Health Benefits of Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is a medicinal herb that is commonly taken for general health and increased vitality. It is also used for other - more specific - conditions. Ashwagandha can be taken for brain health, anxiety and depression, glucose disorders (including diabetes), fertility issues, and more.

What is Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is a medicinal herb from the nightshade family.

The word ashwagandha comes from the sanskrit language. It is a combination of words ashva (meaning horse) and gandha (meaning smell). The phrase comes from the strong smell of ashwagandha root, which is described as horse-like. It also refers to the traditional belief that after ingesting ashwagandha you develop the strength and stamina of horse.

Ashwagandha is also known as:

  • Withania Somnifera
  • Winter Cherry
  • Smell of Horse
  • Indian Ginseng
  • Dunal
  • Solanaceae

Ashwagandha is commonly used for relieving stress and tiredness, improving brain health, modulating hormones, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and skin diseases. Ashwagandha is also part of formulations for improving immunity and general health.

Health Benefits of Ashwagandha

In the past decades, ashwagandha has been under intense scientific scrutiny. Medical research has proven that this herb offers the following health benefits:

Improves immunity and general health

Traditionally, ashwagandha has been used in tonics for increased vitality and better general health. In part, this may be attributed to the specific way ashwagandha affects the functioning of the immune system.

Studies have shown that ashwagandha directly increases the number of white blood cells, hemoglobin concentration, and red blood cell count within the body. This means that supplementation with ashwagandha leads to more energy and makes the immune system better equipped to fight disease.

Supports the action of adrenal glands and alleviates the effects of stress

Whenever you are under stress, your body goes through the so-called stress response. The adrenal glands release hormones (cortisol and adrenaline), which help you be more alert and quickly react to the situation you are facing.

However, when you are faced with prolonged or severe stress, this results in huge demand on your adrenals. Eventually, adrenal glands may become depleted, which can lead to a severe condition – adrenal fatigue.

Studies have proven that ashwagandha is able to regulate the levels of cortisol and naturally balance hormones – helping you better control the way stress affects your body.

Helps with anxiety and depression

Ashwagandha is helpful for treating the symptoms of mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression. It shows tranquilizing effect on the brain – probably acting through GABA receptors.

Studies have shown that the calming effects of ashwagandha can be comparable with the action of common anxiolytic drugs, such as lorazepam. Other studies have proven that ashwagandha acts as well as anti-depressant drugs, like imipramine - without the negative side effects that medications often cause.

Another reason why ashwagandha is helpful with anxiety is its effect on cortisol. By decreasing circulating cortisol levels, ashwagandha helps you physically and emotionally better handle anxious thoughts and stressors.

Ashwagandha also shows antispasmodic effect, which means that it calms down smooth muscle contractions (tremors and twitching caused by anxiety) and produces relaxation.

Has anti-cancer properties

Researchers have discovered that ashwagandha exerts a powerful anti-cancer action. It may be useful for cancer prevention as well as cancer treatment. Ashwagandha is able to inhibit angiogenesis (a process in which tumors develop new blood supply) and the growth of the tumor.  

In vitro studies have proven that ahswagandha induces cell death in the cell lines of colon, breast, lung and central nervous system cancers.

Studies also indicate that ashwagandha may enhance the effects of radiation on tumor shrinkage as well as prevent cancer cells from becoming resistant to chemotherapy. For that reason, ashwagandha may be helpful as an adjuvant to the conventional cancer therapy.

Offers protection for the nervous system and brain

Ashwagandha protects neurons (brain cells) from degeneration.

The brain and nervous system are more susceptible to damage from free radicals than the rest of the body. The reason for this lies in the fact that they are both high in iron and lipids that produce reactive oxygen species.

The damage caused by free radicals contributes to brain aging and many degenerative diseases of the brain. Ashwagandha helps brain health in large part due to its antioxidant activity.

Another reason why ashwagandhda benefits brain and nervous system is its anti-inflammatory action. It is able to cross the blood brain barrier and lower the inflammation in the brain.

Dozens of studies show that ashwagandha can help slow down or stop the neuritic atrophy (shrinkage) and synaptic loss in brain diseases, such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington's. It can also help with recovery after strokes and other diseases that cause other neuronal deficits.

Ashwagandha improves thyroid function

Ashwagandha has a balancing effect on the thyroid hormones. Due to its adaptogenic nature, ashwagandha can help both people with sluggish thyroid (hypothyroidism and Hashimoto's) as well as those suffering from overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism and Graves disease).

Improves cholesterol and lowers triglycerides

In clinical studies, ashwagandha has been noted to improve lipid profile – it significantly decreases the level of bad (LDL) cholesterol and slightly increases the level of good (HDL) cholesterol.

Besides lowering bad cholesterol, ashwagandha also lowers triglycerides. There is one important difference, though. Ashwagandha's effect on cholesterol can be observed in both healthy persons as well as persons with pre-existing metabolic disorders. On the other hand, ahwagandha decreases triglycerides only in people who are already suffering from metabolic syndrome.

Ashwagandha acts anti-inflammatory

Ashwagandha helps to lower inflammation throughout the body. That is why it may be useful for diseases that are driven by inflammation, such as rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, Crohn's disease, psoriasis, etc.

Offers pain relief and has anti-arthritic effects

Ashwagandha soothes the nervous system from pain response. That is why it may be used as an analgetic (medication that stops pain).

It also has a powerful anti-arthritic effect, so it can be very helpful for arthritis sufferers. In studies, ashwagandha has severely reduced the pain and loss of limb mobility due to arthritis.

Improves libido, sexual performance and fertility

Ashwagandha acts as a sexual stimulant. It also increases seminal parameters in men with lowered fertility – probably due to its antioxidant activity.

Sperm changes include increase in volume, concentration, motility, and cell count. In studies, ashwagandha has also been shown to help normalize (reduce) follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) in infertile men.

Regulates blood sugar

It helps with blood sugar control, improves insulin sensitivity, and contributes to better management of type 2 diabetes. In animal models, ashwagandha has been show to lower blood glucose levels with potency, comparable to common anti-diabetic drugs.

Through reducing blood glucose, ashwagandha has a normalizing effect on other related parameters – such as blood triglycerides, luteinizing hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone (both of these hormones play an important role in the reproductive cycle).

Improves physical performance and stamina

Ashwagandha has been proven to enhance physical performance. It can help you sharpen brain function, improve motivation and mental focus.  One interesting study in rodents showed that rats given an ashwagandhja supplement were able to swim twice the time as rats, which weren't given any supplements.

How does Ashwagandha Work

You will often hear that ashwagandha is called an adaptogenic herb. But what exactly does that mean?

Ashwagandha is an Adaptogenic Herb

Adaptogenic herbs have a unique ability to adapt their function in response to your body’s specific needs.

In a way, adaptogens work similarly to thermostat. Thermostat reacts to room temperature. If it senses that the temperature is too high, it brings it down; and if the temperature is too low, the thermostat turns the heat on. Likewise, adaptogens have a normalizing effect on body imbalances.

How does ashwagandha as an adaptogen work? The main active ingredients in ashwagandha serve as hormone precursors in the body.

When your levels of certain hormone are too low, the body is able to convert these substances into human physiological hormones.

Alternatively, you might have an excess of certain hormone. In this case, the ashwagandha hormone precursors block the absorption of this hormone by occupying the so-called hormone receptor sites – and thus effectively diminish the effect of this hormone on your body.

That is why you might take an adaptogen – such as ashwagandha – for two very different conditions. You might take it when you have, for example, too much or too little of thyroid hormone. Either way, ashwagandha will help you normalize the thyroid function.

Ashwagandha as an adaptogen also helps you manage cortisol levels and more effectively respond to stress.

The biologically active ingredients in ashwagandha are alkaloids (such as isopelletierine, anaferine, cuseohygrine, and anahygrine), saponins, and steroidal lactones (withanolides, withaferins).

The main calming (anti-stress) ingredients are sitoindosides, withaferins and acylsterylglucosides. Many active agents in ashwagandha support immunomodulatory function.

How is Ashwagandha Used in Ayurveda

Ashwagandha is considered one of the most important herbs in Ayurvedic medicine – a traditional Hindu healing system, originating in the old Vedic culture of India.

The use of ashwagandha in Ayurvedic medicine can be traced back to the 4000 years old sacred vedic texts.

Ayurvedic texts describe the many uses of ashwagandha. Traditionally, the herb has been extensively used in:

  • Strengthening tonics for both adults and chidlren
  • Extracts for enhancing the reproductive function for both men as well as women
  • Preparations for many diseases caused by inflammation
  • Pastes for skin conditions
  • Arthritis medications
  • Mild purgatives for chronic constipation
  • Major anti-aging tonics

Most Ayurvedic ashwagandha medications are in the form of Rasayana tonic (commonly prepared as alcoholic extract) or powdered root (ashwagandha churna).

The powder can be mixed with ghee (refined butter) or combined with honey, sugar or oil. Ashwagandha is also used for preparing mild medicated wines or milk decoctions.

Taking Ashwagandha – Things You Should Know

Most supplements are typically made of powdered ashwagandha root. Another popular ashwagandha preparation is tonic, which is basically an alcoholic extract.

The typical dosage falls between 100 mgs and 2000 mgs per day. Most commonly recommended dosage is around 500 mgs per day; however, the individual amount of ashwagandha mainly depends on your reason for taking it.

Ashwagandha has no proven toxicity at these dosages, so it is considered safe for general use.

Ashwagandha in large doses can trigger miscarriage. If you are pregnant, you should stay away from ashwagandha supplements altogether!

Next: How to make sure you choose the right ashwagandha supplement >>>

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Sources and References: 
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  3. Ashwagandha Benefits Thyroid and Adrenals.
  4. Withania Somnifera.
  5. Scientific Basis for the Therapeutic Use of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha): A Review. Lakshmi-Chandra Mishra, MD (Ayur), PhD, Betsy B. Singh, PhD, Simon Dagenais, BA
  6. Adaptogenic herbs: natures solution to stress.
  7. Adaptogens: Nature's Miracle Anti_stress and Fatigue Fighters.
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  9. Chopra: What is Ashwagandha.
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  1. An Overview on Ashwagandha: A Rasayana (Rejuvenator) of Ayurveda. Narendra Singh, Mohit Bhalla, Prashanti de Jager, and Marilena Gilca. African Journal of Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicines. 2011 Jul.
  2. Combinations of Ashwagandha Leaf Extracts Protect Brain-Derived Cells against Oxidative Stress and Induce Differentiation
  3. Navjot Shah, Rumani Singh, Upasana Sarangi, Nishant Saxena, Anupama Chaudhary, Gurcharan Kaur, Sunil C. Kaul,and Renu Wadhwa1. PLoS, 2015, March.
  4. An Alternative Treatment for Anxiety: A Systematic Review of Human Trial Results Reported for the Ayurvedic Herb Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera). Morgan A. Pratte, Kaushal B. Nanavati, MD, Virginia Young, MLS, and Christopher P. Morley, PhD. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine. 2014 Dec.
  5. Effects of eight-week supplementation of Ashwagandha on cardiorespiratory endurance in elite Indian cyclists. Shweta Shenoy, Udesh Chaskar, Jaspal S. Sandhu, and Madan Mohan Paadhi. Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine. 2012 Oct - Dec.
  6. Immune enhancing effects of WB365, a novel combination of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) and Maitake (Grifola frondosa) extracts. Vaclav Vetvicka and Jana Vetvickova. North American Journal of Medical Sciences. 2011 Jul.    
  7. Neuronutrient impact of Ayurvedic Rasayana therapy in brain aging. Ram Harsh Singh, K. Narsimhamurthy, Girish Singh. Biogerontology. Dec 2008.

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