Ashwagandha – Health Benefits & Side Effects
If you’ve heard of this herb, you’ll likely know it as a total body ‘stress reducer’, promoting calm and balance.
But what else can this potent ingredient offer in terms of health benefits?
In this article, we take a detailed look at ashwagandha – and how this emerging herb medicine based on Indian principles of natural healing can help to increase testosterone and promote other health benefits such as reduced anxiety.
First, let’s understand what ashwagandha is and how it may restore balance to your body and mind.
What is Ashwagandha?
Also known as Withania somnifera, Indian winter cherry or Indian ginseng, ashwagandha is a vital herb in Indian Ayurvedic medicine which has been consumed for over 3,000 years to treat a variety of health conditions.
The root of the herb has become increasingly popular in recent years for its restorative benefits and its proven ability to reduce stress, boost energy levels, improve concentration1 as well as increase testosterone levels2.
Ashwagandha’s potency comes thanks to its active ingredients: withanolides. This group of flavonoids helps the body with physical and mental stress and have been shown to combat inflammation3.
Ashwagandha falls under the category of an adaptogen, but what are these and why are they so good for our bodies?
Adaptogens are often called ‘super herbs’ that help your body’s ability to cope with stress, promoting balance, correction and the stabilization of hormones in the body.
Studies have demonstrated that adaptogens can also combat fatigue, ease anxiety and enhance mental performance4, allowing you to thrive through life. This capability gives ashwagandha undeniable appeal.
What are the benefits of Ashwagandha?
As an adaptogen, ashwagandha can respond to stress in anyway the body requires, meaning it can down-regulate or up-regulate cellular processes5.
Ashwagandha is thought to be beneficial to the body in many ways:
- Stabilized blood sugar
Keeping your blood sugar levels in check is important, to ensure you avoid developing serious conditions such as diabetes.
If you already suffer from diabetes, ashwagandha may be something that can help lower your blood sugar levels naturally. Human studies have demonstrated ashwagandha’s ability to reduce fasting blood sugar levels6. What’s more, in another study, it also amplified insulin secretion and improved insulin sensitivity in muscle cells7.
- Reduced stress and anxiety
In the western world, our fast-paced modern lives are having a massive impact on our overall mental health. Stress and anxiety levels are higher than ever before, and more people are looking for ways to deal with the issue.
As an overall rejuvenator, the potential mental health benefits of ashwagandha are wide-reaching.
As mentioned, ashwagandha is said to come with anti-anxiety properties, which make it ideal for relieving stress and reducing symptoms of anxiety. It is thought to lessen levels of the stress hormone cortisol, promoting relaxation.
Cortisol is a hormone produced in the cortex of the adrenal glands which is transported around the body through the blood. When our bodies produce too much cortisol as a result of stress or pituitary gland issues, we may develop a disorder known as Cushing’s syndrome, which can lead to health issues such as osteoporosis, weight gain and muscle weakness.
One study on 64 adults with chronic stress discovered that the consumption of two ashwagandha capsules for 60 days reduced their stress levels by 44% – it also reduced their cortisol levels by 27.9% from baseline compared to the placebo group8.
- Increased testosterone
Testosterone is a hormone found in both men and women, yet it appears to affect men more. In men, it can stimulate sperm production and a man’s sex drive, alongside helping to build muscle and bone mass.
Its production typically decreases with age and is affected by a variety of factors including lifestyle, diet and exercise.
Although subtle, signs of low testosterone in men include:
- Hair loss
- Reduced bone mass
- Low libido
- Erectile dysfunction
- Difficulty sleeping
- Mood swings
- Reduced muscle mass
Testosterone plays an important role in the body, therefore having optimal levels is vital for overall wellbeing.
Ashwagandha may be the best kept secret in men’s health, purely because it may have powerful effects on testosterone levels and reproductive health. Extracts of its root have been shown to promote reproductive health in males. In one study on 75 infertile men, the group which consumed ashwagandha showed increased sperm count and motility9.
In another study on 57 participants, ashwagandha intake was associated with a 14.7% greater increase in testosterone compared to the placebo – improvements in vigor, sexual and physiological well-being and fatigue were also reported10.
- Reduced inflammation
Although inflammation is part of the body’s natural healing system, it can slowly damage your body and lead to chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Thankfully, inflammation can be controlled and even reversed though a healthy lifestyle and by consuming supplements such as ashwagandha.
Ashwagandha has long been touted for its anti-inflammatory properties and has been shown to decrease systemic markers of inflammation like C-reactive protein (CRP), which is heavily linked to an increased risk of developing heart disease.
In one controlled study, participants who consumed 250 mg of ashwagandha extract everyday had a 36% decrease in C-reactive protein, in comparison to a 6% decrease in the placebo group11.
- Improved cognitive function
Maintaining our brain health is becoming ever-more important as ageing populations increase worldwide. Ashwagandha is thought to have beneficial effects on the human brain due to its neuroprotective properties and flavonoid content of withanolides.
Ashwagandha has been shown to help reduce memory or brain function issues caused by injury or disease in animal studies. In one study on the potential neuroprotective role of ashwagandha in acute stress of sleep deprivation, rats that had consumed ashwagandha extract had significant improvement in their performance despite being deprived of sleep. This suggests ashwagandha may suppress the effects of sleep loss on learning and memory12.
In another controlled human study, 20 healthy men consumed 500 mg of ashwagandha extract. They reported major improvements in task performance and reaction time compared to men who took a placebo13.
Ashwagandha is also thought to act preventatively against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and Huntingdon’s disease14.
This may be because of its adaptogenic properties and the fact it reduces stress – a serious issue which can accelerate the onset of such diseases.
- Cancer effective
Ashwagandha may be effective against a number of cancers due to its withanolide content. It may help provoke apoptosis – a process which plays a key role in cancer progression and killing cancer cells15. Researchers have also discovered that ashwagandha extract may prevent or decrease the growth of tumors16 and has the potential to mitigate the negative effects of chemotherapy17.
- Increased muscle mass
If you’re struggling to make any significant changes in strength or building muscle mass, then ashwagandha may be your solution.
The supplement has been shown to have qualities helpful for bodybuilding in terms of improving body composition, muscle growth and power output. In one study, healthy men who took 750-1,250 mg of ashwagandha daily gained muscle strength after 30 days18.
Remember, building muscle is KEY if you’re looking to shred fat, tone up and transform your physique!
Ashwagandha: the side effects
Like with any supplement, there is always a risk of experiencing negative side effects.
Because ashwagandha is a natural ingredient, there shouldn’t be any adverse effects from its consumption. However, mild to moderate effects have been reported and include:
You may experience drowsiness after taking ashwagandha because of its relaxing properties. Studies have demonstrated that consuming ashwagandha alongside sedatives may cause excessive tiredness19. Try to avoid taking ashwagandha with sedative medications such as clonazepam, lorazepam or zolpidem.
- Gastrointestinal problems
Ashwagandha is known to disturb the intestinal tract so must be avoided by anyone who has a stomach ulcer. Constipation20 and diarrhea may also be a side effect of consuming the supplement.
If you have any sensitivities to food or already suffer with intolerances, you may experience side effects such as itchiness, chest pain, skin rashes or difficulty breathing. This is especially the case for people with an intolerance to nightshade plants such as tomatoes, potatoes or peppers which are all related to ashwagandha.
- Exacerbated hyperthyroidism
Ashwagandha may worsen symptoms of hyperthyroidism by boosting triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) levels. This can lead to thyrotoxicosis – a critical form of hyperthyroidism. If you have hyperthyroidism and are considering taking ashwagandha, speak with your doctor first.
How should I take ashwagandha?
You can usually take ashwagandha in supplement form which come in 300 mg tablets. These can be consumed twice daily after a meal.
It is also available in other forms such as liquid extracts, powders and even tea. Powders can be added to smoothies, juice, milk or water.
Ashwagandha is not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women as the various elements of Withania somnifera can affect the fetus and cause early delivery.
Ayurvedic herbs such as ashwagandha are also not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so this may be a potential concern. If you aren’t sure whether to add ashwagandha to your supplement routine, talk to your doctor or a healthcare professional.
The bottom line
Ashwagandha certainly seems to have the benefits we all need to cope with modern life – so, is it time we started paying more attention to this ‘herbal medicine’?
Ancient India considered it one of the finest herbal medicines known to man and since then it has been used for centuries to increase longevity and vitality21. Used correctly and moderately, ashwagandha could be the positive impact you need for every system in your body.