Ashwagandha benefits and uses

Ashwagandha benefits and uses

Team ErbologyErbology

Ashwagandha is a powerful adaptogen and one of the most important in the Ayurvedic healing tradition. What are ashwagandha benefits?

June 19, 2020 3:53 pm

Ashwagandha is the King of all the powerful Ayurvedic herbs. Indian winter cherry or Indian ginseng are other names for ashwagandha. It is not related to what we know as ginseng. However, both are intensely energetic.

What are ashwagandha benefits?

The plant that bears ashwagandha is not very tall. It has beautiful yellow-green leaves. In the same vein, the orange, tomato-like berries are equally vibrant. Ashwagandha originated in India and North Africa. It is now grown in many climates around our beautiful globe. The root of the plant is used in the healing we discuss in this article. However, the leaves, berries, and seeds are used in other treatments. 

Ashwa means horse and gand is smell in Sanskrit. This is because the root supposedly smells like a horse! Further, it is supposed to give you the power of a horse. The Latin name of the herb also gives us valuable (but not horse-smelling!) insights into the nature of this herb. WIthania refers to a group of plants. Meanwhile, somnifera translates to sleep-inducing.

Most importantly, ashwagandha benefits are many. Ashwagandha belongs to the Rasayana branch of Ayurveda. To clarify, this is the rejuvenating branch. In the same vein, ayurvedic foods, herbs, and practices which rebuild and restore are Rasayana. Today, we are more run-down than ever. More is demanded of us and of the world. Thus, Rasayana practices are even more welcome. We describe Rasayana a bit more about this later in this article.

Withanolides in ashwagandha give it much of its healing power. To clarify, these are natural plant steroids. Firstly, they are very effective against stress. However, there needs to be more research done into this herb. That way, we can know more about exactly how it might help us. Meanwhile, some scientists have looked into ashwagandha benefits. To sum up, interesting insights are uncovered.(1)


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Ashwagandha may reduce anxiety and lessen depression

Anxiety and depression are often linked to stress. However, it is important to know the difference between anxiety and depression. This helps to treat accurately. Anxiety and depression are both internal responses to external stress. Stress is inevitable. However, how we react to stress is not inevitable. Further, anxiety refers to one or more of a large group of conditions. Depression, on the other hand, is a single illness. It may show up through a broad range of symptoms. These include impatience with others; a lack of enthusiasm for anything. An inability to make decisions; continuous low energy levels; and low self-belief also may signify depression.

Firstly, 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. Further, another study also found that ashwagandha benefits brain neurotransmitters. Brain neurotransmitters not relaying messages properly contributes to anxiety and depression. This is one way that ashwagandha reduces dysfunction such as general anxiety disorders. It also improves sleep.(3) Problematic sleep often plays into anxiety and depression.

Moreover, a study compares ashwagandha to a widespread pharmaceutical anti-depressant in the treatment of clinical depression. The treatments had comparable results.(4) It is important to remember that specific compounds in ashwagandha are isolated for use in many research studies. On the other hand, the whole plant is used in Ayurveda and naturopathic medicine. This is believed to have a more holistic effect. However, research is a very useful tool to understand how ashwagandha might work in the context of the contemporary Western world.

Ashwagandha benefits stress and the cortisol response

Ashwagandha also works directly on stress. The normal stress response can become chronic stress if it is continuous and prolonged. Chronic stress can lead to any number of long-term problems. These include cognitive deficiencies. What happens if we reduce the release of the stress hormone cortisol? We lessen the fight-or-flight response. Thus, we are freer to concentrate our energies on restoring ourselves. Again, ashwagandha benefits all these things. 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. Thus, it enhances quality of life.(6). 

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Ashwagandha may reduce inflammation

Inflammation is similar to stress in that it is a normal physical response. White blood cells increase when there is injury or disease. Sometimes there is no actual threat, but inflammation continues. The white blood cells may begin to fight against healthy tissue. This is chronic inflammation. Like chronic stress, it may lead to disease. Chronic inflammation may lead to 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. To clarify, several different measurements were used to look at cardiac health. The scientists suggest that ashwagandha benefits velocity, power, and oxygen consumption. In other words, it may be useful for general cardiac weakness.(9)

Moreover, as mentioned earlier in this article, ashwagandha is a Rasayana in Ayurveda. This is to say that traditionally, Rasayana promote health and endurance. They also help ward off disease. In the same vein, we are finding out more about what that means in today’s terms. A stronger heart? Sign us up!

Ashwagandha benefits brain function

Heart, mind, emotions…. Now we start to understand that King of all Herbs title bestowed by Ayurvedic wisdom. Slowing of cognitive functions is seen by many as an inevitable part of aging. But, as with nearly everything else, proper physical hygiene over a lifetime can certainly influence that. Many cognitive diseases are hard to fight. However, we can address the symptoms of these diseases such as memory loss, difficulty focusing mentally, 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. Yet again, we remember that alternative medicines may have a lot to teach Western society. Especially about processes that we consider inevitable and philosophies that we see as inviolable. 

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'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. And then? In short, thyroid imbalance affects many people’s day-to-day lives. That is to say, 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. 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 normalize 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. To sum up, you have a 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. It also relieved joint pain. Why is this important? Many drugs do not change the presence of rheumatoid factor in the blood. However, the study was small and more needs to be done. Still, it is exciting and hopeful for the many people worldwide who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis.(12)

Ashwagandha benefits physical and sexual strength in men

More talk of strength. This time, male strength. Holistic male strength, no less! One study looked at muscle recovery in a group of men between 18 and 50. These men had not done strength training previously. So, 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 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. That supports the use of ashwagandha in this context.(14) Another study observed that the herb seemed to substantially increase testosterone levels as well.(15) 

However, we do feel that it is our solemn duty to inform you, dear reader, that the old folk story that ashwagandha makes men taller has not been proven to be true. Yet!

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, or motion in Ayurveda. However, you can also take the herb in a tea or cooling tonic. In the Ayurvedic tradition, certain substances are anupans. In other words, they are carriers. They help healing herbs penetrate your body more deeply. Milk is an anupan, for instance. 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 good ole happiness. Young children and the elderly receive Rasayanas in the Ayurvedic tradition. This promotes wellbeing.

Let’s go back to vata. This Ayurvedic Principle is motion. It connects to air and space. Keeping vata in balance is essential in Ayurveda. Is your vata balanced? Your skin and joints are flexible. Weight is stable. Your brain works well. The nervous system is vigorous. Ashwagandha benefits all of these things in the Ayurvedic tradition of vata. Further, you can rub ground ashwagandha powder into your joints to soothe them. Here are some other things ashwagandha supports in the Ayurvedic tradition. Ready? Arthritis. Constipation. Snake bites. Memory loss. Diabetes. Fevers. And much more!

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. As ever, we do not believe that any supplement is optimal. There are many reasons for this. Do you feel you really need to take a supplement? Make sure that it is not synthetic. Ashwagandha powder made from organic ashwagandha root is ideal. Are you using this powder? 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. It has a bitter flavor. However, some people enjoy it. 

Side effects of ashwagandha

Autoimmune disorders include lupus, Crohn’s disease, and type 1 diabetes. Individuals with autoimmune disorders should consult with their doctors before taking ashwagandha. As always, pregnant and breastfeeding women should also consult their doctors before taking medicinal herbs or pharmaceutical medicines. Further, anyone already on medication should also consult with their doctors.

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 and quickening of heartbeat. Ashwagandha can also lower blood pressure and blood sugar. Thyroid hormone levels can increase. That is why it is so important to consult with your doctor if you have pre-existing health conditions.

Finally, there have been few studies done into ashwagandha benefits. These that have been done have 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.

In the words of Bob Dylan, “I like to think of the mind as spirit and the body as substance. How you integrate those two things, I have no idea. I just try to go on a straight line and stay on it, stay on the level.” Stay on the level? That’s exactly what ashwagandha helps us with. And most of us could sure use some assistance with that. 

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  • (1) Singh et al, “An Overview on Ashwagandha: A Rasayana (Rejuvenator) of Ayurveda”, African Journal of Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicines, 2011.

    (2) Cooley et al, “Naturopathic Care for Anxiety…”, PLos One, 2009. 

    (3) Candelario et al, “Direct Evidence for GABAergic Activity of Withania Somnifera on…”, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 2015. 

    (4) Bhattacharya et al, “Anxiolytic-antidepressant Activity of Withania Somnifera Glycowithanolides…”, Phytomedicine, 2000. 

    (5) Biswajit et al, “A Standardized Withania Somnifera Extract Significantly Reduces Stress-Related Parameters in Chronically Stressed Humans…”, JANA, 2008. 

    (6) Chandrasekhar et al, “A Prospective… Study of Safety and Efficacy of… Ashwagandha Root in Reducing Stress and Anxiety in Adults”, Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 2012. 

    (7) Noshahr et al, “Protective Effects of Withania Somnifera Root on Inflammatory Markers…”, Reports of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, 2015. 

    (8) Orru et al, “Withania Somnifera (L.) Dunal Root Extract Alleviates Formalin-Induced Nociception in Mice…”, Behavioural Pharmacology, 2016. 

    (9) Sandhu et al, “Effects of Withania somnifera… and Terminalia arjuna… on physical performance and cardiorespiratory endurance in healthy young adults”, International Journal of Ayurveda Research, 2010. 

    (10) Choudhary et al, “Efficacy and Safety of Ashwagandha… in Improving Memory and Cognitive Functions”, Journal of Dietary Supplements, 2017. 

    (11) Sharma et al, “Efficacy and Safety of Ashwagandha Root Extract in Subclinical Hypothyroid Patients…”, Journal of Alternative Complementary Medicine, 2018

    (12) Kumar et al, “Efficacy & safety evaluation of Ayurvedic treatment… in rheumatoid arthritis patients…”, Indian Journal of Medical Research, 2015.

    (13) Wankhede et al, “Examining the Effect of Withania Somnifera Supplementation on Muscle Strength and Recovery…”, Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2015.

    (14) Ambiye et al, “Clinical Evaluation of the Spermatogenic Activity of the Root Extract of Ashwagandha…”, Evidence Based Complementary Alternative Medicine, 2013.

    (15) Ahmad et al, “Withania Somnifera Improves Semen Quality…”, Fertility Sterility, 2010.

    Photo credits: Bankim Desai

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