Ashwagandha is that herb you may have heard of but not sure how to pronounce or even spell! Pronounced “Ash-wa-gan-da”, it’s one of the flagship herbs of Ayurveda, the traditional system of medicine from India, and has been used for centuries to reduce stress, increase resilience and resistance to “burn out” and promote a calmer and happier sense of being. A growing body of recent evidence is being collated around this powerful herb that now demonstrates an even wider variety of health benefits. In fact, Ashwagandha is sometimes referred to as the “Prince of Herbs” because it has an impressively broad range of therapeutic effects.
This special herb is packed full of different beneficial phytonutrients including withanolides, which have a similar structure to ginsenosides, the active constituent of Panax ginseng hence another name for Ashwagandha is “Indian ginseng”. Ashwagandha also contains many more diverse bioactive constituents (including iron, choline, short and long chain amino acids, fructo-oligosaccharides, Vitamin A, calcium, flavonoids, glucosides, coumarins and phytosterols) that work synergistically and are believed to be responsible for its multiple therapeutic properties.
In this blog I want to provide you with all you need to know about this clinically relevant herbal product to combat the stresses and strains modern day lifestyles.
What is Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera, also known as Winter Cherry) is a small, woody shrub that grows to around two feet in height. It can be found growing extensively in India, as well as in a few parts of the Mediterranean and Africa. Because of this wide-ranging habitat, there are considerable morphological and nutrient variations in local species. However, the bioactive phytonutrients extracted from the root of both the wild and the cultivated species that are used therapeutically, appear to be the same.
What are the therapeutic benefits of Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha is an “adaptogen” meaning it can adapt to your body’s needs by balancing different systems, such as hormones and immune cells, to create stability in the body. It’s often the herbal adaptogen of choice when it comes to supporting a return to optimal function, especially in the adrenal and thyroid systems, whether those imbalances have been caused by external stresses or from internal changes such as inflammation or hormonal fluctuations.
Let’s take a look at some of the published clinical trials that puts Ashwagandha right at the heart of your health.
Ashwagandha for stress, anxiety and adrenal support
Ashwagandha is seen as a GABA mimetic, effective at reducing symptoms of heightened anxiety, stress and supporting focus, resilience and mental well-being. Over 11 double-blind, placebo-controlled studies have been conducted on Ashwagandha detailing its use in anxiety, depression and stress. In fact, these double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials have shown an average reduction in serum cortisol levels of 27.9% and a lowering of DASS scores for depression and anxiety of 71.6% over 8 weeks after taking a special type of Ashwagandha extract called KSM-66.
Normalising of cortisol levels by Ashwagandha helps support hypo and hyper-function of the adrenal glands; an area so often impacted with the stresses and pressures of everyday life and can lead to many different conditions such as weight gain, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, depression and anxiety. Blood lipids have also shown to be normalised by Ashwagandha in stress-related conditions including reduced levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.
Ashwagandha and thyroid function
Adrenal function is closely linked to thyroid function, therefore as Ashwagandha supports the adrenal glands it also has an indirect effect on improving thyroid function as well.
A recent study investigated the efficacy of Ashwagandha root extract supplementation on thyroid hormone levels in subclinical hypothyroidism patients. This condition is not normally considered for medical intervention, due to thyroid hormone levels still being within the “normal” blood ranges, even though sufferers can experience symptoms of an under functioning thyroid gland such as feeling tired, difficulty in controlling body temperature and often feeling cold, as well as difficulty losing weight. In fact, up to 50% of the population are thought to have an underactive thyroid!
The trial involved administering a daily supplement of 600mg of Ashwagandha root extract for a period of eight weeks. It was found that Ashwagandha significantly improved serum thyroid hormones levels including thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), T3 and T4 levels by 19%, 45% and 21% respectively. These results corroborate research conducted in 2014, where Ashwagandha supplementation increased T4 levels in participants. This means Ashwagandha may be beneficial for normalising thyroid indices in subclinical hypothyroid patients.
Ashwagandha for blood sugar balance
Ashwagandha has been shown to stabilise blood sugar levels, reducing blood sugar when it’s too high or increasing it if too low. This is an example of the herb’s adaptogenic effect. Considering the evidence of the impact on blood sugar levels in diseases such as cardiovascular disease, depression and dementia, this herb can have a profound impact on health.
Ashwagandha for memory and cognition
The KSM-66 type of Ashwagandha root extract has been shown to facilitate choline production in the body, which in turn influences key memory processes and enhance telomerase activity that may be responsible for anti-aging activity. Studies have also shown statistically significant improvements in memory and cognition.
One particular clinical trial demonstrated that after eight weeks, the Ashwagandha treatment group showed significant improvements compared with the placebo group in both immediate and general memory, as evidenced by Wechsler Memory Scale III subtest scores to record memory. This suggests that Ashwagandha may be effective in enhancing both immediate and general memory in people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), as well as improving executive function, attention, and information processing speed.
Ashwagandha combats neurodegeneration and Alzheimer’s disease
Withanamides, active ingredients found in especially high levels in the KSM-66 extract of Ashwagandha, have shown protective effects against B-amyloid-induced plaques in Alzheimer’s disease. Recently, a specific withanone has been identified (WS-2) that, when orally administered, improved cognitive skills by inhibiting beta-amyloid plaque formation, as well as reducing levels of pro-inflammatory mediators and enzymes that are elevated in Alzheimer’s disease. This is thought to be, in part, due to the natural antioxidants found in Ashwagandha that scavenge free radicals to prevent cell damage. Studies also show promising results of Ashwagandha’s neuronal protective and anti-spasm effects against Parkinson’s disease.
Ashwagandha and immune boosting function
Ashwagandha has been shown to improve macrophage function, which in turn increases the body’s immune defenses against pathogens and immune-suppressed diseases so can be useful in inflammatory conditions such as osteo and rheumatoid arthritis and gout.
Ashwagandha and weight management
For some people, chronic stress results in weight gain, in part due to the physiological changes in hormone balance, including insulin and cortisol, as well as impact of psychological health, emotional eating behaviour and reduced exercise. One study in people with high perceived levels of stress, demonstrated that after taking KSM-66 Ashwagandha extract there was reduction in serum cortisol levels compared to placebo group, as well as statistically significant reduction in bodyweight and BMI. Supplementation with KSM-66 Ashwagandha significantly reduced scores for ‘uncontrolled’ and ‘emotional eating behaviour’ compared to placebo group suggesting that Ashwagandha root extract can be used for body weight management.
Ashwagandha and energy, stamina and endurance
Ashwagandha has been shown to significantly impact athletic performance by improving heart and lung capacity while increasing energy levels in just 12 weeks , as well as improving muscle mass, recovery time and strength in training programmes. Not only is this useful for the purposes of exercise, it is also helpful for people who struggle with their energy levels or those with fatigue-related conditions.
Ashwagandha, fertility and libido
Studies have shown the Ashwagandha can help improve male and female libido, likely in part through balancing of thyroid and hormone function , as well as increase sperm count, volume and motility in just 90 days. This herb therefore has potential to as part of a holistic fertility programme.
So, to summarise, here are some of the key benefits of Ashwagandha:
- An adaptogen that helps support for ‘busy’ people
- Increases resilience and resistance to ‘burn out’
- Helps those who find it hard to ‘unwind’ from life
- Supports the central nervous system, receptors and hormones throughout the body optimising cognition, mood, memory, fertility and metabolism
- Suitable for teens and men and women at all life stages
- The KSM-66 Ashwagandha extract has high bioactivity and many clinical studies prove its efficacy in a wide range of health conditions
Of course, just taking one food supplement is not going to solve all health problems associated with conditions such as stress, but in combination with lifestyle and dietary changes, Ashwagandha can prove a powerful tool to getting you back to on A-game for whatever reason you’re taking it.
- Chandrasekhar et al (2012) A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of Ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Ind J Psycol Med 34: 255 Full paper
- Auddy et al (2008) Standardized Withania somnifera extract significantly reduces stress-related parameters in chronically stressed humans, a double-blind, randomized placebo-controlled study. JANA 11:50 Full paper
- Sharma et al (2017) Efficacy and Safety of Ashwagandha Root Extract in Subclinical Hypothyroid Patients: A Double-Blind, Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial. J Alt Comp Med http://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2017.0183
- Thyroid UK prevalence of hypothyroidism
- Gannon et al (2014) Subtle changes in thyroid indices during a placebo-controlled study of an extract of Withania somnifera in persons with bipolar disorder. J Ayu Int Med 5:241–245 Full paper
- Ludwig (2018) Dietary carbohydrates: role of quality and quantity in chronic disease. BMJ 361:k2340 Full paper
- Raguraman, et al (2016) Withania somnifera Root Extract Enhances Telomerase Activity in the Human HeLa Cell Line. Adv Biosci Biotech 7:199 Full paper
- Choudhary et al (2017) Efficacy and Safety of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera (L.) Dunal) Root Extract in Improving Memory and Cognitive Functions. J Dietary Supps 1-14 Full paper
- Joshi et al (2018) Molecular Docking Studies, Bioactivity Score Prediction, Drug Likeness Analysis of GSK-3 ? Inhibitors: A Target Protein Involved in Alzheimer’s Disease. Biosci Biotech Res Asia 15 View abstract
- Pandey et al (2018) Multifunctional neuroprotective effect of Withanone, a compound from Withania somnifera roots in alleviating cognitive dysfunctions. Cytokine 102:211-221 Full paper
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- Choudhary et al (2017) Body Weight Management in Adults Under Chronic Stress Through Treatment With Ashwagandha Root Extract: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial. J Evid Comp Alt Med 22:96-106 Full paper
- Choudhary et al (2015) Efficacy of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera [L.] Dunal) in improving cardiorespiratory endurance in healthy athletic adults. Ayu 36:63 Full paper
- Wankhede et al (2015) Examining the effect of Withania somnifera supplementation on muscle strength and recovery: a randomized controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nut 12:43 Full paper
- Dongre et al (2015) Efficacy and Safety of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) Root Extract in Improving Sexual Function in Women: A Pilot Study. BioMed Res Int Full paper
- Ambiye et al (2013) Clinical evaluation of the spermatogenic activity of the root extract of ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) in oligospermic males: a pilot study. Evidence-Based Comp Alt Med Full paper