You might have heard the name Ashwagandha in recent years. The nontoxic herb has gained a lot of attention in the U.S. and other parts of the world of late for its supposed ability to reduce stress and anxiety.
Commonly known as “Indian Winter cherry”, “Indian Ginseng”, or by its scientific name Withania somnifera, ashwagandha (pronounced aush-wa-GOND-a) has been one of the staples of Ayurveda for thousands of years. People in ancient India used the herb for reducing stress, enhancing energy, improving male fertility, and boosting concentration.
“Ashwagandha” is Sanskrit for the “smell of the horse” and refers to both the herb’s potential ability to increase strength as well as its unique scent. This herbal shrub is native to India and Southeast Asia but extracts or powder from the plant’s root or leaves are now widely available throughout the world.
Let’s now take a look at the science-backed health benefits of ashwagandha.
1. Reduces stress and anxiety
One of the main things ashwagandha has become famous for is its stress-relieving properties. Over the years, several studies have attempted to find out if this is true. In two separate studies, participants who took ashwagandha extracts for a few weeks reported a significant reduction in their stress and anxiety levels. It must be said here that both the studies were relatively small scale and a more comprehensive analysis is needed to determine whether the herb can be truly effective for reducing stress and anxiety symptoms. Early research, however, does seem to suggest so.
2. Can make you more fit
Research published in An International Quarterly Journal of Research in Ayurveda suggests that ashwagandha can be beneficial for boosting fitness levels. In the study, 50 athletic adults took ashwagandha root extract supplements and researchers found that it helped elevate their VO2 max - a measure of the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilize during exercise. It’s a marker of cardiovascular fitness and an increase in its levels can certainly lead to a better quality of life.
One analysis of research, which included 12 studies in men and women who took ashwagandha doses daily, showed that the herb had the potential to improve physical performance as well as strength and oxygen use during exercise.
Additionally, studies have also shown that ashwagandha can be useful for increasing muscle strength.
3. Lowers blood sugar and fat
Evidence suggests that taking ashwagandha regularly can be useful for people with diabetes as its helpful in lowering blood sugar and fat. A review of 24 studies (including 5 clinical studies in people with diabetes), found that taking ashwagandha helped reduce blood sugar, hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c), insulin, blood lipids, and oxidative stress markers.
Researchers believe that a compound called withaferin A (WA) in ashwagandha has potent antidiabetic activity and can trigger your cells to take in glucose from your bloodstream. More research, however, is needed in this regard.
4. May boost testosterone levels in men
Ashwagandha supplements may help increase testosterone levels in men and can even have some possible benefits for male fertility. A review of 4 studies found that in men with low sperm count, the herb can significantly improve sperm concentration, sperm motility, and semen volume. Another study found that administering ashwagandha to infertile men helped enhance sperm quality considerably by rebalancing reproductive hormone levels.
Related: Got a Low Sperm Count? Here's How to Improve It!
Additionally, a stress-related ashwagandha study found that the powerful herb increased testosterone levels in male but not female participants. That said, researchers still say that more research is needed to confirm the benefits of ashwagandha for male fertility.
5. Can be good for mental health
Limited research suggests that ashwagandha may help reduce symptoms of some mental health conditions, including depression. In a study that observed the effects of ashwagandha in people with schizophrenia, it was discovered that the participants who took ashwagandha extract daily for 3 months experienced a decrease in symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Another study from 2012 found that stressed adults who consumed ashwagandha for 2 months reported an almost 80 percent reduction in symptoms of depression.
6. Sharpens focus and memory
Taking ashwagandha may benefit cognition and improve memory and the ability to perform motor responses after instruction.
Small studies have found that ashwagandha could enhance cognitive functioning in people with schizophrenia and older adults with mild cognitive impairment. One study also showed that the herb has the ability to improve people’s attention spans, as well as their immediate and general memory and information-processing speed.
Also, the compound WA in ashwagandha is believed to have antioxidant effects on the brain. This may benefit a person’s cognitive health.
7. Can improve sleep
We have already established how ashwagandha can help reduce stress and anxiety. It has been found that the herb can benefit sleep quality as well. Researchers confirmed that participants (50 adults of ages 65–80) in a study experienced significantly improved sleep quality and mental alertness upon waking after taking ashwagandha root per day for 3 months compared to placebo treatment.
Another study notes that ashwagandha has a positive effect on overall sleep quality in people with insomnia. The herb is said to have reduced the participants’ anxiety levels and helped them feel more alert after they woke up.
How to take Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is a safe and nontoxic plant. Its supplements are available today in a variety of forms (such as powdered or pills) in health food stores and vitamin shops. Experts say that 500 to 600 milligrams of ashwagandha for at least 60 days can provide the best benefits. However, it’s advisable to start with a lower dose (a 300-milligram dose, ideally) and only take higher amounts under the guidance of a professional. Larger doses may trigger side effects such as vomiting, upper gastrointestinal discomfort, drowsiness, and diarrhea.
Ashwagandha may be unsafe for pregnant women and those with hormone-sensitive prostate cancer. Also, if you’re already taking other medications, you should consult your physician before adding this herb to your health routine.
Lastly, do keep in mind that ashwagandha’s effects won’t be immediate. You may have to keep consuming the herb for several months before you start feeling its benefits on your health. You can mix ashwagandha powder directly into your food or take it in pill form once or twice a day.
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