Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an herb with amazing benefits to your health and well-being.
Ashwagandha may help to reduce anxiety, improve overall sleep, and build stress resilience.
Ashwagandha is categorized as a herbal adaptogen and has been used for centuries in traditional medicines around the world.
In this article, we will look at the benefits of ashwagandha, its safety, and history.
Table of Contents
- Health Benefits of Ashwagandha:
- Ashwagandha Safety:
- Naming & Taxonomy:
- History & Traditional Use:
- Ashwagandha vs. Other Herbs:
Health Benefits of Ashwagandha:
The positive effects of Withania somnifera have been confirmed by over 40 clinical studies to date, with the following major health benefits:
1. May Help To Reduce Stress
Ashwagandha has been shown to be helpful anti-stress herb due to its adaptogenic effects.
A clinical trial looked at the stress-relieving effects of ashwagandha root in stressed healthy adults. The researchers found that ashwagandha reduced perceived stress in the study participants. It also reduced cortisol levels (a physiological marker for stress) and improved sleep quality.
Another clinical trial on adults with chronic stress found that supplementation with 300mg of ashwagandha extract significantly reduced perceived stress and cortisol levels.
A clinical trial looked into the specific effects of ashwagandha on chronically stressed adults and its impact on food cravings. Researchers found that supplementing with ashwagandha reduced perceived stress and food cravings. Additionally, the treatment group had significantly higher levels of happiness, improved eating habits, lower cortisol, and improved body weight.
One other clinical study evaluated the effects of Withania somnifera extract on stress and the quality of life of college students. The researchers noted that ashwagandha supplementation (700mg) was associated with improvements in perceived well-being, which was largely attributed to: reduced stress and improved energy, increased sleep quality, and improved mental clarity.
Summary:Numerous clinical studies show that ashwagandha may help to reduce stress.
2. May Help With Anxiety
Clinical research indicates that ashwagandha root can safely and effectively improve your resistance towards stress and improve your self-assessed quality of life. Because of this, it’s thought to be one of the best herbs for anxiety.
One clinical trial looked into the effects of three doses of ashwagandha (125, 150, and 500mg) on individuals with anxiety. The researchers found that all doses were associated with improvements in anxiety compared to the placebo. Moreover, all doses significantly reduced fatigue, sleeplessness, feelings of impending doom, irritability, and other symptoms compared to the placebo. The researchers noted that there were trends towards greater benefits when taking higher doses of ashwagandha.
Another study showed that Withania somnifera extract helped to reduce depression, anxiety, and stress in individuals with self-reported high stress levels.
A clinical study analyzed the effects of ashwagandha root extract on people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Those who were given ashwagandha root showed significant reductions in anxiety symptoms.
Lastly, researchers found in another clinical study that supplementing with ashwagandha root led to improvements in individuals with various anxiety disorders. That is, individuals who took ashwagandha showed a decrease in measured anxiety levels.
Researchers speculate that ashwagandha’s anxiety-relieving effects may occur by controlling the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis response to stress, which lowers stress hormone output. Additionally, ashwagandha may increase levels of GABA, which is generally known to be a calming neurotransmitter.
Summary:Clinical studies indicate that ashwagandha may decrease anxiety levels.
3. May Improve Sleep Quality
Ashwagandha may have the ability to improve overall quality of sleep and reduce insomnia. In fact, ashwagandha appears to be one of the best herbs for insomnia, especially when taken as an herbal tea for sleep.
In one clinical study, researchers looking into the impact of ashwagandha on sleep found that it significantly improved all sleep parameters in individuals with insomnia and anxiety. Specifically, the subjects who were given ashwagandha experienced better quality of sleep, fell asleep faster, and stayed asleep longer.
Another clinical study compared the effects of giving ashwagandha to individuals with insomnia versus those with normal sleep patterns. The researchers found that ashwagandha improved the quality of sleep in both the insomnia group and the group of healthy sleepers. Moreover, the improvements in sleep parameters were even more significant in those with insomnia.
An additional clinical trial used a relatively small dose (120mg) of Withania somnifera in healthy adults. Yet, this small dose still led to a reduction in non-REM sleep and overall better quality of sleep.
This makes ashwagandha a great supplement to consider for individuals looking to improve the quality of their sleep.
Summary:Clinical research has found that ashwagandha may work to promote deeper sleep and overall sleep quality.
4. May Support Hormonal Health & Sexual Function
Research suggests that ashwagandha benefits hormonal health, especially as an herb for testosterone production. Similar to the herb cistanche, ashwagandha may also benefit sexual function and fertility.
A clinical trial involving overweight males found that ashwagandha root was able to boost testosterone levels by 14.7% over the course of 4 months. The researchers noted that the study participants also had an 18% increase in DHEAS (Dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate). DHEAS plays a key role in producing sex hormones in males and females.
Another clinical study looked into the effects of ashwagandha on the hormonal profile of infertile men. The researchers found that an ashwagandha supplement significantly improved semen quality and increased testosterone and luteinizing hormone. Furthermore, ashwagandha showed antioxidant effects.
A similar clinical trial found that ashwagandha root powder (5g daily) significantly improved semen quality, sperm health, and reproductive hormones in infertile men.
One other clinical trial analyzed the possible effects of ashwagandha on reducing stress-related infertility. It was found that ashwagandha supplementation decreased stress, improved antioxidant capacity, and overall semen quality compared to the controls.
Another clinical study on men with low libido found that ashwagandha supplementation at 600mg/day significantly increased perceived sexual well-being and testosterone levels compared to the placebo.
There was also one clinical trial done on women, showing that ashwagandha possesses benefits for women. The researchers found that women who took 600mg of Withania somnifera extract had significant improvements compared to the placebo, such as for arousal, lubrication, orgasm, and satisfaction.
Summary:Clinical trials indicate that ashwagandha may support hormonal health, fertility, and sexual function. More clinical research is needed to further validate these effects.
5. May Enhance Athletic Performance
Ashwagandha is also a possible ergogenic (performance-enhancing) herb. Research has generally shown positive results for strength, endurance, and muscle gain.
In a clinical trial involving trained men, 500mg of ashwagandha improved total upper and lower-body strength. The researchers also noted that Withania somnifera root helped to build muscle mass and improve recovery in the study participants with minimal side effects.
Another clinical trial involving young men found that ashwagandha intake is associated with significant increases in upper and lower-body strength and improved body composition (i.e. more muscle, less body fat) compared to controls.
In the same study, the researchers found that men who were given ashwagandha had significantly increased testosterone and a significant reduction in muscle damage compared to the placebo.
Another clinical trial on elite cyclists revealed that ashwagandha supplementation (1g daily) led to significant improvements in VO2 max, time to exhaustion, and overall endurance compared to the control group.
Finally, a study on hockey players found that ashwagandha supplementation significantly increased core muscle strength and stability.
Summary:Several studies have found that ashwagandha may help to improve physical performance aspects, such as strength, muscle mass, endurance, and recovery.
6. May Improve Cognitive Function
Ashwagandha may also be a suitable herb for cognitive function and brain health.
One of the most recent clinical trials on ashwagandha supplementation showed that 400mg daily improved short-term memory, attention, and other aspects of cognition compared to the control group.
In one clinical trial on individuals with mild cognitive impairment, subjects given 600mg of ashwagandha extract showed significant increases in memory, attention, processing speed, and other aspects of brain function when compared to the control group.
Another clinical trial on healthy participants found that 500mg of Withania somnifera extract significantly improved aspects of cognition and psychomotor performance, such as choice reaction time and stimulus discrimination.
Lastly, a clinical trial looked into the effects of ashwagandha extract on cognitive functions in stressed adults. The researchers found that ashwagandha supplementation significantly increased memory, recall, and focus compared to the placebo group.
Summary:Clinical trials show that ashwagandha may work to benefit brain health and cognition.
7. May Help Reduce Pain
There is also some evidence of the benefits of ashwagandha for pain reduction, which may have relevance for pain-related conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
One clinical study analyzed the effects of ashwagandha on patients with knee joint pain. The researchers found that ashwagandha significantly reduced pain, arthritis symptoms, stiffness, disability, and knee swelling compared to the control group.
Another clinical trial in healthy subjects found that Withania somnifera supplementation at 1,000mg significantly increased pain threshold and overall pain tolerance compared to the control group.
An additional clinical study found that ashwagandha supplementation was effective for improving pain and arthritis symptoms in rheumatoid arthritis patients.
Summary:Clinical studies indicate that ashwagandha may aid pain reduction.
8. May Improve Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
Two clinical trials show that ashwagandha may benefit individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
In one clinical trial, researchers looked into the effects of ashwagandha supplementation in individuals who had OCD despite taking selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs). They found that ashwagandha led to significant reductions in OCD symptoms compared to the placebo (i.e. those who only took SSRIs and placebo pills).
In another clinical trial, supplementation of Withania somnifera seemed to improve some symptoms of OCD in individuals with the disorder, but the overall results were found to be clinically non-significant.
Summary:Clinical research has found that ashwagandha may benefit symptoms of obesessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
9. May Reduce Schizophrenia
Two clinical trials looked into the effects of ashwagandha on individuals with schizophrenia.
One clinical trial showed that Withania somnifera supplementation at 1,000mg significantly reduced some schizophrenia symptoms in individuals with this mental disorder.
Another clinical study on patients with schizophrenia found that 1,000mg of ashwagandha led to significant reductions in depression and anxiety compared to the placebo.
Summary:Clinical studies indicate that ashwagandha may work to benefit individuals with schizophrenia.
Safety Class: 2b (not to be used during pregnancy)
Interaction Class: A (no clinically relevant reactions are expected)
Ashwagandha root extract has a relatively safe profile and is generally well-tolerated.
Moderate doses of ashwagandha (~300mg daily) do not appear to be associated with any major side effects or adverse reactions.
It is also thought that ashwagandha may enhance or increase the effect of barbiturates and thyroid hormones.
Pregnancy & Lactation:
In ethnobotanical literature, there are references to ashwagandha as both an “abortifacient” as well as a “pregnancy tonic”.
Seeing as it’s difficult to parse the historical usage data, as well as the fact that no studies have been conducted, it appears that seeking the counsel of one’s physician is the ideal course of action.
In Ayurvedic medicine, Withania somnifera was used to promote lactation. As such, moderate doses appear to be safe when taken while lactating.
Tincture (1:5): 2–4 mL (40–80 drops), up to three times per day.
Decoction: Take ½ tsp. dried root in 8 oz. water. Gently simmer for 10 minutes, then steep for ½ hour. Take 4 oz. three times per day. The dried root starts to lose its activity after two years.
Capsules: One 400–500 mg capsule, twice per day.
Naming & Taxonomy:
In India, the name “ashwagandha” is said to refer to the ‘smell and strength of a horse’.
This possibly alludes to its reputed aphrodisiac properties, although it could also relate to the smell of the root.
The scientific name for ashwagandha is Withania somnifera. It’s a member of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family.
It is a low-growing, perennial shrub that may reach 1 to 1.5 m in height. It has ovate hair-like branches with simple, alternate leaves up to 10 cm long. The tiny, greenish-yellow flowers (approximately 1 cm) are produced in short axillary clusters.
The red fruit is smooth, spherical, and encased in a calyx (6 mm in diameter). The root is long and tuberous.
History & Traditional Use:
In Ayurveda, there are many different uses for ashwagandha root.
It was traditionally used as an aphrodisiac and tonic, besides being useful in vata and kapha conditions and for inflammation, psoriasis, bronchitis, asthma, ulcers, insomnia, senile debility, and as a tonic for the elderly.
Not surprisingly, it has been dubbed the ‘Indian Ginseng’.
In India, ashwagandha is described as a ‘medharasayan’, or promoter of learning and memory retrieval.
In Unani medicine, the roots are considered to have tonic, aphrodisiac, and emmenagogue qualities and are used in asthma, inflammation, bronchitis, arthritis, and fertility.
Ashwagandha root is used as a sedative and hypnotic in the Middle East, as well as for rheumatic pains.
•Steroidal compounds, including lactones (withaferin A, sitoindoside IX, X (carbon-27 glycowithanolides)) and acylsteryl glucosides (sitoindosides VII, VIII)
• Alkaloids: tropane-type (tropine, pseudotropine), other alkaloids (including isopelletierine, anaferine).
Ashwagandha is also said to be high in iron, but there is no recent verification of this.
Adaptogen, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antispasmodic, antitumor, diuretic, immune amphoteric, nervine, thyroid stimulant.
Ashwagandha vs. Other Herbs:
Ashwagandha is often compared with many other different types of herbs. We have put together helpful articles going over the most common comparisons.
Ashwagandha has been used for centuries as a natural herb to help with stress, anxiety, and sleep.
It appears to be generally very safe and is considered one of the most popular herbs in Ayurvedic medicine because so many people have found relief from its use.
If you’ve had trouble sleeping lately or feel like your mind is always racing with thoughts that won’t stop bothering you, then perhaps it would be worth considering trying this popular herb.
You can find Withania somnifera supplements at your local health food store or order online.
As always, please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet or before adding a new supplement.