Ashwagandha is a powerful adaptogen and one of the most important in the Ayurvedic healing tradition. What are ashwagandha's benefits?January 22, 2021 4:42 pm June 15, 2020 10:00 am
What is ashwagandha?
Aswagandha, also known as Indian winter cherry or Indian ginseng, is the king of Ayurvedic herbs. Despite the name, it is not actually related to the ginseng we know and love. Although the two share the ability to energise us, they’re different plants altogether.
The ashwagandha plant has an understated beauty, with its yellow-green leaves and bright orange berries. It looks as though it would be at home in a UK garden, but it actually hails from India and North Africa. Its name comes from the Sanskrit words for horse (‘ashwa’) and smell (‘gand’); early users thought it had a whiff of the equine about it!
The Latin name, Withania somnifera however, gives us more of a clue as to ashwagandha’s medicinal properties. While ‘withania’ simply refers to the family of plants, ‘somnifera’ translates to ‘sleep-inducing’.
Nowadays, it is grown in many climates around the world. When it comes to ashwagandha’s healing properties, we’re primarily interested in the root. However, the leaves, berries and seeds can also be used for various other medicinal purposes.
Ashwagandha belongs to the rejuvenating branch of Ayurveda, known as Rayasana. This branch is concerned with foods, herbs and practices which rebuild and restore.
Scientists have identified special plant steroids in ashwagandha which they have linked to its healing powers. These are called withanolides, and they are thought to be effective against stress.(1)
As with many herbal remedies, more scientific research is needed to back up traditional knowledge of ashwagandha. However, many scientists have investigated ashwagandha and come up with some rather interesting insights.
Ashwagandha may reduce anxiety and lessen depression
While they’re often linked together, anxiety and depression are not the same thing.
Anxiety refers to a large group of mental health conditions, while depression refers to a single illness. Symptoms of depression include continuous low energy, trouble making decisions, low self-belief and impatience with others.
Anxiety and depression are both internal responses to external stress. Stress is inevitable, but we can influence how we respond to it. Ashwagandha may be of some use here.
For instance, in survey of 75 people with anxiety, the group taking ashwagandha had a decrease in anxiety symptoms of around 56.5%.(2) This is significantly more than reported by the control group.
A different study also found that ashwagandha benefits brain neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters relay messages in the brain, and problems with them contribute to anxiety and depression.
There is also evidence that ashwagandha can improve sleep. People with anxiety and depression often report difficulties with poor sleep, and it can exacerbate their symptoms.(3) So, having a safe, natural way to gently encourage better sleep is hugely useful in the treatment of these disorders.
Another study compared ashwagandha to a widespread pharmaceutical anti-depressant in the treatment of clinical depression. The treatments had comparable results.(4)
While encouraging, there are a few caveats to these results. Many of the results would need to be replicated at a wider scale before the scientific community considers them to be conclusive.
Further, some of the studies were performed with specific compounds isolated from ashwagandha. Meanwhile in Ayurveda and naturopathic medicine, the whole plant tends to be used as it’s thought to be a more holistic remedy.
However, this kind of research is a very useful tool to understand how ashwagandha might work in the context of the modern world.
Ashwagandha benefits our stress response
Ashwagandha also works directly on stress.
Our normal stress response can become chronic stress if it is continuous and prolonged. Chronic stress can lead to any number of long-term problems, including cognitive deficiencies.
As we discussed in our article on the health benefits of adaptogens in general, the stress hormone, cortisol, plays an important role in setting off our ‘fight or flight’ response in times of stress. In the context of real danger, cortisol is incredibly useful, allowing us to react effectively when we’re under threat.
However, these days stress is more likely to be caused by a sudden influx of work rather than a hidden predator. Thus, the ‘fight or flight’ response isn’t quite so useful.
If we are able to lessen the release of cortisol, we also reduce the strength of the ‘fight or flight’ response. That gives us more energy to concentrate on restoring ourselves.
A study looking at people suffering from chronic stress found that taking ashwagandha daily reduced both cortisol concentration and feelings of stress.(5) Another study backs up these results. Ashwagandha benefits resistance to stress, which in turn enhances our quality of life.(6).
Ashwagandha may reduce inflammation
Inflammation is similar to stress in that it is a normal physical response. When we suffer an injury or disease, lots of white blood cells rush to fight off invading pathogens.
However, sometimes there isn’t actually any threat to the body but inflammation continues. The white blood cells start to target healthy tissue, producing chronic inflammation.
Like chronic stress, it may lead to diseases such as heart disease and stroke among others.
Several studies look at how ashwagandha benefits inflammation. In all studies, signs of inflammation reduced after taking ashwagandha.(7) Another study also finds that ashwagandha effectively works against pain.(8)
Ashwagandha may make your heart stronger
A study of 40 normal and healthy participants looked at ashwagandha for heart health. The researchers used a range of measurements to look at the cardiac health of the participants and found that ashwagandha benefitted speed, power, and oxygen consumption.(9)
Even before it attracted the attentions of modern researchers, ashwagandha had a long history of helping with endurance thanks to its position in the Rayasana branch of Ayurveda.
Ashwagandha benefits brain function
By this point, we’re starting to see just how good a multi-tasker ashwagandha is. But it has yet more powers in store for us.
Slowing of cognitive functions is seen by many as an inevitable part of ageing. But, as with nearly everything else, putting a little effort towards keeping our bodies healthy over a lifetime can certainly influence that.
Many cognitive diseases themselves are hard to fight. However, we can address some of their most distressing symptoms: memory loss, difficulty focusing, and feelings of incompetence when faced with daily life.
For instance, when fifty adults with mild cognitive difficulties were given ashwagandha or a placebo over eight weeks, the group taking ashwagandha showed significant improvement in both immediate and general memory.(10)
What’s more, another use of ashwagandha in Ayurvedic tradition is to support memory and cognition.
It’s a good reminder that ancient wisdom still has a lot of teach us in the modern day.
'A study looking at people suffering from chronic stress found that taking ashwagandha daily reduced both cortisol concentration and feelings of stress.'
Ashwagandha may support thyroid health
Your thyroid is a delicate gland in your neck. It’s one of those that most people don’t really notice – until it doesn’t work properly.
Thyroid imbalance affects many people’s day-to-day lives. It can lead to issues with weight, mood, and mental clarity, among other things.
Although more research is needed, scientists have observed a link between ashwagandha and optimal thyroid health.
Among other things, cortisol may influence the thyroid – and we’ve already seen how ashwagandha can help there – but it may also be more than that.
For instance, fifty patients with overactive thyroids were studied. After being given ashwagandha extracts, a significant number of patients were able to normalise their thyroid imbalances.(11)
Ashwagandha may ease arthritis
Some researchers think ashwagandha stops pain signals in the nervous system. Add this to its anti-inflammatory abilities, and you have a promising possible remedy for arthritis.
Moreover, the Indian Journal of Medical Research mentions a study looking at 125 patients with rheumatoid factor. Rheumatoid factor signifies rheumatoid arthritis.
Ashwagandha reduced rheumatoid factor and relieved joint pain. However, the study was small and more needs to be done.
Still, it is an exciting development for the many people worldwide who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis.(12)
Ashwagandha benefits physical and sexual strength in men
Ashwagandha may be particularly useful for men in a couple of ways.
One study looked at muscle recovery in a group of men between 18 and 50. These men had not done strength training previously. The group taking ashwagandha showed substantially greater muscle recovery and greater increases in muscle strength.
The study suggests that ashwagandha benefits a resistance training program.(13)
Further, a different study found that ashwagandha may provide a boost to male infertility treatments, as well as strengthen sperm and increase sperm count.
In the Ayurvedic tradition, the herb is seen as an aphrodisiac for both sexes, seemingly supporting the use of ashwagandha in this context.(14) On top of this, a separate study observed that the herb seemed to substantially increase testosterone levels as well.(15)
Unfortunately, the folk story that ashwagandha makes men taller does not seem to have any clinical basis (so far!).
How to take ashwagandha in the Ayurvedic tradition
Traditionally, ashwagandha is taken as a powder mixed with ghee, honey and warm milk. This calms vata, the Ayurvedic principle of motion. According to Ayruvedic tradition, it’s essential to keep vata in balance. When it is, you can enjoy flexible joints and supple skin, a stable weight and good cognitive function.
In Ayurveda, certain substances are anupans, or ‘carriers’. They help healing herbs penetrate your body more deeply. Milk is an anupan, for instance, so according to Ayruveda it’s the perfect partner for ashwagandha.
Are you taking ashwagandha the traditional way? Take care not to use equal weights of honey and ghee. This is viewed as harmful in Ayurveda.
As mentioned previously, ashwagandha is a Rasayana. These promote endurance, spirit, and happiness. Young children and the elderly receive Rasayanas in the Ayurvedic tradition to promote their wellbeing.
However, you can also take the herb in a tea or cooling tonic. Alternatively, you can rub ground ashwagandha powder into your joints to soothe them.
Ayurveda also recommends ashwagandha for myriad other conditions, including arthritis, constipation, snake bites, memory loss, diabetes, fevers and more. We weren’t kidding when we called it a good multi-tasker!
How to consume ashwagandha in the contemporary day
The traditional Ayurvedic methods are as relevant as ever within a modern life. However, many people today take ashwagandha in supplement form.
At Erbology we believe that it’s better to support your body and mind through your diet rather than by supplements. There are lots of reasons for this, which we go into in depth in our article on supplements. However, transparency over sourcing, organic certification and the other ingredients in the supplement are particularly relevant for ashwagandha.
We always recommend going straight to the source and including the plant itself in your diet instead.
Ashwagandha powder made from organic ashwagandha root is ideal. You get proper transparency, avoid any unwanted additives, and it’s very convenient to use. You can simply dissolve ¼ to ½ teaspoon daily in warm water. Take once or twice daily, depending on need. You may also want to get expert advice.
Further, some people say that ashwagandha works best for them when they take it on an empty stomach. You can have a small snack if you are worried about taking healing herbs with no other food in your system.
Finally, you can use ashwagandha root in your cooking but be aware that it has a rather bitter flavour. Some people love it, but it’s perhaps not for everyone.
Side effects of ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is a powerful herb with many healthful properties, as we’ve seen. But there are a few instances in which you should take extra care with it.
People who suffer from an autoimmune disorder (such as lupus, Chrohn’s disease and type 1 diabetes) should consult their doctor before taking ashwagandha.
Further, there is little information about the safety of ashwagandha in pregnant and breastfeeding women, so please do consult your doctor if this applies to you.
There is also the possibility of drug interactions. So, if you’re taking medication already, speak to your doctor first to make sure it won’t interact with ashwaganda.
A few individuals report mild to moderate side effects. These include headache, tummy upset (particularly with large doses of ashwagandha), and excessive sleepiness.
Less often, people have allergic reactions or experience a quickening of their heartbeat.
Ashwagandha can also lower blood pressure and blood sugar, while thyroid hormone levels can increase. This is why it is so important to consult with your doctor if you have pre-existing health conditions.
A final note: relatively few studies have examined ashwagandha’s benefits. These that have been done have thus far looked at small groups of people. Side effects may need to be looked at again once more research is done.
However, Ayurvedic science has observed ashwagandha and its use for many, many centuries and many people can use it with no adverse effects.
If you’re new to ashwagandha, you might find it beneficial to start small and work your way up to a larger dose when you feel ready. That way, you can monitor for any minor side effects at a very low dosage, while you start to experience the benefits of this fascinating herb.
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