Ashwagandha is an Ayurvedic herb from the roots of Withania Somnifera, a plant in the nightshade (Solanaceae) family. It is also commonly known as Indian Ginseng (not to be confused for Panax ginseng), poison gooseberry or the winter cherry. The plant grows as a perennial shrub, growing 14 to 30 inches tall. The leaves are green and elliptic while the flowers are small and bell-shaped. For the fruit, it is orange-red when ripe. (3)
The roots, which are long, brown and tuberous, are the ones used for medicinal properties. In Yemen, dried leaves are ground to a powder then make a paste that is applied directly to burns and wounds. The fruits are also used in different cultures as a substitute for rennet in cheese making. (4)
The name Somnifera is of Latin origin, meaning sleep-inducing. Ashwagandha word is a combination of ashva, meaning horse and gandha meaning smell. The name Ashwagandha in Sanskrit, therefore, implies the odor of a horse, due to the scent that the roots emanate. The name is also a reflection of the belief that consuming the herb gives one the vitality of a horse. (5)
Ashwagandha owes its potency and health benefits to its active ingredients, withanolides (withaferin A, Sitoindoside IX, and X), acyl steryl glycosides and lactones. (6) Also, the Ashwagandha has a significant amount of iron and alkaloids. Withanolides (mainly withaferin A and withanilide D) have been the most widely studied, and they have shown a positive effect on the immune system, nervous system, microbes, glucose metabolism, hormonal balance, and sleep. (7)
With that in mind, let us break down all the benefits.
n Ayurvedic tradition, this ancient herb has been known for its ability to support memory, intellect and even has an effect on neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. In fact, in the Sanskrit language, ashwagandha is in a group of plants that are historically known as Medhya Rasayana- words meaning intellect, cognition, and rejuvenation. (8) Today, modern science has shown that indeed, ashwagandha increases spatial and visual memory.
In a double-blind study (9) published in the Journal of Dietary Supplements, the researchers treated 50 study participants with either 300mg of ashwagandha root extract twice daily or a placebo. After two weeks, the group that had received ashwagandha demonstrated significant improvement in immediate and general memory, executive function, sustained attention, and speed of processing information.
Based on the results of the study, the authors explained that ashwagandha has inhibitory properties on acetylcholinesterase, which is what is mainly responsible for memory and cognitive function. Acetylcholinesterase is an enzyme that catalyzes the breakdown of acetylcholine into choline and acetate. (10) When ashwagandha inhibits this enzyme, it means less of acetylcholine will be broken down, and thus, more of it (acetylcholine) will be in circulation. Science has already proved that acetylcholine plays a vital role in cognitive functions of attention, learning, and memory. (11)
In neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s, ashwagandha slows, stops and even reverses neurological decline. (12) It does this by protecting the nerves against oxidative damage and synaptic loss, which are the key players in these diseases. The fact that ashwagandha reverses or removes negative effects such nerve damage means that taking it significantly lowers the risk of these diseases and age-related cognitive decline.
Studies have shown that ashwagandha can make cells more sensitive and less resistant to insulin. Some of the reviews have even matched the effects of this powerful herb with the impact of standard glucose-lowering drugs and cholesterol. (13) In both type 1 and 2 diabetes, the insulin-producing beta cell in the islets of Langerhans of the pancreas fail progressively. This means that with time, the body cannot create enough insulin. When there isn’t enough of insulin or body tissues are resistant to insulin, blood sugars plummet.
What is heartening about ashwagandha is that it can protect against pancreatic beta cell damage and keep up insulin production. (14) However, it is important to note that this action is mostly on type 2 diabetes and that studies have not been fruitful in type 1.
Since ashwagandha decreases blood sugar levels, taking it together with diabetes medications may cause your blood sugar to go too low- which actually at times is worse than hyperglycemia. If you choose to take ashwagandha to lower your blood glucose, it is prudent to talk to your physician, so that he can adjust your doses accordingly.
Cortisol is a very important hormone that helps the body respond to stress. (15) However, if its levels are too high, they will contribute to undesirable performance, poor mental health and a wide range of physical illnesses. As an athlete, why should you care about cortisol levels and why ashwagandha?
As an active person, with all the intensity and density of training, performing well and other life issues, you put your body under a lot of pressure and stress. At times you may even have an overtraining syndrome (OTS), which may be indicated by chronically elevated cortisol levels. As mentioned, above, cortisol is a powerful hormone, and the body needs it to perform optimally. Its primary role is to mobilize the body’s nutritional resources in stressful situations.
For instance, in short outbursts of a workout, cortisol is good because it elevates blood sugar to improve brain function and prepare your muscles for action. When this action is prolonged, it gives an unwanted effect where muscle tissue is broken down, fat is stored, the brain slows down, and fatigue sets in.
Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, and like all other adaptogens, it helps the body to maintain homeostasis even in times of emotional and physical stress. Actually, of all those other adaptogens, it is ashwagandha that has been extensively studied for this benefit. It helps restore the balance to the body by preventing the negative effects of stress and lowering cortisol levels. (16)
Other than adapting to stress, ashwagandha is also indispensable in dealing with anxiety and depression. Chronic stress if not put in check, often builds up to anxiety and depression. Depression isn’t just a long spell of sadness and isolation. It affects the mental, physical and emotional wellbeing. Globally, millions and millions of people are affected, and a significant number ends up committing suicide.
From a psychological point of view, athletes are prone to experiencing depressive and anxiety symptoms, especially when faced with declining performance or catastrophic performances in competitive races. The bioactive ingredient glycowithanolide acts as a mood stabilizer and has an anxiolytic effect. (17)
Studies have compared the impact of ashwagandha with drugs like diazepam, benzodiazepine, lorazepam and even imipramine. Some of the studies have shown that in low doses, ashwagandha has the same effects as these drugs. The good thing about ashwagandha is that it is natural and has minimal side effects.
When tired and depressed, the body blocks some of the body’s natural coping mechanisms such as sleep. For an athlete, adequate sleep is very critical for performance, reaction time and recovery. If you get restricted sleep for four days, your maximum bench press can drop by 20lbs while incorporating refreshing sleep for even two days, improves your accuracy by 42%. (18)
Ashwagandha unlike other ergogenics like caffeine and Panax ginseng, does not disrupt the sleep cycle. In fact, it is used to treat insomnia. In the morning, ashwagandha boosts energy, and in the night, it calms and helps contribute to a restful sleep. The relaxing effects are due to the ability of ashwagandha to improve stress response, boost immunity and hormonal balance. All these effects contribute to regulating the sleep-wake cycle, thereby restoring the body’s natural mechanisms of regulating sleep.
When it gets to the discussion of the topic around testosterone boosters and especially natural ones, ashwagandha gets praise faster than any other sports products. Goes without saying that gaining muscle mass and strength is the goal of any athlete and testosterone is the anabolic hormone assigned that specific job! For this reason, the testosterone boosting effects of ashwagandha have been widely talked and written about- some valid and others meager exaggeration.
Ashwagandha has been shown to directly affect testicular development and increase spermatogenesis by directly stimulating the seminiferous tubules. (19) Because of its ability to boost testosterone, ashwagandha has also been used in correcting male infertility and sexual dysfunction. (20)
Other than low testosterone levels, another factor that contributes to infertility is oxidative damage. High levels of reactive oxygen species in semen lead to abnormal sperm parameters, leading to sterility. (21) Ashwagandha as an antioxidant inhibits lipid peroxidation of the fat layers of the sperm cell membranes.
More often than not, male infertility is not only about the sperm count. It also has to do with sperm structure, motility, and semen volume. Ashwagandha has been shown to improve all these attributes. Moreover, it also boosts sexual desire and drive. It is thus no wonder the traditional belief that consuming ashwagandha confers the strength and virility of a horse.
Ashwagandha contributes to body composition by increasing muscle mass, reducing body fat and increasing strength. Of course, these effects are a combination of your resistance training and diet, not by solely taking Ashwagandha.
In an 8-week study published in the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition, (22)participants taking 300mg of Ashwagandha twice daily showed the following increases:
Muscle strength on the bench-press- 46.0kgLeg-extension exercises- 14.5kgMuscle size on the arms- 8.6cmChest- 3.3cm
In addition to the gains, the participants also showed a significant reduction in exercise-induced muscle damage and body fat percentage.
These changes were attributed to the improvement of muscle coordination and cardiorespiratory endurance, boosting testosterone levels and promoting recovery of muscles after training.
For the purposes of supplementation, the most preferred form of ashwagandha is the root extract powder. The active biological compounds of are 4 to 5 times higher in the root as compared to leaves and fruit. Therefore, a high-quality extract is derived almost exclusively from the roots, without altering its biochemical spectrum.
The lowest effective dose ranges from 300 to 500mg and actually, it is the range of dosage used in most medical and athletic studies. However, some users have safely used doses of up to 6,000mg a day, in three divided doses (2,000mg). Doses as low as 50 to 100mg are also effective for dealing with anxiety and immunosuppression. (23)
When taken in moderate doses, ashwagandha is exceptionally safe and well-tolerated. Minimal side effects may be experienced including indigestion, abdominal discomfort, and drowsiness. These effects are mild and temporary as they fade away with continued use. Larger doses may worsen the side effects, so it is best to move from the smaller doses as you work your way to a higher strength. (24)
For better absorption, ashwagandha should be taken with meals. It is generally best to take in two or three doses spread in the course of the day, but if a single dose is preferred, it should be taken with breakfast.
The taste of the powder is often described as ‘bittersweet’ and if you are wondering whether there are other alternative ways to take your dose of ashwagandha other than directly as a powder, tincture or capsule, then yes- there are a variety of science-backed ways. It can be made as a tea, in soups, in a smoothie, or as an ingredient in food.
One of the commonest ways to enjoy ashwagandha powder is by infusing milk with the powder or dried root. The infusion includes the use of; one cup of water, one cup of milk, one teaspoon of the powder, cardamom seeds, and clarified butter. Combine all the ingredients then bring them to boil and simmer for some minutes then enjoy. To make ashwagandha tea, boil one heaped tablespoon of the powder in four cups of water for about 15 minutes then serve.
Ashwagandha interacts with other herbs and drugs to make the effects even better. That means that you can stack your aswhagandha with other supplements, to get the best out of it. One such amazing and incredibly powerful synergistic combination is with Rhodiola. (25) Both of them are adaptogens that work on the whole body, but Rhodiola is more energizing while ashwagandha is more relaxing. The result of a combination is calmness, focus and well-controlled energy throughout the day.
What is the story behind this powerful adaptogen? Well, ashwagandha has been in use for many many years. It was first described in the sacred ayurvedic texts, the Charaka and Sushruta Samhitas. It can also be traced back to the teachings of esteemed Hindu sages, who were believed to be the personal physicians of the king. (26)
Traditional use of ashwagandha among the people of India, Africa, and the Middle East include fevers, inflammatory conditions, as an aphrodisiac, insomnia, painful swellings, respiratory ailments, as an antihelminth, and even in coagulation of milk when making cheese. (27)
It has since spread to many parts of the world and today, you will find it in farms outside its native habitat. In modern medicine, it is used as an adaptogen, for brain health, and general body wellness. In addition, ashwagandha is also listed as an active ingredient of licensed natural health products in many countries.
Ashwagandha, botanically known as Withania somnifera is an important medicinal plant that is well documented in Indian medicine.
Almost all the parts of the plant possess medicinal properties, but the root is seen as the most powerful.
Traditionally, it was used for treating fever, prolonging life, promoting fertility, treating inflammatory conditions, and resisting harsh environmental conditionsModern science has proved that ashwagandha improves energy, enhances brain and nervous function, has anxiolytic properties, is an antioxidant, enhances immunity, promotes vigor and vitality, has hypoglycemic effects, improves body composition and aids in hormonal regulation.
The extract can be found in powder form, as capsules, or as a liquid tincture.For athletic supplementation purposes, one may start with a dose of 300 to 500mg.
Some athletes go up to 6000mg a day but in three divided doses of 2000mg.
It can either be taken directly in its pure supplement form, in food, in soups, smoothies, yogurt or a calming teaIt is best taken with meals.
Ashwagandha is mainly combined with Rhodiola for synergistic effectsIt is generally safe and has very minimal side effects which disappear with continued use.