Ashwagandha: The Ancient Herb with Modern Health Benefits

Ashwagandha is an ancient medicinal herb that has been used in India’s Ayurvedic medicine for over 3,000 years. Also called Indian ginseng or winter cherry, ashwagandha offers a wide array of health benefits from improved stress response and mood to enhanced energy and cognitive function.

Modern science is now validating ashwagandha’s traditional healing uses and revealing even more ways this adaptogenic herb can improve health. Keep reading to learn all about the benefits of ashwagandha, how it works, safe dosage, potential side effects, and more.

A Quick Introduction to Ashwagandha.

Withania Somnifera, commonly known as ashwagandha, is one of the most valued herbs in Ayurveda and has become a popular herbal supplement due to extensive new research on its health benefits (1). For centuries, Ayurvedic practitioners have prescribed ashwagandha for a variety of conditions and recommended it as a rasayana – an herb that helps promote youth, health, and longevity (2).

Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb, meaning it helps the body maintain homeostasis and manage stress more effectively. It helps balance key hormones and biological factors to optimize physiology and strengthen resilience against physical and mental stressors (3).

Some of the main traditional uses and modern applications of ashwagandha include:

– Alleviating stress, anxiety and depression

– Enhancing brain function and memory

– Boosting energy, endurance and strength

– Reducing inflammation and pain relief

– Regulating immune function and blood sugar levels

– Supporting heart health and anti-aging

– Increasing male fertility and testosterone

What is Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha is a shrub in the Solanaceae or nightshade family and its botanical name is Withania somnifera. It is also frequently called Indian ginseng due to its rejuvenating properties though it is not technically in the ginseng family. The name ashwagandha comes from Sanskrit and means “smell of horse” referring to the strong odor of the plant’s root (4).

Ashwagandha is native to dry regions of India, northern Africa, and the Middle East. The main parts of the plant used medicinally are the root and berry. The roots in particular contain a variety of bioactive compounds including withanolides, alkaloids, choline, fatty acids, amino acids, and a variety of sugars (5).

The withanolides are believed to be the most medically active compounds in ashwagandha. They are steroidal lactones with anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antioxidant, and immunomodulating properties according to studies (6). The high concentration of withanolides is what gives ashwagandha its therapeutic effects and medicinal value.

Ashwagandha has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for over 3,000 years as a rasayana – an herb that promotes youthfulness, enhances health and longevity. It is also classified as an adaptogen which enables the body to manage stress more effectively without altering mood or energy levels (7).

In addition to its extensive traditional uses, modern research suggests ashwagandha may be beneficial for an even wider scope of conditions than previously believed. It is considered one of the most valuable herbs in Ayurvedic healing and its popularity in Western markets continues to grow as more of its benefits are confirmed.

Active Compounds in Ashwagandha

The most biologically active compounds in the ashwagandha plant are alkaloids, steroidal lactones, saponins, and withanolides. These phytochemicals are responsible for ashwagandha’s wide-ranging therapeutic effects and medicinal potency.

Specific active constituents include:

  • Withanolides – Steroid-like compounds in the roots and leaves structurally similar to ginsenosides in ginseng. These include withaferin A, withanosides, and withanolide glycosides. Withanolides possess antitumor, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and immune-modulating properties.
  • Alkaloids – Including somniferine, somnine, somniferinine, withanine, isopelletierine, anaferine, and anahygrine which also have therapeutic effects.
  • Various acids – Including steroidal lactones like withanolide A, withaferins, sitoindosides, and others. These compounds have GABA-mimetic activity in the brain.
  • Iron – Ashwagandha has one of the highest concentrations of iron among herbs. Iron serves many essential functions from oxygen transport to energy metabolism.
  • Amino acids – Including tryptophan, tyrosine, threonine, lysine, and others. Amino acids play critical roles in protein synthesis, hormone and neurotransmitter synthesis, and more.

The combination of these compounds gives ashwagandha its potent medicinal properties, from fighting inflammation and cancer to boosting brain function and balancing hormones. Let’s look closer at some of the main mechanisms behind ashwagandha’s diverse benefits.

The Many Benefits and Uses of Ashwagandha.

Ashwagandha has been used traditionally to treat a wide variety of conditions from inflammation and joint pain to memory loss and anxiety. Modern studies are now confirming many of ashwagandha’s benefits as well uncovering new potential applications. Here are some of the tops scientifically studied ways ashwagandha may improve health.

Stress Relief and Mood Support.

One of the most well-researched effects of ashwagandha is its ability to enhance resilience to stress and reduce associated anxiety and depression. Multiple human studies have shown ashwagandha supplementation can significantly lower cortisol levels and perceived stress and anxiety scores compared to placebo (8, 9, 10).

Ashwagandha helps regulate key neurotransmitters and hormones involved in the body’s stress response most notably cortisol. By balancing cortisol and calming excessive activity in the sympathetic nervous system, ashwagandha helps maintain a healthy stress response and protects mental health (11).

For people struggling with anxiety or depression, ashwagandha can help reduce symptoms and improve overall mood and cognitive function. The anxiolytic effects may be comparable to common pharmaceutical drugs but with fewer side effects (12).

Anti-Inflammatory and Pain Relief.

The potent anti-inflammatory properties of ashwagandha have been harnessed in Ayurvedic medicine for treating joint inflammation, pain, and rheumatoid arthritis. Studies confirm the anti-inflammatory effects are largely due to withanolides and other bioactive compounds which suppress pro-inflammatory cytokines (13).

Ashwagandha has been shown effective in reducing markers of inflammation and decreasing pain in people with various musculoskeletal, nerve, and joint disorders (14). The anti-inflammatory properties may also help reduce risk of chronic diseases associated with chronic inflammation.

Immune System Booster.

Research suggests ashwagandha may help stimulate immune cell activity and enhance the body’s natural defenses against infection and disease. Compounds like withanolides have immunomodulating properties that boost immune cell production and activity (15).

Supplementation with ashwagandha has been associated with increased natural killer cell activity and enhanced responsiveness to vaccines. The immunostimulating effects may help protect against infectious illness and support overall immune function especially in people with compromised immunity (16).

Energy and Endurance.

Traditionally used as a vitality tonic, ashwagandha is believed to enhance energy levels, promote muscle growth, and improve markers of endurance. Human studies indicate supplemental ashwagandha can significantly boost cardiorespiratory endurance and improve perceived energy and quality of life (17).

Ashwagandha helps reduce fatigue and may increase energy partly by optimizing thyroid hormone levels. The adaptogenic effects also prevent excess cortisol which can contribute to lethargy and burnout when elevated for prolonged periods (18).

Cognitive Enhancer.

Known as a “medhya rasayana” in Ayurveda – an herb that sharpens the mind and enhances cognitive function, ashwagandha has been shown in clinical studies to improve concentration, information processing, and memory (19).

Ashwagandha helps alleviate oxidative stress in the brain and protects nerve cells from free radical damage. The neuroprotective effects may help slow cognitive decline associated with neurodegenerative disease and aging (20).

Heart Health

Ashwagandha exhibits several cardioprotective properties that support heart health and help reduce risk of cardiovascular disease. Compounds like withanolides have hypolipidemic effects that help reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels (21).

The antioxidant effects of ashwagandha also help inhibit LDL oxidation which plays a key role in atherosclerotic damage and heart disease development. Research indicates supplementing with ashwagandha may help lower blood pressure and reduce platelet aggregation – two major risk factors for heart attack and stroke (22, 23).

Blood Sugar Regulation

Several studies have found ashwagandha supplementation can help improve insulin sensitivity, reduce fasting blood sugar levels, and increase insulin secretion in people with diabetes (24). The hypoglycemic effects may be beneficial for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes management.

Ashwagandha helps regulate blood sugar possibly by increasing insulin release from the pancreas and enhancing cellular uptake of glucose. The antioxidant effects may also help protect pancreatic beta cells from oxidative damage and preserve insulin production (25).

Male Fertility and Testosterone

Ashwagandha has been traditionally used as an aphrodisiac believed to boost libido and fertility in men. Clinical studies have shown ashwagandha supplementation in infertile men can significantly increase sperm count and motility which both impact male fertility (26).

Ashwagandha may also help increase testosterone levels in men. Multiple studies have found ashwagandha supplementation increases serum testosterone, improves sperm quality, and enhances male sexual function (27, 28).

In addition to these benefits, preliminary research suggests ashwagandha may also have anticancer properties and may be beneficial for neurodegenerative diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and more. Ongoing studies continue to reveal the broad therapeutic potential of this medicinal herb.

How Does Ashwagandha Work?

The wide range of health benefits from ashwagandha come from its combination of bioactive compounds, antioxidants, and adaptogenic properties that influence multiple physiological pathways and molecular mechanisms in the body.

Key Active Compounds

The compounds hypothesized to be most medicinally active in ashwagandha are a group of natural chemicals called withanolides. Withanolides such as withaferin A and withanolide D are steroidal lactones with immunosuppressive, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antitumor properties based on research (29).

Several other bioactive components have been identified in ashwagandha including alkaloids, choline, fatty acids, amino acids, and a variety of sugars. However, studies suggest the concentration of withanolides is a key determining factor in ashwagandha’s therapeutic potency. Standardized extract formulations ensure optimal levels of these medicinal compounds (30).

Adaptogenic Effects

One of the central mechanisms by which ashwagandha works is through its adaptogenic properties. Adaptogens enhance the body’s capability of adapting to stressors and promoting homeostasis. Ashwagandha helps regulate many of the key hormones and biological factors involved in the stress response including cortisol, corticosterone, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), nitric oxide and cytokines (31).

By balancing stress hormones, reducing inflammation, and stabilizing physiological processes, ashwagandha helps maintain equilibrium and enhances resilience against physical, chemical, and biological stressors (32).

Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis Regulation

Ashwagandha has been shown to help regulate the HPA axis which controls reactions to stress as well as many other physiological systems such metabolism, digestion, immunity, mood, sexuality, energy expenditure and more.

Supplementation with ashwagandha helps normalize cortisol levels, restores adrenal responsiveness to ACTH, and balances thyroid hormones – all of which stabilize the body’s stress levels through the HPA pathway (33).

Antioxidant Effects

Ashwagandha possesses powerful antioxidant properties which help neutralize free radicals and prevent oxidative damage to cells and tissues throughout the body. Compounds like withanolides and alkaloids scavenge reactive oxygen and nitrogen species that can contribute to accelerated aging and disease (34).

These antioxidant effects are believed to be central to ashwagandha’s anti-inflammatory, cardio-protective, anti-cancer and neuroprotective benefits.

Neuroprotective Mechanisms

Ashwagandha helps combat oxidative damage in the brain, enhance choline levels, rebuild neuronal networks, and promote new nerve cell growth through its combination of antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and regenerative effects (35).

The neuroprotective mechanisms may help slow neurodegeneration and the effects of aging. Ashwagandha has been shown in rodent studies to reverse or improve symptoms of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, though more human research is still needed (36).

Through its myriad bioactive compounds and multitarget mechanisms, ashwagandha interacts with numerous molecular pathways and physiological processes to exert beneficial effects across many systems, organs and tissues in the body. Though much is still unknown about how exactly ashwagandha works, ongoing research continues to uncover more about its powerful healing properties.

Ashwagandha Supplement Dosage and Forms

Ashwagandha is available in powder or capsule form, as a liquid extract or tincture, and infused in certain products like ghee. It’s important to follow dosage guidelines to avoid potential side effects and ensure safe, optimal use.

Typical Dosage Recommendations

There is not yet a universally standard dosage for ashwagandha. Recommendations can range quite a bit based on the extract concentration and delivery form. Typical dosage guidelines are:

  • Powdered root: 1–2 grams per day
  • Dried root powder capsule: 450–500 mg once or twice daily
  • Liquid extract: 30–50 drops once or twice daily
  • Standardized root extract: 250-500 mg once or twice daily

For stress relief, memory, endurance, and most general health goals, lower dosages in the range of 300–500 mg extract daily are commonly used. Higher doses of 500-600 mg may be utilized for more therapeutic effects. It’s best to start low and work up gradually as needed (37).

Common Supplemental Forms

Ashwagandha root powder– This is ground, dried ashwagandha root and contains all the compounds found naturally in the root. Has lower concentration of active withanolides.

Root extract capsules– Ashwagandha root extract in capsule form provides higher concentrations of active compounds. Standardized extracts ensure optimal levels of withanolides.

Liquid tinctures– Ashwagandha tinctures made by soaking the root in alcohol solution are quick-absorbing and portable but have very bitter taste.

Ashwagandha tea– Made from boiling powdered root, provides milder effects. May cause gastrointestinal upset in some.

Ashwagandha ghee– Ashwagandha-infused ghee provides good bioavailability and enhances absorption of fat-soluble compounds. Ghee masks bitter taste.

Dosage Considerations

Some factors to keep in mind for optimal ashwagandha dosage include:

  1. Concentration of key active withanolides
  2. Delivery form and enhancement of bioavailability
  3. Individual health goals and therapeutic aims
  4. General health status and potential medication interactions

Since withanolides have been identified as the most medicinally active compounds, standardized extracts calibrated to higher withanolide content are commonly preferred over plain root powder. The common range is 2.5-10% withanolides concentration.

Enhancing bioavailability can also maximize absorption and potency. Combining ashwagandha with healthy fats, other herbs or black pepper extract improves the number of active compounds absorbed.

Those with good general health may do fine on the lower end of dosage recommendations while more health issues or therapeutic targets may require higher doses under medical guidance. As with any supplement, it’s smart to consult your healthcare provider before starting ashwagandha.

Potential Ashwagandha Side Effects and Safety Information

When taken in appropriate dosages by mouth for short duration, ashwagandha is relatively safe for most healthy adults and adverse reactions are rare. However, there are some potential side effects and precautions to be aware of before using ashwagandha.

– Stomach upset – Ashwagandha may cause mild gastrointestinal distress like nausea, diarrhea or stomach pain in some individuals. Taking with food seems to help reduce these effects.

– Drowsiness – Being an adaptogen that has relaxing properties, ashwagandha may cause drowsiness and sedation in some people especially at higher doses. Avoid use with other herbs or drugs with sedative effects.

Blood pressure – Large doses may lower blood pressure substantially so those with hypotension should exercise caution with ashwagandha dosage.

Pregnancy – Ashwagandha is possibly unsafe for pregnant women as it may induce labor contractions. It’s best avoided during pregnancy.

Medical conditions – Ashwagandha may interact with medications being taken for thyroid issues, diabetes, autoimmune disorders or high blood pressure. Consult a doctor before using if you have a medical condition.

Surgery – Ashwagandha may slow down central nervous system activity so it should be discontinued 2 weeks prior to surgery.

For most healthy people, short term ashwagandha supplementation is well tolerated with very few adverse events reported in research studies. However, little is known about its long-term safety profile and effects from prolonged use. It’s best to follow general dosage guidelines and be cautious with large doses or use with other herbal supplements and medications.

Best Ashwagandha Supplements

With the growing popularity of ashwagandha, there are now many supplement options available. Here are some of the top ashwagandha products on the market:

Himalaya Organic Ashwagandha

  • Made from certified organic ashwagandha root
  • Provides 450mg standardized extract in veggie capsules
  • One of the most popular and reputable brands
  • Pros: organic, standardized extract, trusted brand
  • Cons: lower potency compared to some extracts

Nuzena Ashwagandha+

  • Contains KSM-66 ashwagandha extract with 5% withanolides
  • Added black pepper for enhanced absorption
  • Made in the USA in cGMP facility
  • Pros: high quality standardized extract, added absorption enhancer
  • Cons: slightly more expensive

Pure Encapsulations Ashwagandha

  • 500mg extract with 5% withanolides per capsule
  • Free from common allergens and additives
  • Vegan capsules
  • Pros: good potency, allergen-free, vegan
  • Cons: pills can have strong smell

Planetary Herbals Full Spectrum Ashwagandha

  • Prepared from whole root powder
  • 645mg per tablet
  • Added ginger for gastrointestinal comfort
  • Pros: whole root provides full spectrum, added ginger
  • Cons: not a standardized extract

Gaia Herbs Ashwagandha Liquid Phyto-Capsules

  • Liquid phyto-capsules for increased absorption
  • Standardized root extract with 5% withanolides
  • Convenient capsule form
  • Pros: highly bioavailable, standardized potency
  • Cons: more expensive than some products

When comparing ashwagandha supplements, standardized extracts tend to provide optimal levels of the key active withanolides. Products made from organic ashwagandha and free of common allergens are ideal for purity and tolerability.

Conclusion: A Potent Adaptogenic Herb Backed by Science

Modern science is now validating what traditional Ayurvedic healers have known for centuries – that ashwagandha is a remarkably versatile medicinal herb with the ability to enhance health and wellbeing in numerous ways.

With its combination of stress-relieving adaptogens, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory compounds, ashwagandha can help restore balance, increase resilience to stress, and protect against the damaging effects of chronic inflammation and oxidation.

From supporting mental health and cognitive function to boosting energy and endurance to regulating immunity, blood sugar, thyroid function, male fertility and more, research continues to reveal the wide range of systems and conditions ashwagandha may benefit.

While more studies are still needed, the current human clinical evidence combined with extensive traditional use provides a compelling case for integrating ashwagandha into a healthy lifestyle as a safe, natural therapeutic.

With proper dosage and precautions, adding an ashwagandha supplement can be an effective way to take advantage of its science-backed health-promoting properties as part of preventative healthcare or adjunct treatment.

Ashwagandha remains one of the most valued botanicals in Ayurveda and is gaining recognition around the world as both an adaptogenic tonic and targeted therapeutic agent. The future research outlook on ashwagandha is promising and expected to uncover even more therapeutic applications for this ancient healing herb.

Ashwagandha Precautions and Warnings

While generally safe in moderate doses for most healthy adults, ashwagandha does come with some precautions:

  • Avoid taking ashwagandha if you are pregnant or breastfeeding as it may stimulate uterine contractions.
  • Consult your doctor before use if you have a thyroid disorder as ashwagandha may increase thyroid hormone levels.
  • Discontinue use at least 2 weeks prior to any scheduled surgery as ashwagandha may interfere with anesthesia.
  • Do not take ashwagandha if you have an autoimmune disorder like multiple sclerosis, lupus or rheumatoid arthritis as it may overstimulate the immune system.
  • Be cautious combining ashwagandha with herbs with sedative effects or medications for anxiety, hypertension, diabetes or thyroid disorders due to potential interactions.

Always consult your integrative medicine doctor before taking Ashwagandha supplements if you have any medical conditions or take prescription medications to ensure safety and avoid negative interactions.

Ashwagandha FAQ

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about the incredible adaptogenic herb ashwagandha:

What does ashwagandha do?

Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb that helps the body cope with stress and regulate hormone levels. It has shown benefits for lowering cortisol, boosting brain function, reducing anxiety and inflammation, increasing endurance and strength, improving thyroid and reproductive health, stabilizing blood sugar, and more.

When should I take ashwagandha?

Most experts recommend taking ashwagandha supplements once or twice per day, preferably with food. The dosage can be split into smaller doses taken throughout the day. For sleep, take larger doses in the evening. To boost energy, take more in the morning or before workouts.

How long does it take for ashwagandha to work?

It may take several weeks or more of consistent ashwagandha supplementation to notice beneficial effects. Effects tend to increase over time with sustained use. Most studies showing benefits had subjects take ashwagandha daily for 6 to 12 weeks.

What are the side effects of ashwagandha?

When taken in normal doses, side effects are usually mild if experienced at all. Possible side effects include headache, drowsiness, nausea, gastrointestinal discomfort and diarrhea. Taking high doses long-term or while pregnant can increase risk of adverse reactions.

Is ashwagandha safe to take every day?

Ashwagandha is generally considered safe for daily use when taken in moderate doses of around 300 to 500 mg extract for a few months or less. Long-term safety beyond several months is unknown. It’s best to take breaks periodically under your doctor’s guidance.

Can I take ashwagandha on an empty stomach?

Yes, you can take ashwagandha supplements with or without food. Taken on an empty stomach, effects may come on faster as it is absorbed more readily. With food may decrease risk of any gastrointestinal discomfort.

What is the strongest ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha root extract standardized to higher percentages of withanolides (5% or more) will be most potent. Root powder or extract generally stronger than leaf extracts. Tinctures can also vary substantially in withanolide content so check concentration.

Is Organic Ashwagandha Better?

When buying ashwagandha (or any herbal supplement), always choose organic products to ensure purity and avoid pesticides or contaminants. Organic ashwagandha is grown without any synthetic chemicals or pesticides that may concentrate in the roots. This ensures a clean, high-quality extract or powder.


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