ashwagandha

Ashwagandha: Your Complete Guide

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If I were going to name one of my favorite supplements of any available, I would have to say it’s ashwagandha. As someone who’s suffered from anxiety for my entire life, I think ashwagandha is one of the most important supplements I take to help me stay calm and balanced, and also productive.

Below, I will explain everything you need to know about ashwagandha, why you should take it, the benefits, and how to choose a supplement. The effects of ashwagandha and the efficacy of ashwagandha are well-backed by research, which is another reason I’m such a fan. 

ashwgandah, ashwagandha benefits
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What is Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha is a powerful adaptogen that’s been used in Ayurveda for thousands of years and is a core part of traditional medicine and Indian medicine. 

What Are Adaptogens?

An adaptogen is something that helps your body react and respond appropriately to chronic stress that’s physical or mental. 

  • Adaptogens are medicinal plants that can help combat fatigue and improve mental performance. 
  • They’re also potent at helping with symptoms of depression and anxiety in adults. 
  • A lot of people find that taking adaptogens helps them be sharper and clearer in their thinking and generally improves their quality of life. 
  • Adaptogens are often used to help with symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, but they have many other applications. 
  • When you take adaptogens as dietary supplements, you can cope with what’s happening around you and internally more effectively. 
  • Adaptogens essentially help create a sense of balance that’s important for mental and physical health. 
  • The benefits have a scientific basis as well as being based on traditional medicine. 

Having an understanding of adaptogens is such an important part of seeing the benefits of ashwagandha.

  • When we face any stressful event or situation, whether mental or physical, our bodies go through general adaptation syndrome or GAS. GAS includes three stages—alarm, resistance, and exhaustion.
  • When you take adaptogens, they help you stay in the resistance phase longer by stimulating effects that prevent fatigue. In simpler terms, adaptogens help you avoid crashing when you’re facing stress.
  • When you adapt to stress, no matter the situation or its specifics, you’re going to respond better.
  • Your adrenal gland releases something called cortisol when you’re stressed. It’s an integral part of dealing with potential threats, and it helps us handle possible emergencies. Too much cortisol is bad, however. Consistently high cortisol levels can lead to weight gain, especially around the midsection. If you reduce stress using adaptogens, you can reduce cortisol and also help with mid-section weight gain.
  • Adaptogens broadly can help with a number of other health issues, including digestive problems, insomnia, pain, and problems with hormone and immune system function.

What is Ayurveda?

Another reason adaptogens are so valuable is that we know a lot about them, thanks to the fact they’ve been used in Ayurveda for thousands of years.

  • Ayurveda is one of the world’s oldest holistic healing systems. 
  • Ayurveda originated in India more than 3,000 years ago. Ayurveda is a word that comes from Sanskrit, and it translates to knowledge of life. 
  • This practice is based on the idea that disease is because of stress or imbalance in your consciousness. 
  • Ayurvedic treatment aims to rebuild a sense of balance between your mind, body, spirit, and your environment.
  • In India, Ayurveda is a system of medical care that’s equivalent to Western medicine and traditional Chinese medicine. 
  • Practitioners in India undergo state-recognized training, but currently, Ayurvedic practitioners aren’t licensed in the U.S.

Understanding these principles can then help us explore more about ashwagandha and more specifically the effects of ashwagandha root and the activities of leaf extract. 

Basics of Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is an ancient medicinal herb, and it’s one of the most important of all the herbs used in Ayurveda. The botanical name is Withania somnifera.

The extract comes from an evergreen shrub that is also known as winter cherry or Indian ginseng. It comes from the ashwagandha plant, which is a small, flowering shrub. The shrub is native to North Africa and India. The leaves and roots are used to make extracts and powders.

Many of the most significant health benefits of ashwagandha are due to the high concentration of withanolides. Withanolides fight tumor growth and inflammation.

Here are several active compounds in ashwagandha, including:

  • Alkaloids
  • Steroidal lactones
  • Saponins

In vitro studies show that ashwagandha is neuroprotective and has anti-inflammatory properties that can help with some chronic conditions like osteoarthritis. Ashwagandha may have immunomodulating properties, and it can have benefits for sexual performance, low red blood cell counts and low hemoglobin, and male infertility.

ashwagandha
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How Does Ashwagandha Work?

If you take ashwagandha, the active components are biologically active. In animal studies, the anti-inflammatory effects are similar to hydrocortisone. There are influences of the herb on GABA receptors, and the roots and leaves are similar to steroids in their biological actions.

Scientific analysis finds the herb represses the expression of pro-inflammatory genes, and it may increase cytotoxic T lymphocyte production, which can help inhibit tumor growth.

Withaferin A can induce reactive oxygen species or ROS generation and disrupt the mitochondrial function of human leukemia cells among its mechanisms of action. We’ll talk more about the anticancer benefits below.

What Are the Benefits of Ashwagandha?

There are so many benefits of this powerful Ayurvedic herb that it would be challenging to cover them all, but below we’re going into some major ones.

Stress and Anxiety Relief

One of the most consistently proven benefits of this herbal supplement is anxiety and stress relief, known as anxiolytic effects. There was a study published in 2019 for example, that was conducted on 60 healthy adults with self-reported high levels of stress. Taking 240 mg of ashwagandha extract seemed to significantly reduce mental stress compared to study participants who took a placebo.

Researchers have found in other studies that the herb can block the stress pathway in the brains of rats through the regulation of chemical signals in the nervous system.

There have been several controlled studies in humans finding taking an ashwagandha supplement can reduce symptoms in people with anxiety and stress disorder.

In a six-week randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 88% of participants taking ashwagandha reported reduced anxiety, compared with 50% who took a placebo.

A pilot trial study in 2000 found ashwagandha had an anti-anxiety effect similar to lorazepam, prescription anxiety, and sedative medication used as a treatment for anxiety. 

The study was in mice, but again, similar anti-anxiety results have been seen in human studies.

Depression Relief

The benefits of ashwagandha for depression aren’t as well studied as they are for anxiety, but there is some promising evidence the herb could be helpful.

For example, in a 60-day controlled study taking 600 mg of high concentration ashwagandha extract led to a reported 79% reduction in severe depression, while the placebo group saw a 10% increase.

Increased Memory and Cognition

Ashwagandha appears to increase acetylcholine levels in your brain. These are associated with improved brain function, memory, and intelligence. Test tube and animal studies have found the herb can reduce brain function and memory problems caused by disease or injury.

In one study using administration in mice with epilepsy, after treatment with the herb, they had a nearly complete reversal of spatial memory impairment. Researchers believe it was likely due to ashwagandha’s ability to reduce oxidative stress following oral administration. 

One of the primary uses of the herb in Ayurvedic medicine is to boost memory.

Japanese researchers found the herb can regenerate dendrite growth in the brain and can regenerate nerve cells. There’s the potential the herb could play a role in future treatments for neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Ashwagandha can also improve nerve cell communication and stimulate the body’s ability to heal nervous system damage.  

Reduced Inflammation

Inflammation is a root cause for some of the most debilitating chronic illnesses, including cancer. Studies have found ashwagandha may decrease inflammation, increase natural killer cell activity that helps your immune system, and reduce C-reactive protein (CRP) which is an inflammation marker linked to a higher risk of heart disease.

Anticancer Activity

Ashwagandha may help combat certain types of cancer because of its anti-proliferative and anti-oxidative activities.

Some of the cancer cells that seem to be targeted by ashwagandha include breast, colon, prostate, ovarian, lung, thyroid, and gastrointestinal cancers, among others.

In one study of 100 patients with breast cancer undergoing chemotherapy, researchers found a reduction in fatigue related to treatment and improvements in quality of life associated with ashwagandha intake. 

Studies have shown the active compounds in the plant, namely withanolides, have biological effects similar to steroids that are of statistical significance. 

In in vitro studies, the root extracts of ashwagandha were toxic to breast, lung, and colon cancer cell lines. Withaferin A has shown anticancer effects in leukemia and estrogen-receptor-positive and estrogen receptor-negative breast cancer cells.

In other studies, there are reports of ashwagandha improving the effects of radiation therapy by reducing levels of glutathione in tumors.  

In an animal study, mice with ovarian tumors were treated with withaferin alone or in combination with an anti-cancer drug. There was a 70-80% reduction in the growth of tumors, and the withaferin treatment appeared to prevent the spread of cancer to other organs.

ashwagandha
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Sleep

You can feel more relaxed when you take ashwagandha, which can then help you fall asleep. This doesn’t necessarily mean it will make you drowsy during the daytime, however. As an adaptogen, it can help you adapt to the situation you’re in at the time.

An experimental study published in 2019 found that taking either 250 mg or 600 mg of ashwagandha helped people sleep better than the participants taking a placebo.

Lower Cortisol Levels

Perhaps one of the specific ways ashwagandha helps stress and anxiety is because it can lower your cortisol levels. Cortisol is something your adrenal glands release in response to stress. Cortisol, a stress hormone, can become chronically high, increasing fat storage in the abdomen and raising blood sugar levels.

In one study of chronically stressed adults, taking ashwagandha led to significant reductions in cortisol compared to the control group.

We talked a bit about these effects above. Chronically high cortisol is a pervasive problem for many, and remedying it could have a host of health benefits.

Arthritis and Pain Relief

Here’s some evidence this herb can work as a natural pain reliever for the health condition of arthritis. Part of this is due to the anti-inflammatory properties of the herbal preparation. At the same time, it prevents pain signals from traveling in your central nervous system. For these reasons, it may help with arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis.

Cardiovascular Health

Ashwagandha root extract may help improve a variety of heart health factors. For example, it might lower blood pressure and high cholesterol. There’s some evidence taking the extract could help prevent heart disease.

Testosterone-Booster

Ashwagandha for men is a powerful, natural way to improve testosterone levels and also help promote reproductive health. In both men and women, ashwagandha has been studied for a variety of sexual problems.

In one study of women experiencing sexual dysfunction, taking 600 mg of ashwagandha a day helped them experience more lubrication and arousal, more orgasms, and more satisfaction with sexual encounters. Sexual function in women could be significantly improved with the use of ashwagandha based on the clinical relevance of this study. 

In men, ashwagandha may help with testosterone levels and reproductive health. For example, in a study of 75 men with infertility, a group treated with ashwagandha had significant increases in testosterone, sperm quality and count, and motility.

Strength and Muscle Mass

Researchers have found ashwagandha may improve strength and body composition. For example, in a study of healthy men taking 750-1250 mg of ashwagandha per day, they gained muscle strength after 30 days. A separate study found similar results. Participants taking ashwagandha had more gains in strength and size of their muscles.

The ashwagandha group also doubled their reduction of body fat percentage compared to the placebo group.

Ashwagandha may help physical performance and cardiorespiratory endurance. 

benefits of ashwagandha
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Is Ashwagandha Safe?

One of the things we like the most about ashwagandha is that it’s considered very safe for most people with minimal known adverse events. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk to your doctor first and it isn’t medical advice. However, it’s a well-studied herbal remedy with few adverse effects or contradictions.

  • The primary side effect you may notice, especially with higher doses, is some drowsiness. 
  • Some reports also indicate it could cause some digestive upset.
  • If you have a hyperthyroid condition, you should speak to your doctor before taking this herb. The herb can help the thyroid function by increasing the conversion of the thyroid hormone T4 to the active hormone T3. In that sense, if you have hypothyroid, it can be helpful. If your thyroid is close to being hyperactive, ashwagandha may not be ideal for you to use because of the effects of root and leaf powder on thyroid hormone concentrations. 
  • If you’re a pregnant woman or breastfeeding, don’t take anything without talking to your healthcare provider. 
  • If you have an autoimmune disease, talk to a holistic health practitioner before taking ashwagandha to ensure they don’t think it would send your immune system into overdrive. Overall, as an adaptogen, the herb can reduce inflammation and other factors related to autoimmune diseases, but it’s still good to check.
  • If you have hormone-sensitive prostate cancer, talk to your health provider before taking this alternative treatment because it can increase testosterone levels and affect your treatment due to the mechanisms of ashwagandha. 

When Should You Take This Herb?

First, like a lot of other herbal remedies, you’re probably not going to notice the benefits of ashwagandha immediately.  It can take a few days or weeks.

As far as when to take it, many people take a divided dose, once in the morning and once in the evening. If you take it at night, it can help promote sleep. If you take it in the morning, you may find it gives you a calm sense of focus. If you take it in the morning and feel too tired, take your entire dose at night before bed.

How to Take Ashwagandha

If you take a supplement, you won’t have a shortage of options to choose from. You’ll find teas, powders, capsules, drops, and gummies.

The typical dose, regardless of the specific way you take it, is usually 500 mg twice a day. In some studies, doses have ranged from 250-600 mg. Other studies have used much higher doses. You’ll often find capsule dosages ranging from 250 to 1500 mg.

Ideally, look for supplements that are independently tested and verified by a third party like ConsumerLab or the National Sanitation Foundation International (NSF International).

Choosing An Ashwagandha Supplement

When you’re spending money on any supplement, you want it to be high-quality and safe. You also want it to be effective and not packed with ineffective fillers. The following are some considerations to keep in mind when you’re choosing a quality ashwagandha supplement:

  • If possible, a supplement should be made with just the root rather than the leaves. The maximum clinical benefits come from the root rather than the leaves. Also, in Ayurvedic medicine, the root is the most effective part of the plant. Most of the studies we link to above use extracts made only with the roots and no leaves.
  • Choose a high concentration full-spectrum extract. Full-spectrum ashwagandha extracts have many constituents that give you health benefits, rather than just one or two. A high-concentration full-spectrum ashwagandha root extract helps you make the most of the money you spend on it. 
  • There are two trademarked extracts that we’re going to talk more about below. One is Sensoril. In general, Sensoril is more calming and relaxing. The other, KSM-66, is a full-spectrum extract similar to raw ashwagandha and is good if your goals are related to physical health and performance.

Sensoril vs. KSM-66

One last thing we think is important when talking about ashwagandha is two particular patented types of the herb. One is Sensoril. The other is KSM-66. 

  • Sensoril Ashwagandha uses extract from the leaf and roots of the plant, which isn’t always the best option. 
  • However, Sensoril, as a result, is high in something called Glycowithanolides.
  • Glycowithoanolides are suitable for sleep and stress management. 
  • If you want a calming effect and that’s your top priority, you might look for a supplement that uses Sensoril. 
  • Sensoril is known for stress-relieving and pharmacological action. 

KSM-66 on the other hand is another patented ashwagandha extract that only uses the roots. The company that makes it, Ixoreal Biomed, uses only the root extract to ensure they can preserve and maintain the active components in natural proportions.

  • KSM-66 pre-treats the plant roots with milk. This is a practice used in traditional Ayurveda. The result is a high-spectrum, very high-quality product. 
  • KSM-66 tends to be very absorbable and bioavailable.
  • Benefits of KSM-66 in clinical studies include better stress management, improved cognitive function, endurance, and physical recovery.
  • According to the Oxoreal Biomed company, KSM-66 has the highest concentration of all major bioactive root compounds available. It’s been studied in dozens of human trials.

Both can be good options, but we personally prefer products that use KSM-66.

We like that KSM-66 is full-spectrum, so you’re getting the maximum benefits. The blend of phytochemicals also operates at a systemic level in your body.

Finally, a couple of other things we wanted to note about choosing a supplement.

  • First, we prefer tinctures, which are liquid solutions using alcohol as a solvent. Ashwagandha’s active constituents are polar molecules, so they’re soluble in alcohol.
  • When you use a liquid supplement as a tincture, it’s typically going to absorb faster than a capsule or a powder. 
  • You can also put drops of the tincture under your tongue, which is known as taking is sublingual. That improves bioavailability as well.
  • One other way to compare ashwagandha supplements before selecting one is to look at the withanolide content. As we’ve noticed, withanolides are one of the bioactive components of ashwagandha, but you want a full-spectrum extract. A full-spectrum extract maintains the balance of the original herb so that none of the bioactives are overrepresented. The bioactives being in their natural proportion is what makes an extract full-spectrum.
  • You should aim to choose a supplement where the withanolide content isn’t too high. For example, it should be less than 25%. Optimally, the percentage of withanolides should only be between 3% and 5%.
  • If you take ashwagandha powder or capsules, you might feel like it takes hours or perhaps days to notice the effects.
  • We also think it’s a good idea to choose a supplement that already has BioPerine, which is a black pepper extract, or to take a standalone black pepper extract with your ashwagandha. BioPerine or black pepper extract makes ashwagandha more bioavailable, so your body can put as much of it to use as possible.

You can find different options at health food stores and on Amazon. We also have a full review of some of our favorite specific ashwagandha supplements. 

Final Thoughts

The Indian Ayurvedic herb ashwagandha is a powerhouse as far as herbal remedies and supplements go.

From boosting testosterone to alleviating depression and anxiety, as well as having anti-cancer properties, it is one of the most remarkable herbal remedies available with clinical trials highlighting many of the benefits.

You may notice that these herbal medicines reduce your anxiety levels simultaneously as it improves your energy levels, which is otherwise unheard of. 

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