both its leaves and roots. It is a small shrub with yellow flowers, and the therapeutic substances are extracted from the leaves or roots.

Ashwagandha has gained significant popularity worldwide over the past several years for its use for a range of conditions, including arthritis and rheumatism, low energy, weight loss, and supplements designed for athletes and the elderly (3).

Several studies have now examined the validity of these claims, which we will discuss further later on in this article.


 

How Does It Work?

Ashwagandha has several health benefits, and it is believed that many of them are due to the high concentration of withanolides, one of a group of chemicals called steroidal lactones (4).

The chemical structure of withanolides makes it so that they are easily oxidized, removing free radicals from the bloodstream (5).

Additionally, other components in the plant have been demonstrated to modulate the function of mitochondria, regulate cell death, reduce inflammation, and enhance the function of the walls of blood vessel’s cells (6).


 

Is It Safe?

Research indicates that Ashwagandha is safe to take.

Some suggest that there is a need for more long-term research with the goal of evaluating its safety in different populations (7).

Some side effects include drowsiness and sedation, and studies did not record any serious adverse effects, and effects, if any, were considered mild (8).

In general, evidence suggests that Ashwagandha is safe to take daily, and many of the benefits are seen after several months of supplementation. Serious adverse effects are unknown (7).


 

Ashwagandha Health Benefits

Health Benefits of Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha has numerous studied health benefits.

1. Boost energy and reducing fatigue

What the Science Says

Ashwagandha is classified as an adaptogen, which means that it helps the brain modulate stress and improve the effects of stress (21).

Stress can refer to physical stress put on the body (like those caused by illness or some medical treatments) as well as mental stress. Fatigue is one of the symptoms of stress placed on the body.

Studies show the effectiveness of ashwagandha to reduce fatigue, especially those that are caused by medical treatments and stress (22, 10,). The positive effects are particularly strong when the person has used ashwagandha for a long period of time.

2. Help boost the immune system

What the Science Says

In recent studies, ashwagandha was shown to boost the immune response in mice with weakened immune systems (11).

Ashwagandha is characterized as an immunostimulant compound, meaning that it can increase immune system resistance, especially when the immune system is compromised due to stress (23).

One of the active compounds in Ashwagandha, Withanolide A., increases the response of immune system components like T-cell lymphocytes (24).

3. Alleviate muscle strain and increasing muscle mass

What the Science Says

One of the most popular reasons for people to take ashwagandha regularly is for muscle recovery for those who exercise or train with regular intensity.

Research has gone into the effects of ashwagandha on strength (power output), improvements in aerobic exercise, and increases in lean mass.

Results showed that ashwagandha increases the strength of some muscles in people who start resistance training and even in people without training (27, 28).

One study has shown that ashwagandha may increase aerobic efficiency (VO2 max) and lengthen the time until feeling tired (29).

Ashwagandha was shown to be more effective for muscle gain than ginseng (12).

4. Alleviate aches, skin infections, and rheumatoid joint inflammation

What the Science Says

In Ayurveda, ashwagandha is often recommended for patients with osteoarthritis who seek natural therapies (25).

Initial research shows that Ashwagandha root has a specific anti-inflammatory action on the bone tissue of patients with chronic osteoarthritis, beginning in as little as eight days after administration (26).

However, it is important to note that not all patients seem to respond in the same way and more evidence is needed to confirm these findings.

5. Act as an antitumor and anticancer agent and supports cancer treatment

What the Science Says

One of the most exciting applications of ashwagandha is on cancer. Ashwagandha has been shown to help target cancer-causing cells while protecting healthy cells (14, 15).

Ashwagandha has been studied for its effects on cancer in multiple ways. It has been shown to work synergistically with other cancer therapies to help to reduce some of the negative side-effects (30).

Ashwagandha may also help to boost the body’s natural immune system response to cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone (31).

In breast cancer patients, researchers studied the effects of ashwagandha to help improve the wellbeing and overall functioning, in addition to reducing the feeling of fatigue, in people who were receiving treatment (32).

Ashwagandha has had positive or neutral effects on the proliferation or treatment of breast cancer, neurological cancers, stomach cancers, prostate cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, renal cancer, and others (33).

6. Reduce stress and anxiety

What the Science Says

Numerous studies have documented the adaptogenic properties of ashwagandha, and it is arguably one of the best-known and most-studied effects of Ashwagandha on human health.

Adaptogens help the body manage physical and mental stress much more effectively than if you were to go without supplementation. This can help you be more productive and effective while you remain relaxed (13).

The adaptogenic compounds of ashwagandha are likely withanolide glycosides (34).

While the exact mechanism of action is unknown, it is likely related to complex processes that help to suppress neuronal excitation (35).

It also helps to decrease stress-hormone cortisol and helps to improve physical functioning when the body is undergoing stress (36).

7. Reduce high blood pressure

What the Science Says

While the evidence is very limited and disputed by some, ashwagandha was shown to help to reduce hypertension in people with the condition, especially that which is spurred by stress (16, 37).

8. Boost sexual health

What the Science Says

Ashwagandha is a traditional aphrodisiac. Studies show that ashwagandha helps to promote sexual health in both men and women who are facing arousal issues due to androgen disbalance (17).

Ashwagandha may also help to improve semen quality of men deemed infertile, which is an important finding for natural fertility therapy options (39).

In some cases, problems with arousal can be connected to chronic stress. Supplementation with ashwagandha may help to ameliorate libido problems due do stress and increase and openness to sexual activity (38).

9. Improve memory

What the Science Says

Ashwagandha has nootropic properties as well, meaning that it helps to boost brain function.

While not all studies show positive results, initial studies show that it may be effective for memory improvement, especially in people with Alzheimer’s disease (18, 39).


 

Side Effects

Large doses of Ashwagandha may cause:

  • Upset stomach
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Drowsiness
  • Sedation (7, 9)

 

Usage and dosing considerations

There are no recorded negative effects of using Ashwagandha in the long-term. However, it is important to read labels and stick to dosage recommendations.

If you are seeking a particular effect or benefit, it is best to read studies where the benefit was achieved, and mimic their dosage (7),

As with all supplements, if you have any health conditions, you are taking other supplements, or you are considering taking ashwagandha for the first time, you should consult with your doctor about its safety for you.


 

FAQs

How long does it take for ashwagandha to work?

There is no set time you need to take ashwagandha before you start seeing or feeling results.

In general, in order to see the effects of ashwagandha, you can emulate the length of time subjects took ashwagandha in studies that have had positive results (ideally if they have larger populations of study participants because it shows the results are more consistent).

Do you take ashwagandha at night or morning?

No studies point towards greater effectiveness when Ashwagandha is taken during the morning or at night. However, you should always follow supplement package indications.

Can Ashwagandha be taken on an empty stomach?

Yes, most people can take ashwagandha on an empty stomach with plenty of water. If you find that you feel queasy after taking your supplement on an empty stomach, however, it is suggested that you eat something beforehand.

Does Ashwagandha increase testosterone in females?

Reduced testosterone levels may be associated with female sexual dysfunction. Taking ashwagandha may offset age-related testosterone reductions to hormonal disbalances (19).

Is Ashwagandha a stimulant?

Ashwagandha is known to help reduce stress and also fatigue. Rather than acting as a stimulant, ashwagandha helps to balance energy levels to promote alertness and calm, simultaneously.

Does Ashwagandha make you sleepy?

Some users may feel sleepy after taking Ashwagandha, but these and other side effects are rare.


 

Summary

Ashwagandha has been called “The King of Herbal Supplements” because of its wide range of applications and because of the robust research and demonstrates its effectiveness and safety.

Ashwagandha has been shown to be effective for many of the conditions it was used to treat thousands of years ago, including memory, sexual function, bone and joint pain, inflammation, and more.

Studies show that ashwagandha has  anti-inflammatory, antitumor, antistress, antioxidant, immunomodulatory, hemopoietic, and rejuvenating properties (20)

Whether you want to reduce your recovery time in-between workouts and boost your energy, or whether you want to take a supplement to promote your overall health into your golden years, Ashwagandha may help you achieve your goals.

Remember that this article does not substitute medical advice and you should always talk to your doctor before taking on a new supplement regimen.

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References

  1. https://www.cabdirect.org/cabdirect/abstract/19980309657
  2. https://www.phcogrev.com/article/2007/1/1-13?qt-sidebar_tabs=0
  3. https://www.ajol.info/index.php/ajtcam/article/view/67963
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19633611-steroidal-lactones-from-withania-somnifera-an-ancient-plant-for-novel-medicine/
  5. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Mila_Emerald/publication/273003949_Chemistry_and_pharmacology_of_Withania_somnifera_An_update/links/54f547450cf2ba61506566c9.pdf
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26306935-pharmacologic-overview-of-withania-somnifera-the-indian-ginseng/
  7. https://examine.com/supplements/ashwagandha/
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3573577/
  9. https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-953/ashwagandha
  10. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1534735412464551
  11. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0378874195013180
  12. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0378874194011192
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3252722/
  14. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0300060517752022
  15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3795014/
  16. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09735070.2012.11886427
  17. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/bmri/2015/284154/?
  18. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19390211.2017.1284970
  19. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4609357/
  20. http://anaturalhealingcenter.com/documents/Thorne/articles/Ashwagandha.pdf
  21. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ptr.1189
  22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19718255
  23. http://archive.foundationalmedicinereview.com/publications/9/2/211.pdf
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  25. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17475558
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  27. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23125505
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  30. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11480235
  31. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17237443
  32. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23142798
  33. https://examine.com/supplements/ashwagandha/research/#cancer-metabolism
  34. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11406854
  35. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19444606
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  39. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19501822
  40. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20110613

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