In India, practitioners of traditional Ayurvedic medicine refer to ashwagandha as "the strength of the stallion" due to its powerful ability to revive the immune system following illness. But that just scratches the surface of what ashwagandha can do.
Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb that helps the body maintain homeostasis, even under extreme stress. This is common among adaptogens, but ashwagandha in particular is known for its ability to reduce inflammation and support mental health.
Let's take a look at the history of ashwagandha then review a list of its potential health benefits.
What Is Ashwagandha?
This Indian Ayurvedic medicinal plant is also referred to as Indian ginseng, somnifera root, and winter cherry, but its botanical name is Withania somnifera: a member of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family.
Similar to how muscles grow stronger with exercise, the adrenal glands become more resistant to stress thanks to the effects of ashwagandha.
History of Ashwagandha Use in Ayurvedic Medicine
Ashwagandha has been used in India and the Middle East for over 4,000 years as a broad-spectrum treatment for a variety of ailments. Within this traditional system, the herb is classified as a Rassayana, meaning "rejuvenator."
Here's how the different parts of the plant are used to treat various conditions:
- The leaves and berries are ground into a poultice and applied topically as a natural treatment for ulcers, wounds, and recovering from surgery.
- The leaf extract is used for painful swelling and fever.
- The roots are made into a tonic and used as a stimulant, aphrodisiac, antiparasitic, diuretic, and astringent.
- The seeds are antiparasitic.
- The flowers have detoxifying effects and are used as a diuretic, astringent, and aphrodisiac.
The root is also traditionally used to restore health in women after giving birth.
Why People Use Ashwagandha Today
Ayurvedic medicine and adaptogenic herbs have recently gained more recognition in Western cultures. Health food grocers and naturopathic pharmacies across the country now stock ashwagandha in capsules and powders.
Supplement manufacturers market it primarily for adrenal support, stress reduction, and energy, but as you've already learned it's benefits go well beyond that. At this point, over 200 control studies have been conducted on ashwagandha.
A List of the Benefits of Ashwagandha
1. Reduces Stress and Anxiety
Some of the strongest clinical evidence is regarding ashwagandha's ability to reduce cortisol production, calm the nervous system, and reduce anxiety.
In one 2012 human study, 64 individuals suffering from chronic stress were treated daily with 300 mg of full-spectrum ashwagandha for 60 days. By the end of the trial, researchers concluded that "A 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."
Impressively, ashwagandha may even be equally as effective as drugs like lorazepam and imipramine at reducing anxiety, only without the side effects.
In one 12-week control study, 75 patients were divided into two groups. One received ashwagandha and the other received standard psychotherapy interventions. By the end of the study, participants in the ashwagandha group reported a 55 percent decrease in anxiety compared to a 30.5 percent decrease in the psychotherapy group.
2. Boost Stamina and Endurance
Studies show that ashwagandha may increase physical stamina and improve performance in endurance activities.
For example, in one 2012 Indian study, 40 elite cyclists supplemented with 500mg of ashwagandha root twice daily for eight weeks. According to the study, "There was significant improvement in the experimental group in all parameters, whereas the placebo group did not show any change with respect to their baseline parameters."
A 2015 double-blind, randomized and placebo-controlled study arrived at similar results, this time with a 20-minute shuttle run test. The 50 healthy male and female participants significantly increased their V02 max over the 12-week period.Ashwagandha works on mice too—after being treated with crude ashwagandha root powder for seven days, the mice lasted much longer when forced to swim until exhaustion.
3. Treats Depression
Ashwagandha may also treat depression. In one recent study, rats treated with an extract of Withania somnifera (ashwagandha) exhibited effects similar to the pharmaceutical antidepressant imipramine, as well as anxiolytic effects similar to lorazepam.
Researchers concluded that ashwagandha is a possible adjunct treatment for stabilizing mood in clinical conditions of depression.
4. Increases Muscle Strength
Can ashwagandha make you stronger too? Researchers from a 2015 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition thinks so.
Over an eight-week period, 57 healthy adult males were split into an ashwagandha group and a placebo group. The ashwagandha group took 300 mg of ashwagandha root extract twice daily. Both groups trained with the same workout routine, including bench press and leg extensions.
By the end of the study, the ashwagandha group achieved significantly greater increases in muscle size and testosterone. At the same time, they experienced less exercise-induced muscle damage and a greater decrease in body fat percentage than the control group.
5. Reduces Joint Pain
When it comes to functional strength, joint health is equally important to muscle performance. Besides, fitness is one of the best natural ways to reduce stress and anxiety, so if you're dealing with chronic stress, the last thing you need is to be sidelined by joint pain.
Studies show that ashwagandha can reduce joint pain, especially in patients with chronic inflammation related to rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
In one 2015 study, 86 patients took 500 mg of ashwagandha powder twice daily for three weeks. Compared to the control group, those treated with ashwagandha reported less pain and swelling.
Similarly, a 2016 study found a significant reduction in knee joint pain and stiffness among the 60 participants treated with ashwagandha.
6. Enhances Sexual Function and Fertility
Ashwagandha may help both men and women improve sexual function and fertility. One study published in BioMed Research International determined that the adaptogen can improve lubrication, arousal, and sexual satisfaction in women.
Ashwagandha may also boost sperm count. A pilot study found that ashwagandha can increase sperm concentrations in men. Participants experienced an increase in sperm count of 167 percent and an enhanced sperm motility of 57 percent.
Another 2010 study found that ashwagandha root reduced oxidative stress and increased testosterone and sperm quality in infertile males.
7. Bodyweight Management
Studies indicate that ashwagandha root extract, in combination with resistance training, can help with several factors associated with weight loss.
For example, a 2016 study found this adaptogen reduced food cravings and supported bodyweight management in patients with chronic stress.
8. Supports Cardiovascular Health
In animal studies, ashwagandha reduced triglyceride levels, oxidative damage, and blood pressure in rodents with hypertension.
Plus, a 2016 study found that ashwagandha supplementation can reduce the risk of secondary strokes in rodents.
9. Adrenal Support
Studies show that ashwagandha may help patients overcome adrenal fatigue.
The adrenal glands are responsible for releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline in times of stress. Adrenal fatigue is a symptom of chronic stress, and it occurs when the fight-or-flight system is overly active. If undealt with, this can lead to a decrease in sex hormones and cause infertility.
But hormones aren't just about reproduction, and they still remain important into your golden years. Luckily, research shows that ashwagandha may improve hormone levels and reduce symptoms in elderly women with nonclassic 11-hydroxylase deficiency.
10. Balance Blood Sugar
Blood sugar is closely tied to the stress response, so it makes sense that ashwagandha may also balance blood sugar levels. When the fight-or-flight system is activated, the blood floods with glucose for fast-acting energy. But in patients with chronic stress, chronically elevated blood glucose can increase the risk of diabetes.
In one recent trial of 12 people, ashwagandha significantly reduced blood sugar and serum cholesterol with no adverse side effects.
Several animal studies also indicate that ashwagandha may improve insulin levels and balance long-term blood sugar.
11. Supports Immunity
By reducing the body's stress hormones, ashwagandha may reduce inflammation and support immunity.
For example, in one 2017 animal study published in Pharmacogn Mag, ashwagandha suppressed cytokine levels, indicating that it may also be useful in the treatment of inflammatory autoimmune disorders.
In a 2011 study, the adaptogen also successfully stimulated the immune system by boosting immunoglobulin production.
12. Combats Cancer
Studies show that the therapeutic use of withania (ashwagandha) may even kill cancer cells. For example, in two separate trial studies, individuals treated with ashwagandha extract experienced an increase in white blood cells that fight tumors.
At the same time, human trials demonstrate that ashwagandha may reduce fatigue and improve the quality of life in chemotherapy patients. To top it all off, the anti-stress benefits may help patients cope with the stress of a new diagnosis.
13. Improves Cognitive Function
Chronic stress can have widespread negative effects on the nervous system and brain. By reducing stress, ashwagandha may also enhance brain function and guard against degenerative brain disease.
Ashwagandha contains powerful antioxidants that fight free radicals and protect the neurons. Withaferin A and withanolide D are two naturally occurring steroids found in ashwagandha that improve cognitive function.
Here's what the studies have to say about ashwagandha's potent neuroprotective effects:
- A 2012 study found that injecting withaferin A and withanolide D into rodents with Alzheimer's reversed behavioral deficits, reduced amyloid beta burden, and decreased plaque buildup.
- A 2017 study found that the antioxidants in ashwagandha may protect sleep-deprived rats from the damaging effects of sleep deprivation by preventing cell death.
- Another rodent study found that it improved sleep in rats by boosting production of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA.
- A 2017 human study found that ashwagandha may improve working memory in aging adults with mild cognitive impairment.
- A 2008 study found that ashwagandha helped control epileptic seizures in mice, possibly by modulating the GABAergic system.
- Both a 2013 and 2009 rodent study found that ashwagandha may normalize dopamine activity and reduce oxidative damage in subjects with Parkinson's disease.
But ashwagandha's neuroprotective benefits don't stop there. It also may be useful in the treatment of schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), opioid withdrawals, and may even promote longevity.
Beware of Potential Side Effects
The limited side effects of this medicinal herb typically only occur in response to large, frequent doses.
They can include:
- Mild sedation
- Abdominal discomfort
- Elevated thyroid hormones
With that said, it's always best to consult your doctor before beginning treatment, especially if you have any pre-existing health conditions.
This potent herb is at the forefront of phytotherapy research. Over time, the therapeutic benefits of ashwagandha can improve your quality of life.
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