Ashwagandha is a prized herb among the millions who practice alternative systems of medicine such as Ayurveda and for those looking to potentially benefit from its adaptogenic properties, support for the body and mind. Ancient and modern herbalists, scientists, and educators describe a range of uses for the herb.
The most popular and well researched use for ashwagandha is relief from feelings of stress, specifically long-term stress that can lead to behavioral or digestive issues, feelings of depression, pain, or any number of other negative health challenges. Ashwagandha may also support the function of the thyroid, hormone production, provide temporary relief from occasional pain, aid in the reproductive function and performance of men and women, ease adrenal fatigue, promote relaxation and sleep, and aid in muscle recovery.
Ashwagandha is available in many western and eastern nations. As its popularity increases, more cultivators are growing the herb to meet demand. Continue reading to learn more about ashwagandha, how it may potentially support the health of the body and mind, and how to safely use the herb as part of a healthy lifestyle.
What is Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha, known by the scientific name Withania somnifera and belongs to the Solanaceae (nightshade) family of plants that includes tomatoes, bell and chili peppers, and tobacco. This family of plants is made up of herbs, vines, shrubs, trees, weeds, and ornamentals. (1)
Ashwagandha is a short perennial shrub that can grow 30 inches tall, with branches reaching 5 inches long. (2) The branches produce small flowers throughout the year. These flowers open in a bell shape and sprout small orange-red marble size fruits. The greenish yellow leaves are described as having a normal and average shape, meaning it may be more difficult to identify in the wild. Supplements and herbal mixtures use the fruit, root structure, and leaves.
Ashwagandha is native to India, but due to increasing demand farmers now cultivate it in places like the Middle East, Africa, and North America. It is drought resistant and prefers to grow at higher altitudes but can be found at almost any elevation.
Ashwagandha is also known by many other names:
- Ayurvedic ginseng
- Indian ginseng
- Ghoda asoda
- Winter cherry
The name of the herb has changed with its spread around the world and adoption into local cultures, medicine, and sometimes cuisine. Unlike some herbs, different varieties of ashwagandha look the same regardless of growing location. Cultivators have tried to modify and crossbreed the plant to create new varieties but are still unsuccessful.
Ashwagandha prefers light, sandy soil with an acidity level between 7.5 and 8 pH. Its natural habitat is located around 2,000 feet above sea level, but it will grow in low lying areas with proper care.
The soil should be well drained and watered sparingly. (3) Water liberally during the winter to encourage root growth in the spring. The plant grows best above 75 degrees Fahrenheit but can tolerate colder temperatures at the expense of slower growth.
Ashwagandha prefers to grow in open fields. Limit shade and interaction with competing plants. To plant, sow the seeds by tossing them out onto loose soil, or plant them in lines. If tossing the seeds out into an open area, wait for up to 60 days then begin to thin the sprouts if they grow too close together. If growing in a nursery, plant the seeds just below the soil line and water lightly to start germination. Be wary of spider mites and other small pests that feed on the leaves and stem. Weeding should occur throughout the early stages of growth. Once the plant matures, it will smother other plant growth in the area.
If using the plant for medicinal purposes, do not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Any compound in the soil or sprayed over the plant will absorb into the plant and may pose a health risk when ingested.
If planted in late spring or early summer, expect flowers from December onward. If grown in a northern region, plant the seeds during the first warm days of spring and expect blooms in the fall. Harvesting the plant may be possible during the first year of growth depending on the region. In ideal growing conditions, maturity takes up to 180 days.
When ready to harvest, uproot the entire plant and cut a short distance above the crown (the part separating the root structure from the stem). Cut the roots into small pieces and dry, or leave the entire root to dry in the sun before cutting. The roots should be cleaned, trimmed, and graded before use. Pluck the berries separately. Dry and crush the berries to remove the seeds, or seed them when fresh. Use a knife to strip the stem and any branches. All parts of the plant can be used for medicinal purposes. (4)
The word ashwagandha comes from the Sanskrit language. It combines the words “ashva,” meaning horse, and “gandha” meaning smell, a description of the horse-like odor of the plant.(5) Ashwagandha also translates to “strength of the stallion,” a reference to the virility of horses as the herb is said to support vitality as well as the reproductive function of men and women.
Some historians suggest that the first use of ashwagandha dates back to the formation of the Ayurvedic system of medicine around 6,000 B.C. (6) During this period, preparations of ashwagandha varied based the patient's ailment. Plant oil or ghee (a type of paste or spread) were the most common preparations of ashwagandha for medicinal purposes.
Ashwagandha remains available today in many forms, but is most commonly found as an extract. This extraction technique is a somewhat more modern innovation that involves various techniques that seek to separate key plant compounds from each plant part. This process allows the body to more readily absorb the plant compounds when compared to digesting the whole plant parts and potentially only absorbing a small percentage of compounds. Ashwagandha that is dissolved in alcohol is one of the more popular delivery methods. Alcohol is processed through the liver after ingestion, and when laced with ashwagandha may result in optimal absorption into the bloodstream. For stress or frustration relief, this method is believed to be best as the stress hormone cortisol is processed in the liver, thus ashwagandha will have a more direct impact.
Ayurveda is one of the oldest systems of medicine that 70% of the Indian population still practice today. (7)(8) The earliest known Ayurvedic texts date back 5,000 years and describe the practice of treating sickness and disease by balancing the mind and body with the use of herbs, food, meditation, aromatherapy, exercise, and body cleanses.
While the modern sciences are still working to uncover what pathways ashwagandha uses to provide medicinal benefits in humans, Ayurvedic practitioners long ago explained that ashwagandha is a rasayana, which is a Sanskrit word that means taste, essence, or emotion. (9) When broken down, the word “rasa” means to preserve, transform, and replenish; and “ayana” means to increase or circulate.
Therefore an herb that is a rasayana might provide physical or mental clarity. Other herbs and plants that are also said to be a rasayana include amalaki, bibhitaki, haritaki, shilajit, long pepper, black pepper, ginger, guggulu, guduchi, and shatavari. Combining one or more of these herbs with ashwagandha may provide optimal support and feelings of rejuvenation.
Ashwagandha supports the body in several ways, including a healthy stress or frustration response. This easing of stress may lead to secondary benefits that have potentially positive effects on other parts of the body, including the following:
- Adrenal fatigue
- Immune function
- Thyroid health
- Hormone production
- Joint pain and mobility
- Male reproduction
- Female reproduction and menopause
Many of these potential health benefits stem from the herb’s adaptogenic content. As the name suggests, adaptogens help the body to adapt to various challenging situations such as exposure to adverse environmental conditions, microbes, or toxins. When taken for medicinal purposes, adaptogens have been shown to have numerous positive effects on the mind and body.
More About Adaptogens
Ashwagandha naturally creates a “stress-response modifier” known as an adaptogen. (11) In plants, adaptogens help the plant survive environmental changes, such as drought, temperature fluctuations, disease, and other nonspecific factors that cause damage to the plant.
In humans, research show that adaptogens affect the function of neural networks, such as the brain, hormone glands, and the nervous system. (12) When ingested, adaptogens interact with receptors in the brain and acts as a type of regulator, or “gatekeeper,” that helps to moderate the flow and intensity of electrical signals or chemicals.
An example of how scientists think adaptogens work is that during a stressful situation, such as difficulty managing finances or family life, hormones release and trigger physiological and psychological stress. This stress can lead to discomfort, fatigue, lack of focus, or other problems. In this same situation, if someone took ashwagandha or an extract of the plant, those feelings of stress might decrease or may have a lesser effect on the body.Unfortunately, the function of how adaptogens work isn’t well understood. Adaptogens don’t fit into our understanding of pharmacology, which is a concept that seeks to identify how chemical substances (human-made or natural) exerts a biochemical or physiological effect on the systems in our bodies, as well as identifying ways in which our biological systems affect drugs. (13)
Stress and Anxiety
As described in the section above about adaptogens, ashwagandha may help the body respond to stressful events. Researchers suggest this is through a process of improving the body’s functional performance. (14) This is important because stress is a common response in the brain that occurs in two ways. (15) The first is understood by how the brain perceives pressure. The second is the body’s response. When undergoing stress, adrenaline and cortisol are released. They trigger a flight-or-flight response. In early human history, the fight-or-flight response prepared humans for danger; either to meet a challenge head-on or to flee from it. While a predator can trigger a fight-or-flight response, the fear of losing your job, an overdue bill, or some other sudden change in life can have the same effect.
Normally, escaping danger would remove the stressor. Adrenaline and cortisol would no longer be released, and the body would calm down. But excessive or prolonged stress resulting from modern day life may disrupt the body's ability to find balance. Traffic jams, an unrewarding job, an unfulfilling relationship, chronic health problems, and debt are just a few examples of modern day stress. None of these is easy to remove from life, and thus people face repeated exposure to these events, resulting in a prolonging to the stress response, and as a result may damage to the brain and body.
Chronic stress has been found to cause of or worsening of headaches, stomach disorders, hives, eczema, psoriasis, allergies, and asthma. (16) Acute episodes of stress can also cause gastrointestinal tract disorders, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, gas, cramping, and other digestive challenges. Emotional circumstances, anxious thoughts, constant conflict, and repeated frustrations can also lead to stress or can be a symptom of it. In effect, stress causes health problems that in turn cause more stress, and the cycle repeats and takes a toll on the body.
Ashwagandha has been touted for its ability to help balance the hypothalamic, pituitary, and adrenal (HPA) glands. These glands form the HPA axis. (17)(18) The HPA axis has a direct influence on the hormones cortisol, DHEA, and norepinephrine. These hormones are important for helping the body move between states of stress and relaxation. However, sustained stress can cause HPA axis dysfunction that leads to a negative health state. Researchers suggest that ashwagandha may be key to helping the HPA axis remain healthy and working properly.
To help assess the potential benefits of ashwagandha for reducing stress and anxiety in adults, researchers conducted a study with 64 subjects who reported a history of chronic stress. (19) The subjects were given a treatment of 300 mg of full spectrum ashwagandha root extract or placebo. Follow-ups analysis occurred at 15-day intervals with a final assessment being conducted on day 60. The study assessed “the level of stress, depression, anxiety and general well-being of an individual using three different sets of stress scales, and serum cortisol levels, a biochemical marker of stress.” The study concluded that “ashwagandha root extract improves an individual's resistance towards stress and improves self-assessed quality of life. High-concentration full-spectrum ashwagandha root extract can safely be used as an adaptogen in adults under stress.”
In another study, researchers compared the use of naturopathic care (NC) and standardized psychotherapy intervention (PT) during a 12 week period. (20) The study included 81 participants with moderate to severe anxiety. Following the study, researchers noted that both groups showed “significant improvements in patient's' anxiety. Group comparisons showed a significant decrease in anxiety levels in the NC group over the PT group. Significant improvements in secondary quality of life measures were also observed in the NC group as compared to PT.”
Ashwagandha may also help to regulate pro-inflammatory factors in the immune system. (21) The immune system uses inflammation as a tool to protect and heal cells from damage. However, this immune response can cause a negative outcome on health, and even result in long term tissue damage. In a study that examined the effects of a supplement blend with ashwagandha root extract, zinc chloride, magnesium gluconate hydrate, and sodium selenate on inflammation, researchers found that these ingredients provided “significant inhibition of proinflammatory cytokines.” Researchers suggest that a combination of these ingredients may be useful in complementary or alternative treatments for various types of inflammatory disorders.
Research has suggested that ashwagandha root extract may influence a change in thyroid hormone concentrations. (22) In animal studies, ashwagandha root extract was found to contain antioxidant factors that stimulate thyroid activity and help protect hepatic tissue from oxidative damage.
Adrenal Fatigue or Insufficiency
Doctors and researchers use the term adrenal fatigue to explain a myriad of non-specific symptoms in patients who experience repeated exposure to stress. (23) This is a theoretical condition that explains why a patient suffers from fatigue, aches, depression, trouble focusing on tasks, or any other symptom with no explainable cause.
However, adrenal fatigue is not currently recognized as a medically diagnosable condition. Effective treatment for adrenal fatigue is likewise unproven. According to some critics, people seeking treatment for adrenal fatigue could mask more serious underlying causes of their health problems, such as depression, fibromyalgia, or Addison’s disease. (24)(25) Before accepting a diagnosis of adrenal fatigue, it is suggested that any patient first receive an evaluation to check for “anemia, sleep apnea, autoimmune diseases, infections, other hormonal impairments, mental illnesses, heart and lung problems, and kidney and liver diseases,” according to the Harvard Medical School.Medical doctors and alternative medicine providers have developed techniques in an attempt to diagnose people with adrenal fatigue. One method includes the drawing and analysis of blood from a patient. (26) Normally, the adrenals release “feel good” hormones that provide feelings of energy or a positive outlook, as well as hormones that help to regulate various functions throughout the body. As the adrenals are no longer able to properly balance hormone levels in the body due to overwork, an irregular or low number of hormones would be present in the blood. A second method is a more simple analysis of the patient's physical and mental well being.
Due to the nature of adrenal fatigue and a lack of understanding as to whether it is a valid condition can make addressing concerns difficult. But there are some suggestions for helping to deal with symptoms associated with adrenal fatigue. (27) Consider combining some of these suggestions for optimal results.
- Herbs – Adaptogenic herbs such as ashwagandha, rhodiola, or licorice root may help to balance the normal release of hormones in the body and a healthy reaction to stress and frustration.
- B Vitamins – vitamins may help fill nutritional gaps that may affect the endocrine system, brain, or healthy habits that affect how the body functions.
- Magnesium – This essential trace mineral supports more than 300 enzymatic reactions in the body, including the regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA), which regulates stress.
- Coenzyme Q10 – This antioxidant helps to take the burden off of cells during energy production, allowing them to focus on energy production and not antioxidant production.
- More sleep – Healthy sleep patterns help to maintain the normal rhythm of hormone production during normal sleep.
- Diet – Reducing or eliminating processed foods, salts, saturated fats, simple sugars, and desserts or other snack foods can help to regulate blood sugar levels and provide the body with the right mix of nutrients to balance hormones.
In a study examining the effect of ashwagandha on healthy women with reported female sexual dysfunction (FSD), researchers reported that the herb may be useful as part of alternative therapy that seeks to restore sexual desire, including relief from reduced libido, dryness, reduced arousal, pain, and problems related to achieving orgasm due to neurovascular, hormonal, or psychogenic manifestations. (28)
The study states that a high-concentration of ashwagandha root extract (HCARE) may reduce FSD by helping the body to adapt to stress and support the normal release of cortisol in the blood. To determine the potential efficacy of HCARE on women, 50 females diagnosed with one or more FDS conditions who were between the ages of 21 and 50, were enrolled in the study. Each patient received a 300 mg dose of ashwagandha, which was given twice daily after food and water over the course of 8 weeks.
Changes in FSD were reported on a series of standardized scales used to measure personal experience and changes in sexual activity. Results show positive outcomes in several areas, specifically those resulting from stress, but psychological counseling when combined with a placebo were shown to have a greater effect than ashwagandha alone. Researchers did not look at a combination of counseling and ashwagandha.
Menopause is marked by hormonal changes, specifically the reduction of estrogen production, which can affect normal habits such as sleep, mood, and the ability to deal with stress or other challenges. A study looking at the efficacy of the Indian tonic ashokarishta, ashwagandha churna (a powdered form of the herb), and praval pishti (an ayurvedic preparation made with coral) for the management of menopausal syndromes found positive results in patients with psychological complaints. (29)
Fifty-one women between the ages of 40 and 55 years, who were undergoing menopause, and met other reported criteria were evaluated prior to and after the study. For three months, all patients received 25 ml of ashokarishta twice daily, 3 grams of ashwagandha churna twice daily with milk one half hour before food, and 1 capsule of 250 mg praval pishti with milk one half hour before food.
In concluding the study, researcher note that the combination of different formulas did improve “physiological disturbances such as white discharge and hot flashes,” but proved most beneficial for “headache, irritability, depression, mood swings, sleep disturbances.” No adverse side effects were reported.
A study of 57 male patients with limited experience in resistance training were evaluated for the effect of ashwagandha on exercise recovery. (30) In the study, 29 patients were given 300 mg of ashwagandha root extract twice daily, and the remaining 28 given a starch placebo. Baseline measurements were taken at the start of the study, with measurements of muscle size, body composition, serum testosterone levels, and muscle recovery recorded during the following 8 week period. “Muscle strength was evaluated using the 1-RM load for the bench press and leg extension exercises. Muscle recovery was evaluated by using serum creatine kinase level as a marker of muscle injury from the effects of exercise.”
When concluding the study, researchers wrote that “ashwagandha supplementation is associated with significant increases in muscle mass and strength and suggests that ashwagandha supplementation may be useful in conjunction with a resistance training program.”
Researchers also noted that the findings may lack clarity as the sample size of 50 needs to be increased, the duration of 8 weeks extended, and the introduction of older patients important to better understand the potential efficacy of ashwagandha in exercise recovery.
Joint Pain and Mobility
To test the potential efficacy and safety of ashwagandha in rheumatoid arthritis, 86 patients with joint pain took part in a series of treatments during a 7 week pilot study. (31) Patients received 5 grams of ashwagandha powder twice daily for 3 weeks, and siddha (an ayurvedic mineral-based preparation) with honey for the following 4 weeks. Researchers noted that “a significant change in post-treatment scores of tender joint counts, swollen joint counts, physician global assessment score, patient global assessment scale, pain assessment score, patient self-assessed disability index score and ESR level was observed.” However, due to the small sample size, duration, and other factors, further studies may be a reason to find this research conclusive.
Historically, practitioners of Ayurveda would recommend ashwagandha in males looking for reproductive support. To assess these claims, researchers looked at the effect of ashwagandha on semen quality. (32) A focus of this study was the relationship between stress and male reproduction. The study involved a total of 121 male subjects between the ages of 25 and 38 with known infertility factors. Another 60 age-matched men that had started at least 1 pregnancy and had a normal semen profile were placed in a control group.
The treatment for the infertile men included 5 grams of ashwagandha root powder each day for 3 months. The study measured hormones, stress, sperm count, and semen quality. The study noted that there was confirmation of previous reports outlining the antioxidant, adaptogenic, and aphrodisiac activities of ashwagandha. While all factors were found to improve in some of the male subjects, lifestyle factors such as smoking and stress also affect male fertility. While ashwagandha can play a role in supporting male reproduction, other life changes may be necessary to achieve results.
DNA Synthesis and Tissue Growth
A test tube study of ashwagandha sought to confirm its potential ability to protect brain-derived cells against oxidative stress. (33) Researchers used cultured glioblastoma and neuroblastoma cells then introduced oxidative factors and measured the outcome. In concluding the study, researchers noted that “ashwagandha leaf extracts protect against oxidative stress, DNA damage, and glutamate excitotoxicity.” The researchers suggested that some form of ashwagandha may function as a natural neurotherapeutic drug.” However, it is also noted that “further studies may help to resolve the signaling pathways and mechanisms involved in the therapeutic potential.”
Falling asleep and maintaining a healthy sleep cycle is problematic for some people. (33) An estimated 50 percent of adults will experience insomnia at some point during their life. Around one and ten people suffers from chronic insomnia. Due to a lack of knowledge in the area of sleep, a variety of drugs have been used to help induce sleep, but these can cause side effects that include dependency, rashes, allergic reactions, changes to behavior, headaches, confusion, and other problems that affect the waking hours. (34)
Researchers investigated the use of ashwagandha by practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine to induce sleep to see if it would provide an ideal alternative to sleep drugs. (35) Because the compounds in the herb responsible for these sleep effects is not known, researchers focused on compounds found in the leaf and used animal models to test the efficacy of each compound.
The research found that the alcoholic extract of ashwagandha that contained the compound withanolides did not induce sleep. The water extract that contained triethylene glycol reduced non-rapid eye movement during sleep, a marker for improved sleep quality. (36)
There is no established “correct dosage” for ashwagandha. (37) Individual sensitivities, prescription drugs, over the counter medicines, and participation in medical therapies or procedures may affect how the body interacts with any herb. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid ashwagandha.
Studies examining the potential medicinal effects of ashwagandha have tested the herb at a range of around 200 mg and up to or more than 2 grams. Supplements may contain amounts up to or within in this range or greater depending on the intended use established by the manufacturer. Some research suggests that high doses of ashwagandha should be divided throughout the day. (38) Supplements containing the whole herb, extracts, or blends of other plant parts and extracts may affect how the body interacts with or absorbs ashwagandha. Follow the individual manufacturer guidelines for recommended use, or consult with a primary health care professional before beginning a regimen.
Ashwagandha Side Effects
Ashwagandha is well tolerated by most people, even in higher doses. Nausea, vomiting, rashes, or increased pH in the body may occur in some individuals. There are concerns about lead and mercury content found in the herbs that can result from environmental pollution. Continuous use of any herb that grows around roadways, industrial centers, or contains pesticides or other contaminants may cause damage to the liver or kidneys. Purchasing herbal supplements from trusted manufacturers that can trace the origins of the herb will help to ensure the health of the body and optimal medicinal benefits.
Ashwagandha contains a range of nutrients that may be ideal for supporting individual health goals. (39) Each 100 grams of ashwagandha root powder contains around 7% moisture, 4.41 gram of ash, 3.9 grams of protein, 0.3 grams of fat, 32.2 grams of fiber, 245 Kcal, around 50 grams of carbohydrates, 3.3 mg of iron, 23 mg of calcium, around 75 micrograms of carotene, and around 6 grams of vitamin C. Ashwagandha also contains flavonoids, antioxidants, and essential minerals that support hundreds of biological functions in the body.
Start Taking an Ashwagandha Supplement Today
Ashwagandha can be found in several convenient forms. These include capsules, tablets, liquid extracts, teas, or as the whole herb. Ashwagandha is a primary ingredient in moon milk, a recreation of the popular golden milk. Moon milk contains most of the same ingredients such as turmeric, coconut milk, black pepper, honey and sometimes coconut oil, but also adds ashwagandha. Golden milk is described as a “wonder drink” due to its purported medicinal benefits, while moon milk may be the best way to relax before bed.
Consider taking ashwagandha for the potential medicinal benefits it may provide as outlined in this article. With a history dating back thousands of years to ancient systems of medicine, the herb remains popular today. As life becomes more stressful, and it feels increasingly difficult to cope, seeking balance in life through healthy eating, diet, therapies, and herbs may provide optimal results during your health journey.
When seeking out ashwagandha supplements or other herbal formulas, always shop trusted stores that research vendors prior to offering a product. The NaturalHealthyConcepts.com store offers hundreds of ashwagandha supplements that have been vetted by a certified nutritionist. Try ashwagandha for your health needs and see if it makes a difference in your life.