Health Benefits of Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is an incredibly healthy medicinal herb.
It is classified as an "adaptogen," meaning that it can help your body manage stress.
Ashwagandha also provides all sorts of other benefits for your body and brain.
For example, it can lower blood sugar levels, reduce cortisol, boost brain function and help fight symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Here are 12 benefits of ashwagandha that are supported by science.
Ashwagandha is one of the most important herbs in Ayurveda, a form of alternative medicine based on Indian principles of natural healing.
It has been used for over 3,000 years to relieve stress, increase energy levels and improve concentration.
"Ashwagandha" is Sanskrit for "smell of the horse," which refers to both its unique smell and ability to increase strength.
Its botanical name is Withania somnifera, and it is also known by several other names, including Indian ginseng and winter cherry.
The Ashwagandha plant is a small shrub with yellow flowers that are native to India and North Africa. Extracts or powder from the plant's root or leaves is used to treat a variety of conditions.
Many of its health benefits are attributed to the high concentration of withanolides, which have been shown to fight inflammation and tumor growth.
In several studies, ashwagandha has been shown to lower blood sugar levels.
A test-tube study found that it increased insulin secretion and improved insulin sensitivity in muscle cells.
Several human studies have confirmed its ability to reduce blood sugar levels in both healthy people and those with diabetes.
In one study in people with schizophrenia, those treated with ashwagandha for 4 weeks had an average reduction in fasting blood sugar levels of 13.5 mg/dL, compared to a 4.5 mg/dL reduction in those who received a placebo.
What's more, in a small study of 6 people with type 2 diabetes, supplementing with ashwagandha for 30 days lowered fasting blood sugar levels as effectively as an oral diabetes medication.
Animal and test-tube studies have found that ashwagandha helps induce the apoptosis or "programmed cell death" of cancer cells.
It also impedes the growth of new cancer cells in several ways.
One of these ways is believed to be the generation of reactive oxygen species (ROS), which are toxic to cancer cells but not normal cells. Another mechanism causes cancer cells to become less resistant to apoptosis.
Animal studies suggest that it may be beneficial for treating several types of cancer, including breast, lung, colon, brain and ovarian cancer.
In one study, mice with ovarian tumors treated with ashwagandha alone or in combination with an anti-cancer drug had a 70–80% reduction in tumor growth. The treatment also prevented metastasis, the spread of cancer to other organs.
Although there are no studies to confirm these results in humans yet, the research to date is encouraging.
Cortisol is known as a "stress hormone" because your adrenal glands release it in response to stress and when your blood sugar levels get too low.
Unfortunately, in some cases, cortisol levels may become chronically elevated, which can lead to high blood sugar levels and increased fat storage in the abdomen.
Studies have shown that ashwagandha may help reduce cortisol levels.
In a controlled study of chronically stressed adults, the group that supplemented with ashwagandha had significantly greater reductions in cortisol than the control group. The group taking the highest dose had a 30% reduction, on average.
Ashwagandha is perhaps best known for its ability to reduce stress.
Researchers who looked at its effects on rat brains reported that it blocked the stress pathway by regulating chemical signaling in the nervous system.
Several controlled human studies have shown that it can effectively reduce symptoms in people with stress and anxiety disorders.
In a 60-day study of 64 people with chronic stress, those in the Ashwagandha group reported a 69% average reduction in anxiety and insomnia, compared to 11% in the placebo group.
In another study lasting 6 weeks, 88% of people who took ashwagandha reported a reduction in anxiety, compared to 50% who took a placebo.
Although it hasn't been studied much, a couple of studies suggest ashwagandha may help alleviate depression.
In a controlled 60-day study in stressed adults, those who took 600 mg per day reported a 79% reduction in severe depression. At the same time, the placebo group reported a 10% increase.
Ashwagandha supplements may have powerful effects on male hormone levels and reproductive health.
In a study of 75 infertile men, the group treated with ashwagandha had an increase in sperm count and motility.
What's more, the treatment led to a significant increase in testosterone levels.
The researchers also reported that the group who took the herb experienced increased antioxidant levels in the blood.
In another study, men who received ashwagandha for stress experienced higher antioxidant levels and better sperm quality. After 3 months of treatment, 14% of the men's partners had become pregnant.
Research has shown that ashwagandha may improve body composition and increase strength.
One study's purpose was to determine a safe and effective dosage for Ashwagandha. Healthy men who took 750–1250 mg per day had gained muscle mass and lost fat after 30 days.
In another study, the Ashwagandha group had significantly greater gains in muscle strength and size. It also had more than double the reduction in body fat percentage compared to the placebo group.
Several animal studies have shown that Ashwagandha helps decrease inflammation.
Studies in humans have found that it increases the activity of natural killer cells, which are immune cells that fight infection and help you stay healthy.
It has also been shown to decrease markers of inflammation, such as C-reactive protein (CRP). This marker is linked to an increased risk of heart disease.
In a controlled study, the group who took 250 mg of ashwagandha daily had a 36% average decrease in CRP, compared to a 6% decrease in the placebo group.
In addition to its anti-inflammatory effects, ashwagandha may help improve heart health by reducing cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
Animal studies have found that it significantly decreases these blood fats.
One study in rats found that it lowered total cholesterol by as much as 53% and triglycerides by nearly 45%.
While controlled human studies have reported less dramatic results, there have still been some impressive improvements in these markers.
In a 60-day study of chronically stressed adults, the group taking the highest dosage of ashwagandha experienced a 17% decrease in LDL cholesterol and an 11% decrease in triglycerides, on average.
Test-tube and animal studies suggest that ashwagandha may reduce memory and brain function problems caused by injury or disease.
Researchers have shown that it promotes antioxidant activity that protects nerve cells from harmful free radicals.
In one study, epileptic rats treated with ashwagandha had nearly a complete reversal of spatial memory impairment. This was likely caused by a reduction in oxidative stress.
Although ashwagandha has traditionally been used to boost memory in Ayurvedic practice, at this point there is only a small amount of human research in this area.
In a controlled study, researchers who gave healthy men 500 mg of the herb daily reported significant improvements in their reaction time and task performance, compared to men who received a placebo.
Ashwagandha appears to be a safe supplement for most people.
However, certain individuals should not take it, including pregnant and breastfeeding women.
People with autoimmune diseases should also avoid ashwagandha unless authorized by a doctor.
This includes people with conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Hashimoto's thyroiditis and type 1 diabetes.
Additionally, those on medication for thyroid disease should be careful when taking ashwagandha, as it may potentially increase thyroid hormone levels in some people.
It may also decrease blood sugar and blood pressure levels so medication dosages may need to be adjusted if you take it.
Ashwagandha dosages in studies typically ranged from 125–1,250 mg daily. In studies where different dosages were taken, the higher dosage usually produced the most dramatic improvements.
If you want to supplement with ashwagandha, look for root extract or powder in 450–500 mg capsules and take it once or twice per day.