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11 Ashwagandha Benefits for the Brain, Thyroid & Even Muscles (!)

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Ashwagandha benefits - Dr. Axe

Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb that’s popular in Ayurvedic medicine and has been used for more than 2,500 years. It’s actually the most commonly used and extensively researched adaptogen herb. It’s valued for its thyroid-modulating, neuroprotective, anti-anxiety, antidepressant and anti-inflammatory properties, which are just some of the many ashwagandha benefits.

In India, ashwagandha is known as the “strength of the stallion” because it has traditionally been used to strengthen the immune system after illness. It has also been referred to as “Indian ginseng” because of its ability to enhance your stamina and work as a natural stress reliever.

In fact, it’s ashwagandha’s ability to work as a stress-protective agent that has made it such a popular herb. Like all adaptogenic herbs, ashwagandha helps the body to maintain homeostasis, even in moments of emotional or physical stress. But the many ashwagandha benefits don’t stop there. This powerful herb has shown incredible results for lowering cortisol levels and balancing thyroid hormones. Plus, it’s been used for mood disorders and in the prevention of degenerative diseases.


What Is Ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha is botanically known as Withania somnifera and is a member of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family. Ashwagandha is also commonly called Indian ginseng and winter cherry. The root and leaves of the plant are most commonly used for their medicinal properties, and it’s the presence of withanolides, a group of steroidal lactones, that contribute to the herb’s health benefits.

The literal meaning of the word ashwagandha is “smell of horse” because the fresh roots of the herb are said to smell like a horse and, as the story goes, it’s believed that when you consume ashwagandha, you may develop the strength and vitality of a horse as well. In Latin, the species name somnifera can be translated as “sleep-inducing.” (1)

Ashwagandha is an important herb in Ayurvedic medicine because it serves many purposes and benefits many body systems, including the immune, neurological, endocrine and reproductive systems. The primary goal of Ayurvedic medicine is to help people stay healthy without the need for suffering, prescription drugs or complicated surgeries.

As part of this 5,000-year-old system, ashwagandha is used as a home remedy to relieve a number of health conditions and to help the body remain in balance. According to research published in Alzheimer’s Research and Therapy, “Ayurvedic medicinal plants have been the single most productive source of leads for the development of drugs.” Many of the plants used by Ayurvedic practitioners, like ashwagandha, have proven to be useful in relieving a number of health concerns. (1, 2)

In Ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha is characterized as a “rasayana,” which means that it’s used to promote your physical and mental health, to defend your body against disease and damaging environmental factors, and to slow down the aging process. In India, ashwagandha has been used as a broad-spectrum remedy for centuries, but more recently scientists have proven that is possesses anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that play a major role in the many ashwagandha benefits. (3)


11 Ashwagandha Benefits

1. Improves Underactive Thyroid Function

One of the most incredible aspects of adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha is that they help people thyroid problems.  Ashwagandha has been shown to support a sluggish thyroid for people diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, or underactive thyroid.

For the millions of people who are struggling with thyroid problems, many of whom don’t even know it, ashwagandha may serve as the solution they’ve been waiting for.

A 2017 pilot study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, ashwagandha benefits for helping patients with subclinical hypothyroidism were evaluated. The 50 participants were diagnosed with thyroid disorder, but didn’t display obvious symptoms of thyroid deficiency.

During an 8-week period, the treatment group received 600 milligrams of ashwagandha root extract daily, and the control group received starch as the placebo. Researchers found that ashwagandha improved serum thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) and thyroxine (T4) levels significantly compared to placebo. It was concluded that ashwagandha may be beneficial for normalizing thyroid levels in patients with hypothyroidism. (4)

And a study published in the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine also found that ashwagandha has thyroid-enhancing properties. In the study, patients with bipolar disorder used ashwagandha to improve cognitive function for an 8-week period. Lab testing found that some of these patients experienced T4 increases during the treatment period, although that was not the original purpose of the study. (5)

Research suggests that, since ashwagandha increases thyroid function, it may not be suitable for people with hyperactive thyroid, such as those with Graves’ disease.

2. Relieves Adrenal Fatigue

Research shows that ashwagandha may be useful in supporting adrenal function and helping you to overcome adrenal fatigue. (6) Your adrenals are endocrine glands that are responsible for releasing hormones, specifically cortisol and adrenaline, in response to stress.

If your adrenals are overtaxed due to an overabundance of emotional, physical or mental stress, this can lead to a condition referred to as adrenal fatigue. When your adrenals become exhausted, this can also disrupt other hormones in your body, including progesterone, which can cause infertility and lower levels of DHEA, a hormone that’s tied to longevity and maintaining a strong body.

3. Combats Stress and Anxiety

One of the most well known ashwagandha benefits is its ability to work as a natural remedy for anxiety. In a 2009 study published in PLOS One, ashwagandha was shown to be comparable to common pharmaceutical drugs lorazepam and imipramine, without the side effects.

In the 12-week controlled study, 75 participants with anxiety were divided into two groups, one that received naturopathic care and another that received standardized psychotherapy intervention. The naturopathic care group received dietary counseling, deep breathing relaxation techniques, a standard multi-vitamin and 300 milligrams of ashwagandha twice daily. The psychotherapy intervention group received psychotherapy, deep breathing relaxation techniques and placebo pills twice daily.

When anxiety levels were measured after the 12-week period, the group who received ashwagandha had anxiety scores that decreased by 55 percent and the psychotherapy group’s scores decreased by 30.5 percent. Significant differences between the two groups were also found in mental health, concentration, social functioning, vitality, fatigue and overall quality of life, with the ashwagandha group displaying greater clinical benefits. (7)

In addition to these positive findings, researchers indicated that no serious side effects occurred in either group. A major ashwagandha benefit is that there are no or minimal adverse reactions when taking it, compared to antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications that may cause drowsiness, insomnia, loss of sexual desire and increased appetite, among other side effects.

4. Improves Depression

Not only does ashwagandha benefit people who deal with anxiety and chronic stress, but it can also be helpful for people who experience signs of depression. Ashwagandha improves our resistance towards stress and studies show that it thereby improves people’s self-assessed quality of life. As stress is a known cause of depression, as is hormonal imbalances, ashwagandha can potentially work as a natural remedy for depression. (1)

In a 2000 experimental study involving rats, ashwagandha efficacy was compared to the antidepressant medication imipramine. Researchers found that ashwagandha exhibited antidepressant effects that were comparable to imipramine when rats were exposed to “behavioral despair” and “learned helplessness” tests. It was concluded that ashwagandha can be used as a mood stabilizer in clinical conditions of depression. (3)

5. Balances Blood Sugar Levels

Ashwagandha has been evaluated for its anti-diabetic effects, which are possible because of the presence of phenolic compounds, including flavonoids. Research shows that flavonoids possess hypoglycemic activities and a study involving rodents concluded that both ashwagandha root and leaf extracts helped to achieve normal blood sugar levels in diabetic rats. (8)

An animal study published in Reports of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology found that when ashwagandha was given to fructose-fed rats, it inhibited the fructose-induced increases in glucose, insulin resistance and inflammation. This data suggests that ashwagandha extract may be helpful in improving insulin sensitivity and reducing inflammatory markers in humans. (9)

 

Guide to ashwagandha benefits - Dr. Axe

 

6. Helps to Fight Cancer

Research suggests that ashwagandha has promising anti-tumor effects, can help to reduce tumor growth and may work to prevent cancer cells from growing. The extract has been shown to help inhibit the proliferation of cancer cells — specifically breast, lung, stomach and colon cancer cells, which are among some of the leading types of cancers in the world. It’s believed that ashwagandha helps to prevent the growth of cancer cells mostly due to its immune boosting and antioxidant abilities. (10)

In addition to the anti-cancer ashwagandha benefits that have been displayed in multiple studies, researchers also suggest that the herb can help to reduce the side effects of anti-cancer agents that can reduce immunity and quality of life. According to an overview published in the African Journal of Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicines, ashwagandha acts as an immunomodulator that can enhance the life span of cancer patients, who are especially at risk of lowered immunity. (11)

An animal study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found that supplementing with ashwagandha was correlated with an increase in white blood cells within the body, which indicates that the immune system is better able to protect the body from disease and harmful invaders when using this herb. The decreased count of white blood cells in the body after chemotherapy is a major concern because it puts cancer patients at a much higher risk of health issues like contracting an infection. This is why ashwagandha may serve as a complementary addition to conventional cancer treatments. (12)

7. Reduces Brain Cell Degeneration and Improves Memory

Emotional, physical and chemical stress can all have damaging effects to the brain and nervous system. Recent research has proven that ashwagandha is more than a stress reliever, it also protects the brain from cell degeneration, which can lead to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. One of the main reasons ashwagandha is so effective at healing the brain is because it contains powerful antioxidants that destroy the free radicals that cause aging.

Withaferin A and withanolide D are the two main withanolides in ashwagandha that are used to improve cognitive function. Withanolides are naturally occurring steroids that are commonly present in plants of the nightshade family. When these steroids were injected into rodents to test their cognitive-improving abilities, researchers found that they helped to promote cell outgrowth, reverse behavioral deficits and plaque buildup, and reduce amyloid beta burden, which is crucially involved in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. (13)

A 2017 pilot study published in the Journal of Dietary Supplements found that ashwagandha effectively enhanced both immediate and general memory in people with mild cognitive impairment. The herb was also able to improve attention, information processing speed and mental skills. The study involved 50 adults who received 300 milligrams of ashwagandha root extract or placebo for an 8-week period. Researchers concluded that ashwagandha treatment was able to boost memory and other cognitive skills. (14)

8. Boosts Immune Function

Because ashwagandha works as an adaptogen that can reduce the body’s stress hormones, it can help to boost your immune system and reduce inflammation within the body. Animal and laboratory research shows that ashwagandha can enhance immune function by increasing immunoglobulin production. It is also able to promote an anti-inflammatory environment by suppressing pro-inflammatory cytokines. By downregulating the immune system when it’s compromised, ashwagandha might be a useful tool in the treatment of various inflammatory disorders. (15,16)

9. Increases Stamina and Endurance

Studies have shown that ashwagandha can boost endurance during physical activity by sharpening brain function and reducing bodily pain. Due to its positive calming, yet energizing effects on the brain, and its ability to lower stress hormones, ashwagandha showed improvements in concentration, motivation and stamina in conducted studies.

A 2015 double-blind, randomized and placebo-controlled study conducted in India evaluated the efficacy of ashwagandha extracts in enhancing cardiorespiratory endurance in 50 healthy adult athletes. During a 20-minute shuttle run test, the oxygen consumption of each participant’s peak physical exertion was measured. The participants were also given a questionnaire about their physical health, psychological health, social relationships and environmental factors to access changes in their quality of life after ashwagandha treatment. Researchers found that ashwagandha extracts improved cardiorespiratory endurance at 8 and 12 weeks of treatment, and significantly improved the quality of life scores of the participants in the ashwagandha group. (17)

A study involving rats found that ashwagandha was able to increase swimming performance during a physical endurance test. The rats that received ashwagandha before the test swam for a mean time of 740 minutes, while the control group swam for a mean duration of 385 minutes. Ashwagandha treatment almost doubled the swimming time, which suggests that it benefits rodent endurance. Scientists believe that it’s ashwagandha’s anti-stress properties that help to improve your stamina and similar effects may take place in humans because of the herb’s ability to balance adrenal hormones that are involved in physical activity. (11)

10. Helps to Increase Muscle Strength

Perhaps a surprising ashwagandha benefit is its ability to increase your muscle mass and strength. For this reason, ashwagandha can be a helpful tool for people engaging in resistance training and other forms of exercise that can be strenuous on your muscles.

A 2015 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that ashwagandha supplementation is associated with significant increases in muscle mass and strength. The 8-week study involved 57 males between the ages of 18 and 50 with little experience in resistance training. The men in the treatment group consumed 300 milligrams of ashwagandha root extract twice daily, and the control group consumed starch placebos.

Researchers found that the treatment group had significantly greater increases in muscle strength on the bench-press and leg-extension exercise. Those receiving ashwagandha also displayed significantly greater muscle size increase of the arms and chest, had a significantly greater reduction of exercise-induced muscle damage, had increased testosterone levels and greater decrease in body fat percentage. (18)

Even with increased muscle mass, your joints must be strong to operate at peak performance levels. Ashwagandha can help with that, too! Clinical trials studying general joint pain and joint pain related to rheumatoid arthritis have found extremely positive results, with ashwagandha relieving major pain and causing no documented side effects. (19, 20)

11. Helps to Improve Sexual Function and Fertility

In Ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha has been used as a natural aphrodisiac that can help to improve sexual dysfunction. Ashwagandha is also used to boost testosterone levels and improve male fertility. A pilot study published in BioMed Research International set out to determine the efficacy and safety of 300 milligrams of ashwagandha root extract supplementation twice daily for 8 weeks for improving sexual function in 50 healthy women. Researchers found that the treatment group displayed significantly higher improvements, compared to placebo, in sexual function scores, specifically in areas of arousal, lubrication and orgasm. (21)

Another study was conducted to analyze the spermatogenic activity of ashwagandha in patients with low sperm concentrations and possible male infertility. 46 males participated in the study and received either 675 milligrams of ashwagandha divided into three doses per day for a 90-day period or placebo. At the end of the treatment period, semen parameters and serum hormone levels were estimated. Researchers found that there was a 167 percent increase in sperm count, 53 percent increase in semen volume and 57 percent increase in sperm motility among the treatment participants being treated with ashwagandha. In the placebo group, the improvements were minimal. (22)

And a 2010 study published in Fertility and Sterility found that ashwagandha supplementation was able to improve testosterone levels in 75 men who were undergoing infertility screening. Ashwagandha also reduce oxidative stress and improved levels of diverse antioxidants in the treatment group. (23)


Ashwagandha Nutrition Stats

According to research published in the International Journal of Home Science, 1,000 milligrams of dehydrated ashwagandha root powder contains the following: (24)

  • 2.5 calories
  • .04 grams protein
  • .032 grams fiber
  • .05 grams carbohydrates
  • .03 milligrams iron
  • .02 milligrams calcium
  • .08 micrograms carotene
  • .06 milligrams vitamin C

Ashwagandha contains many beneficial elements, including flavonoids and antioxidants such as catalase, superoxide dismutase and glutathione, which is known as the “mother of all antioxidants.” It also contains alkaloids, amino acids (including tryptophan), neurotransmitters, sterols, tannins, lignans and triterpenes. It is these valuable compounds that allow for ashwagandha’s pharmacological activities. (20)


Ashwagandha Types, Usage & Dosage

Ashwagandha supplements are widely available online and in health food or vitamin stores. The most popular form of ashwagandha is the root extract, but leaf extracts are also available. You can find the extracts in capsule and powder forms.

When purchasing ashwagandha supplements, make sure it’s standardized for human consumption. The withanolide content should range from 1–10 percent, but not all supplements are labeled with this information. Purchasing a high-quality supplement produced with gold-star standards is the best way to guarantee you get a product high in withanolides. The higher the withanolide content, the stronger the effects of the supplement.

When supplementing with ashwagandha, I recommend starting with 300 to 500 milligrams per day, with withanolides in a range of 5–10 percent. Slowly increase your dosage, watching for potential side effects; many supplements recommend between 1,000–1,500 milligrams per day at full dosage. Various sources have claimed the optimal amount to take may be as high as 6,000 milligrams each day. It’s smart to do this under the guidance of your naturopathic practitioner or health care provider. (2)

A study published in the Journal of Ayurvedic and Integrative Medicine found that in the form of extract in capsules, with gradual escalating doses from 750 milligrams per day to 1,250 milligrams per day, ashwagandha was well tolerated, safe on biochemical organ function and hematological tests, and was able to improve quality of sleep, lower cholesterol levels and promote muscle strength. (25)

You may find that ashwagandha doesn’t have the most appealing smell, but if you choose to use it in powder form, you can mix it with other foods or drinks to make it more pleasant. You can try adding ashwagandha powder to my energy balls recipe, adding it to a latte, like my pumpkin spice latte recipe, or even adding it to a smoothie.


Ashwagandha vs. Maca Root vs. Ginseng

Similarities

  • Ashwagandha, maca root and ginseng are all plants that have been used for centuries for their medicinal properties.
  • All three plants contain powerful antioxidants and are known to help improve memory and brain function, boost mood, improve sexual function, regulate blood sugar levels, reduce inflammation and increase energy levels.
  • All three plants are widely available in extract, capsule and powder forms, which are most commonly made from the roots of the plants.

Differences

  • These three plants have a very different taste. Ashwagandha is known for its bitter taste and horse-like smell, which is why it works better in capsule form or as a powder mixed with other foods. Maca root has an earthy, nutty taste and ginseng has a bitter-spicy flavor.
  • Ginseng is commonly used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, maca root traces back to the ancient Peruvians and ashwagandha is a staple in Ayurvedic medicine.
  • The recommended doses of each herb is different. For ginseng, effective doses range from 200 to 900 milligrams daily, the daily dose for maca root is 1 to 3 tablespoons, and for ashwagandha, the daily recommended dose is 1,000 to 1,500 milligrams per day.

Ashwagandha Side Effects & Precautions 

Ashwagandha is made up of steroidal lactones or withanolides, including withanolide A, withaferin A and withanone. These structures are unique to ashwagandha and have different medicinal effects. Some parts of the plant contain more of these compounds than others, so when you are choosing an ashwagandha extract, you should pay attention to where it comes from. Leaf extracts usually contain higher levels of withaferin A than root extracts.

When taken in appropriate doses, ashwagandha has been regarded as safe for human consumption. Some possible side effects of ashwagandha include upset stomach, vomiting and diarrhea. If you notice any of these side effects, stop taking the herb right away.

Ashwagandha should never be used by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, as there is some evidence it may induce miscarriages and there is no available safety information about breastfeeding while on ashwagandha.

People using diabetes medications, blood pressure medications, medications that suppress the immune system, sedatives or medications for thyroid problems should not use ashwagandha unless they’ve consulted with their doctor first. Those with hyperthyroidism may notice an additional increase of thyroid function when taking ashwagandha and should only do so under the controlled supervision of a doctor, if at all. Because the herb also works to modify these conditions, there may be adverse interactions.

It is possible that ashwagandha could increase symptoms of autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

If you are going to have surgery that requires anesthesia, you should stop taking ashwagandha at least two weeks beforehand in case the herb further slows down your central nervous system. (26)


Final Thoughts

  • Ashwagandha, which is botanically known as Withania somnifera, is an important herb in Ayurvedic medicine because it serves many purposes and benefits many body systems, including the immune, neurological, endocrine and reproductive systems.
  • Ashwagandha supplements are widely available online and in health food or vitamin stores. The most popular form of ashwagandha is the root extract, but leaf extracts are also available. These extracts can be found in capsule and powder forms.
  • When supplementing with ashwagandha, I recommend starting with 300 to 500 milligrams per day, with withanolides in a range of 5-10 percent, then increasing your dosage to between 1,000 and 1,500 milligrams per day.
  • This is one of the most commonly used adaptogens because of the many ashwagandha benefits. The top and most well-researched benefits include:
    • Improves thyroid function
    • Relieves adrenal fatigue
    • Combats stress and anxiety
    • Improves depression
    • Balances blood sugar levels
    • Helps to fight cancer
    • Reduces brain cell degeneration and improves memory
    • Boosts immune function
    • Increases stamina and endurance
    • Helps to increase muscle strength
    • Helps to improve sexual function and fertility

Read Next: 7 Adaptogenic Herbs that Reduce Stress


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