Science 

Ashwagandha Benefits Everyone: Your Guide to This Amazing Adaptogen

July 17, 2018 11 min read

Image of fibers forming a human face taking a deep breath

If you asked herbalists, nutritionists, or health-food fanatics to tell you about an herb every American should take, you'd likely get an earful about the benefits of ashwagandha. This herb has become a go-to remedy for people who use supplements to enhance their health and wellness (and there are a lot of us).

In this guide to ashwagandha, we'll outline what health benefits this versatile herb boasts, where it originated, and how to use it according to your needs. 

What is ashwagandha?

Spotting ashwagandha in the wild is no easy feat. It grows as a plump shrub with yellow flowers and oval leaves that ripen into bright-red berries. It looks like any other plant you might see growing in the wild.

Ashwagandha, also known as Withania somnifera, is in the nightshade family, making it a distant cousin of the tomato. But unlike tomatoes, this isn't a plant that grows everywhere. It thrives in mild climates, and while it can grow in the United States, it's more common in Africa and the Middle East.

Most ashwagandha supplements are distilled from the root of the plant, and it's this root that gives the plant its name. The scent of the root, when pulled and sniffed, is likened to the scent of a horse. This explains the name ashwagandha, which, when translated, means "smell of horse."

Traditional medicine has recognized the healing properties of ashwagandha for centuries. It's been baked, chewed, crushed, applied as a poultice, and dabbed on as a tincture. For many people who used it, the proof of its power was in the results. If they felt better, they credited the herb.

Now, modern science is catching up to this ancient practice, and we're learning just how beneficial this herb can be.

Infographic answering the question: What is ashwagandha?

What are the benefits of ashwagandha?

In Ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha isconsidered an adaptogen. Supplements in this class have the ability to help people move through times of stress. They're a bit like catchall supplements with a cascade of positive effects, all of which add up to reduced stress.

According to a study published in the journalCureus, adaptogens exert these stress-relieving benefits by promoting homeostasis within the body. In other words, they help the body adapt to stress by keeping its internal processes in check. When the stressors of life attempt to throw you off balance, ashwagandha’s adaptogenic properties can help keep you grounded. 

The benefits of ashwagandha extend far beyond stress, so let’s dive into what the research has to say about this wonder-herb. 

Ashwagandha and stress

With its adaptogenic properties, ashwagandha is renowned for its ability to help people recover from the dangers of stress. That makes the herb a perfect companion for modern life.

When we’re stressed, cortisol levels rise in our bodies, interfering with our immune systems and sparking inflammation. That can leave us feeling sick and vulnerable, and it can impede our ability to communicate, connect, and heal.

While lifestyle changes can help us support ourselves during stressful times, supplements can help support the body's internal healing processes. That supplement boost can help the body do vital restorative work, softening the heavy burden of stress. 

That’s where ashwagandha comes in.

Researchers have performed several studies to determine whether or not ashwagandha actually works, or if people just think it works. In one such study, published in theIndian Journal of Psychological Medicine,researchers worked with a group of 64 people who had a history of chronic stress. Researchers then split this group in half. One half got a capsule of ashwagandha, and the other half got a placebo pill.

At the end of the 60-day study, researchers found that those who got the supplement had lower scores on stress-assessment scales compared to people who got the placebo. Also, people who took the supplement had lower cortisol levels than those in the placebo group.

In a second study published in the journalPLoS One, researchers studied 75 people who had severe anxiety lasting longer than six weeks. One group received nutrition counseling, relaxation training, and ashwagandha supplementation. The other received the same interventions, except for the ashwagandha.

By the end of the eight-week study, researchers reported that those who took ashwagandha had significantly reduced anxiety scores. They also experienced improvements in mental health, concentration, and overall quality of life.

These studies demonstrate the power of this herb to help peoplereduce their stress levels, providing them the space to enjoy life more fully.

Infographic explaining the health benefits of ashwagandha

Ashwagandha and athletic performance

Athletes looking to boost performance may appreciate ashwagandha’s capacity to enhance oxygen utilization.

During intense bouts of exercise, the body pulls in excess oxygen and passes it along to the muscles. The amount of oxygen one can pull in and utilize is known as theVO2 level. Studies suggest that ashwagandha can improve VO2 levels in athletes.

In a study published in theInternational Journal of Ayurveda Research,researchers gave the herb to healthy athletes, while others got a placebo. They measured VO2 levels at the end of the study and found significant increases in those who took the supplement.

Another study published in theInternational Journal of Ayurveda Research showed that giving ashwagandha to athletes improved their VO2 scores, allowing runners to move more quickly without increasing the workload of their hearts.

Utilizing oxygen more efficiently is one way to achieve great things in sports, but muscle mass can also play a role. Ashwagandha can also help with this.

In a study published in theJournal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition,researchers gave ashwagandha to 28 subjects, while 29 subjects received a placebo drug. Those who took the supplement saw larger increases in muscle mass, with quicker recovery times after exercise.

While these studies were performed with athletes, the findings apply to almost anyone. People looking for an edge in sports or at the gym might appreciate ashwagandha’s support.

Ashwagandha and cholesterol

There are two main types of cholesterol in the human body. HDL cholesterol is considered helpful, as it helps to clear arteries. LDL cholesterol, on the other hand, is harmful, as it clogs arteries. According to research, ashwagandha helps to reduce LDL cholesterol levels.

In a study in theJournal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, researchers gave healthy participants a scaling dose of ashwagandha over 30 days. By the end, they found a significant reduction in LDL cholesterol. This study is interesting in that its participants had no cholesterol problems to begin with. That seems to suggest the supplement could work for almost anyone.

Supporting this regimen with healthy foods, plenty of exercise, and stress reduction practices can take its benefits even further.

Ashwagandha and cancer

TheNational Cancer Institute estimates that 442.4 per 100,000 men and women will develop cancer. Each year, researchers develop new ways to help detect cancer, and they work hard to treat it when it arises. Research suggests that ashwagandha can help in that fight.

While no evidence supports ashwagandha as a cure for cancer by any means, in some cases, the herb helps to reduce the size of the cancerous tumor in patients. In others, the herb seems to reduce inflammation around the tumor.

Ashwagandha has also proven helpful in treatment programs for people undergoing conventional cancer treatment. For example, in a study in the journalIntegrative Cancer Therapies, researchers found that the supplement helped reduce fatigue and improve well-being in people undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. That relief could help people endure treatment longer, preventing their cancer from coming back.

Ashwagandha and fertility in men

Fertility issues can plague couples dreaming of conceiving. If those issues stem from the male in the couple, ashwagandha could provide some relief.

Sperm cells are nourished with fluid as they move from one body to another. If that nourishment degrades, the sperm cells can die before they’ve completed their journey. In a study published inReproductive BioMedicine Online,researchers found that ashwagandha helped improve overall semen quality, keeping vital cells alive.

Ashwagandha and thyroid health

The tiny thyroid gland plays a sizable role in overall health, with its hormones impacting almost every organ in the body. When hormone levels are too high, a life-threatening rapid heartbeat can develop. When hormone levels are too low, fatigue, constipation, and dry skin can set in.

In a study in theJournal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, researchers found that ashwagandha supplements could help increase thyroid production, which could be a boon for people dealing with chronically low hormone levels.

However, studies like this suggest that people who already have elevated thyroid hormone levels should avoid ashwagandha supplements. Taking the pills could worsen existing hormonal issues, so consult with your doctor before proceeding. 

Ashwagandha and memory

Chronic stress can impede memory formation—those under consistent pressure may struggle to lay down new memories. This is partly due to the symptoms of stress and the lack of concentration that often accompanies it.

Illustration of brain held between a person's open hands

Since ashwagandha has theclinically proven (1,2,3) ability to help reduce symptoms and chemical markers of stress, it can have an immediate benefit on memory. The herb may also help protect brain cells against Alzheimer's disease, which can have a devastating impact on memory (4).

In an animal study in theJournal of Ethnopharmacology, researchers found that ashwagandha can help to prevent cell death when mouse brains are exposed to toxins that mimic the damage caused by Alzheimer's.

Putting this into practice, Dr. Dale Bredesen, a leader in neurodegenerative diseases, recommends ashwagandha supplementation as part of his reCODE program to assist with cognitive decline (5). 

How to take ashwagandha

Supplements containing ashwagandha must move through the stomach to yield their stress-relieving benefits. Since these supplements are taken orally, it's essential to take them at the right time.

Experts in Better Nutrition Magazine point out that the fiber in food can impair the uptake of botanical supplements like ashwagandha. That's why taking them between meals is wise. It allows for the full power of the plant to shine through, without the muting effect of a meal.

While side effects are rare, people who feel queasy after taking ashwagandha on an empty stomach can pair the pill with a small snack. The key is to keep that snack very light, so its effects aren’t blunted.

It's also important to note that ashwagandha in powdered form comes with an extremely bitter taste. People suggest masking the taste with butter and cream, but again, this could reduce the plant’s potency.

The best way to ensure you’re getting the proper dose without suffering from an unpleasant taste is to take the supplement in pill form. That allows virtually no flavor to come through and eliminates the need to take the pill with food.

How long does ashwagandha take to work?

People who take modern medications are accustomed to immediate results. Modern drugs work so quickly because they’ve been engineered to do so. Chemists know just the receptors to target, and they tinker with the chemical formulas until they achieve the desired effects. 

Supplements like ashwagandha are different. These have been created and optimized by professionals, but they’re tonics that support the body’s natural healing processes. They're helpers, not invaders. That means their action is very gentle, and sometimes, it means people must keep taking the supplements for quite some time before changes are felt.

It’s not uncommon for herbalists to recommend a six- or eight-week trial of ashwagandha for those under stress. During that time, they’ll expect you to take the supplement daily, with no exceptions. That is the best way to determine whether or not this therapy is right for that person. 

Supplemental ways to reduce stress

Since ashwagandha supports the body's natural processes, it's critical that people under stress closely examine their lives and habits. There could be stress-promoting things they’re doing right now that could benefit from a shift. Each change could boost the healing benefits of supplementing with ashwagandha.

Mindful meditation is one proven technique to help people deal with stress caused by anxiety. For people struggling with anxiety, inner thoughts often spark feelings of worry and despair. As Harvard Medical School explains, mindfulness meditation involves acknowledging a thought when it arises and then brushing it aside before anxiety creeps in.

People who use this technique may learn it in a therapy setting, and they may practice for an hour or so at a time. The ability to stay present in the moment, without the distraction of damaging thoughts, strengthens with each practice. In time, people can whisk away those negative thoughts and their accompanying stress.

Yoga also involves meditation, but deep thinking in yoga is combined with deep breathing and practiced movement. For people who can't bear the idea of sitting still with a thought, yoga can be a fruitful alternative. The movements help to distract people from the tough mind-work happening within.

The Mayo Clinic reports that many videos and at-home classes offer the ability to learn yoga privately. If you’re finding the poses are too complicated, it may be best to take formal yoga classes. These also provide a sense of community, which can help to lower stress levels.

Woman on the beach free of stress

Ready to try ashwagandha?

One of the most important choices you can make when it comes to supplements doesn't involve the specific herb you try. The choice has to do with your retailer.

Most supplements like ashwagandha are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. While a company that sells vaccines and prescription medication must demonstrate that the production facility is clean, meets a specific potency, and contains only an agreed-upon set of ingredients, supplement manufacturers face no such rules.

That means, unfortunately, some supplements simply don't come with the ingredients that they claim to. And others come with ingredients that consumers don't even know are included.

It's crucial to buy from a company with a reputation for quality, transparency, and thoughtful sourcing practices. When buying ashwagandha, even from large e-commerce retailers like Amazon and Walmart, you need to make sure the product is safe and includes what the manufacturer claims.

Which ashwagandha is the best?

There are a variety of factors to consider when picking an ashwagandha supplement. Here’s what we recommended you look for:

  • Is the product made with 100% Certified Organic Ashwagandha?
  • Is the product made in a cGMP and NSF certified facility?

Physician's Choice Ashwagandha offers 1950mg of organic ashwagandha root powder per serving. It’s been third-party tested for purity and potency, so we know just how much is in each dose, and we know how potent each dose is. In addition to its high-potency dose, this supplement is formulated with black pepper extract to enhance bioavailability and nutrient absorption.

Another option, Physician’s Choice KSM-66 contains the most clinically-studied ashwagandha extract on the market. Also combined with black pepper extract for optimal absorption, KSM-66 delivers powerful benefits for stress and mood support, cognitive function, and muscle health. 

All of our products offer a completely transparent ingredient list, so you know exactly what’s in each capsule. Our ashwagandha supplements are packaged in a 100% veggie capsule with organic, non-GMO, sustainably-sourced ashwagandha using no fillers, preservatives, or artificial ingredients.

Finally, we manufacture our products in a cGMP, UL, and Organic-certified facility. Physician's Choice ashwagandha is not only made to meet the FDA's good manufacturing practice guidelines and standards (GMP certified), but we also use rigorously monitored NSF-certified facilities. 

FAQs

  • How should I take Ashwagandha?

Supplements like Ashwagandha work best when taken on an empty stomach. That allows the full power of the herb to hit the system at once, without interference from food or drinks. If any discomfort occurs, taking the supplement with a small snack may be helpful.

  • Can I take Ashwagandha while pregnant?

Medline suggests that ashwagandha is not safe during pregnancy, as it is associated with miscarriage. Women who are pregnant or who are trying to get pregnant should avoid this herb.

  • How does it work?

Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, meaning it works on various systems to bring about stress-reducing properties in the body. Few studies have been performed on how the herb works at a cellular level, so it’s unclear exactly how the herb does the work that it does.

  • Who shouldn't take ashwagandha?

Women who are pregnant should not take ashwagandha. Women who are breastfeeding should also avoid the herb, as it can move from the mother's body to the baby's. Once pregnancy and breastfeeding are complete, women can start taking the supplement again.

Those with elevated thyroid levels should also avoid ashwagandha supplements, as they can further increase hormone levels. Finally, people with autoimmune conditions should check in with their doctor before trying ashwagandha supplements.

  • Are there any side effects? 

According to Consumer Lab, ashwagandha supplements are typically well-tolerated. Mild to moderate side effects may occur, including headaches, sleepiness, or stomach upset. More research is required to understand its long-term effects. 

  • How long should I take ashwagandha?

Some people take this supplement every day for years, while others take it intermittently when they need a boost. How long you take the medication is dependent on your goals.

  • What’s the best time to take ashwagandha?

Ashwagandha can be taken at any point throughout the day, ideally on an empty stomach. With its relaxing properties, you may benefit from taking yours before winding down for bed. A benefit of supplementation in the morning is the increased absorption from taking it before you’ve had anything to eat. 

  • Is ashwagandha the same as ginseng?

Ashwagandha is often called "Indian ginseng," in that the two substances look the same and exert similar benefits in the body. But these are very different substances that aren't related in a botanical sense.