The Wonder Herb: What is Ashwagandha?

Published December 9th, 2021 by Chris Riley
Fact Checked by
Jacqueline Hensler

What is ashwagandha | Active Ingredients | Benefits | Scientifically Proven? | Side effects | Typical dose | Where can I buy

Ashwagandha, also called Withania somnifera, Indian ginseng, poison gooseberry, or winter cherry, is a type of medicinal plant that has been used for centuries in Indian Ayurvedic medicine, the traditional medicine system from India. Ashwagandha is native to the dry regions of India, but ashwagandha can also be found growing in other parts of the world including the Middle East and Africa. When dried, the ashwagandha root is crushed into a powder they have an earthy scent that some people describe as being similar to green tea or turmeric. The ashwagandha herb is often consumed as a powder or in capsule form and it is believed to have many benefits. In this article, we'll answer all of your ashwagandha questions.

What is ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha is a plant that has been used in traditional Indian medicine for centuries. It's also an herb that many people are turning to as a natural way to reduce stress, anxiety, and improve overall health. Ashwagandha is derived from the ashwagandha plant which means "smell of horse." The name ashwagandha comes from this because ashwagandha was has a very strong smell similar to a horse. The plant is a perennial and the part of the plant that is used for traditional medicine is the root, similar to American ginseng or Panax ginseng, also known as Chinese ginseng.

What are the active ingredients in ashwagandha?

The active ingredients in ashwagandha are believed to be a group of compounds called withanolides which contain alkaloids, glycosides, and steroidal lactones. These compounds are thought to have a number of health benefits, including reducing stress and anxiety, fighting inflammation, and boosting the immune system.

What are the benefits of ashwagandha?

Due to ashwagandha's anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, ashwagandha is thought to provide a number of benefits for the body and improve your quality of life. This includes reducing chronic stress and anxiety as well as boosting energy levels overall. Some of the benefits of the ashwagandha plant are listed below:

  • Reduces stress and anxiety disorders - It has been shown in studies with rats and controlled studies with humans to reduce stress which may also help with insomnia. Ashwagandha has been shown to reduce cortisol levels in stressed individuals too with one clinical study showing a 69% reduction in anxiety and insomnia on average.
  • Boosts immune system and is anti-inflammatory - There are studies that have shown it to have a positive effect on immune function and also has been found to be anti-inflammatory.
  • Improves cognitive health - It can help with memory, mental processing ability, and other cognitive functions which might be helpful for mild forms of impairment in older adults and help normal brain function.
  • May help with infertility - Traditionally ashwagandha has been used as a fertility enhancer in infertile males and is thought to increase sperm quality and testosterone levels.
  • Can increase energy levels - Ashwagandha is often taken to increase energy levels and has been found to be helpful in cases of chronic fatigue syndrome and to help with physical performance.
  • Lowers blood sugar levels - It has been found to help regulate blood sugar levels in people with diabetes; it is thought that it does this by increasing insulin secretion.
  • May fight cancer - It is thought ashwagandha may have anticancer properties such as promoting reactive oxygen species (ROS) which inhibits the function of cancer cells among other anticancer activity.
  • Helps with depression - Some studies have shown it to have antidepressant effects although more studies need to be carried out to prove it.
  • Helps increase muscle mass - It is thought to help increase muscle mass and has been shown to help with sarcopenia, which is the decline in muscle function.
  • Lowers cholesterol - Ashwagandha has been found to reduce bad cholesterol levels which decreases your chances of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke and helps with overall heart health.

Are these benefits scientifically proven?

It is important to note that at this time ashwagandha is an alternative medicine. While ashwagandha has been shown to have a number of benefits it is important to remember that the vast majority of studies are animal studies, usually administration in mice, or in test tubes and not with humans. There have only been small-scale human studies and clinical trials that provide some evidence for ashwagandha having these effects but more research and needs to be done in order to prove ashwagandha's benefits and for the study of safety.

Are there any side effects to taking ashwagandha?

There are not many reported side effects to ashwagandha. The most common adverse effects are stomach upset, diarrhea, and vomiting. It is also possible that ashwagandha could interfere with medications for conditions such as diabetes, anxiety, and depression so please consult with a doctor or healthcare provider before taking ashwagandha if you are on any medications. Women who are pregnant, are planning to become pregnant, or are breastfeeding should also not take ashwagandha due to the lack of information. There is not enough scientific evidence to know if it is safe to topically apply ashwagandha to the skin so it is not recommended. Scientists do not know the long-term effects of taking ashwagandha so it is only recommended for use up to a few months.

What is the typical dose of ashwagandha and how do I take it?

The typical dose of ashwagandha is 300-500 mg per day taken either once or twice daily. Traditionally, ashwagandha was taken in the form of grounded-up root powder; however, today there are several options available and it can be taken as a capsule, powder, or a tincture of ashwagandha root extract. You can also find ashwagandha in some supplements. It is important to titrate, which means to start with a lower dose and increase gradually if needed. Consult with a healthcare provider before starting ashwagandha to get the correct dosage and understand if ashwagandha is safe for you.

Where can I buy ashwagandha?

You can buy ashwagandha in most health food stores or online. Online, ashwagandha is available as ashwagandha powder and ashwagandha capsules; please read the label carefully to ensure you are buying pure ashwagandha products. When buying ashwagandha extract as a tincture, it is best to get a high-concentration full-spectrum extract. If your goal is weight loss, then it will be important to buy ashwagandha supplements that have been specifically marketed for this purpose. Be sure to consult with a doctor or healthcare provider before starting any ashwagandha supplement, especially if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking medications.

Summary

Ashwagandha is a medicinal herb that can be found in health food stores and online. It comes in several forms including root powder, capsules, supplements, or tinctures. While most healthy adults use it for its calming effects on the mind and body there are some claims that ashwagandha can help with depression, muscle mass increase, and lowering cholesterol levels as well as several other benefits. The most common side effects are stomach upset, diarrhea, or vomiting so it is important to start out slow when taking ashwagandha supplements. Pregnant women, women who may become pregnant, or are breastfeeding should not take ashwagandha due to a lack of research done on the product. Ashwagandha is typically taken in doses of 300-500 mg taken once or twice per day. It is important to consult with your doctor or healthcare provider before starting ashwagandha, especially if taking other medications or if you have another health condition.

References and Sources:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19504465

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26989739

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24147038

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22700086

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19789214

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23439798

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16713218

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3757622/

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