Science 

Ashwagandha Benefits Everyone: Your Guide to This Amazing Adaptogen

July 07, 2018 15 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 health and wellness (and there are a lot of us).

According to a study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, an estimated 40.6 million American adults used herbs and supplements in 2012. This is a huge market, and not surprisingly, there has been an upsurge in manufacturing activity to help meet that need.

At the moment, consumers have literally thousands of different herbal supplements to choose from. We believe ashwagandha's benefits set this particular herb apart from the crowd.

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

What is Ashwagandha?

Spotting ashwagandha in the wild is no easy feat. It grows as a plump shrub, with yellow flowers and oval leaves. Those leaves ripen into bright-red berries that are about the size of a raspberry. 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."

Ashwagandha has been used in traditional medicine 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 gave credit to the herb. Now, modern science is catching up to this ancient practice. We're learning just how beneficial this herb can be.

Infographic answering the question: What is ashwagandha?

Stress and Your Body

Ashwagandha has many benefits but is most commonly known for its ability to help people recover from the dangerous health issues sparked by stress. That makes this herb a perfect companion for modern life.

The American Psychological Association conducted their annual "Stress in America" poll in 2017 and found that people with stress blamed the feeling on:

  • Work
  • Finances
  • Healthcare
  • The economy
  • Trust in government
  • Hate crimes
  • Crime
  • Wars with other countries
  • Terrorist attacks

This is a very long list, and it contains many elements that average people simply have no control over. Regular Americans don't have the power to reverse the course of the economy overnight, and they may not be able to improve trust in the government with the stroke of a pen. These are thorny issues that can take a long time to resolve. In the meantime, however, they put a great deal of stress on the individuals they touch. 

This is the kind of stress researchers label as "chronic," since it isn't sparked by something we can change or control and it tends to persist for months or even years.

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 times of stress, supplements can help support the body's internal healing processes. That supplement boost can help the body to do vital restorative work, which helps soften the heavy burden of stress. 

This is what ashwagandha supplements are designed to do.

Ashwagandha and Stress: What the Research Says

Researchers have performed several studies to determine whether or not ashwagandha actually works, or if people just think it works. The best of these studies are performed in a "double-blind" manner.

In a double-blind study, people who participate are split into two groups. One group gets the therapy that's under study, and the other group does not. Neither the people who participate nor the people administering the study know who is in which group. Only at the end of the study is that information revealed. This provides researchers with greater certainty that the differences between groups are due to the intervention in question, not an assumption or a placebo.

In one such study, published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine,researchers worked with a group of 64 people who had a history of chronic stress. This group of 64 was then split 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 when compared to people who got the placebo. Also, people who took the supplement had lower cortisol levels than those in the placebo group.

This is an important study because it objectively demonstrates effectiveness. Test scores were lower, and serum results were lower. Both indicate the power of ashwagandha, as that was the only intervention provided in this study.

In a second study published in the journal PLoS One, researchers worked with 75 people who had severe anxiety lasting longer than six weeks. One group received nutrition counseling, relaxation training, and supplements with ashwagandha. The other received the same interventions, except for the ashwagandha.1 These people got a sugar pill instead.

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

This is yet another study that demonstrates quite clearly that the supplement has the power to help people reduce their stress levels, so they can enjoy life more fully.

Infographic explaining the health benefits of ashwagandha

Ashwagandha for Athletes

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 someone can pull in and utilize is known as the VO2 level. Studies suggest that ashwagandha can improve VO2 levels in athletes.

In a study published in the International 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 a supplement.

Another study published in the International Journal of Ayurveda Research showed that giving ashwagandha to athletes improved their VO2 scores, and it allowed 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 the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition,researchers gave ashwagandha to 28 subjects, while 29 subjects got a placebo drug. Those who took the supplement saw larger increases in muscle mass, and their muscles were also able to recover more quickly after exercise.

While this study was performed with athletes, the findings apply to almost anyone. People looking for an edge to help them perform a little better in a sport might appreciate ashwagandha 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. Ashwagandha helps to reduce LDL cholesterol levels.

In a study in the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, researchers gave healthy participants a scaling dose of ashwagandha over 30 days and found a significant reduction in LDL cholesterol by the end. This study is important, in that it was done with people who 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 techniques can take its benefits even further.

Ashwagandha and Cancer

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

Ashwagandha has proven useful in helping people to fight:

  • Brain tumors
  • Breast cancer
  • Cervical cancer
  • Colon cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Skin cancer
  • Stomach cancers

In some cases, the herb helps to reduce the size of the cancerous tumor. 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 journal Integrative Cancer Therapies, researchers found that the supplement helped to reduce fatigue and improve well-being in people undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. That relief could keep these people in treatment longer, which could keep their cancer from coming back.

Ashwagandha and Fertility in Men

Fertility issues can plague couples trying to conceive. If those issues stem from the male in the couple, ashwagandha could provide a form of relief.

Sperm cells are nourished with fluid as they make the move from one body to another. If that nourishment is degraded, the sperm cells can die before they have completed their journey. In a study published in Reproductive BioMedicine Online,researchers found that ashwagandha helped to improve overall semen quality, which helped to keep vital cells alive.

Ashwagandha and Thyroid Health

The tiny thyroid gland plays a big role in overall health. The hormones produced in the thyroid impact almost every organ in the human 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 the Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, researchers found that ashwagandha supplements could help to increase thyroid production, which could be a boon for people dealing with low hormone levels on a regular basis.

Studies like this suggest, however, that people who already have elevated levels of thyroid hormone production should avoid ashwagandha supplements. Taking the pills could worsen existing hormonal issues.

Ashwagandha and Memory

Chronic stress can impede memory formation. People who feel under pressure every single day may struggle to lay down new memories. This is due in part to the symptoms of stress they feel, along with the lack of concentration that comes with chronic stress.

Illustration of brain held between a person's open hands

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

Dr. Dale Bredesen, a recognized leader in the field of neurodegenerative diseases, recommends ashwagandha supplementation as part of his reCODE program to assist with cognitive decline (5). 

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

Ashwagandha and Height

Researchers quoted in Scientific Americansuggest that 20 percent to 40 percent of an adult's height can be attributed to environmental factors, including the foods we eat. For those who want to optimize environmental factors to grow as tall as possible, ashwagandha is tempting. By popping a pill, they think they can get taller.

Unfortunately, ashwagandha and height aren't closely related. Taking supplements that contain ashwagandha will not make you taller. But the supplements could help to strengthen your bones. 

In studiesperformed with mice—all of which had genetic alterations that made them similar to women’s physiology during menopause—ashwagandha helped to increase bone mass. That made the bones stronger and thus, more resistant to breaking.

Preserving bone strength often translates into preserving height. After all, bones that are strong have fewer air pockets, and they're less likely to collapse and shrink. That means ashwagandha could help to preserve the height you do have, but it cannot make you taller than you are now.

How Does Ashwagandha Work?

The studies above should help you understand ashwagandha's range of benefits including stress reduction and a reduced risk of anxiety. But you may still be wondering just how this little herb has the power to do all of that work.

In Ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha is considered 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 wide variety of effects, all of which add up to a smaller amount of stress.

According to a study published in the journal Cureus, 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. 

How to Take Ashwagandha

Supplements containing ashwagandha are ingestible, so they must move through the stomach to carry out their stress-relieving impacts. Since these supplements are taken orally, it's vital to take them at the right time.

Experts writing 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 power isn'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 butters and creams but again, this could reduce the potency of the plant.

The best way to ensure you’re getting the proper dose without suffering through an unpleasant taste is to take the supplement in pill form. That allows virtually no taste 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. Opioid painkillers, for example, deliver relief just minutes after they're taken. Some people who take opioids even claim that they can feel the moment the drugs latch onto their receptors.

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 supplements have been created and optimized by professionals, but they’re meant to be tonics that support the natural healing processes of the body. 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 people under stress. During that time, the person must take the supplement each day, with no exceptions. That is the best way to determine whether or not this therapy is right for that individual. 

Supplemental Ways to Reduce Stress

Since ashwagandha is designed to support the body's natural processes, rather than alter its chemistry entirely, it's vital for people under stress to look closely at their lives and their habits. There could be stress-promoting things they’re doing right now that could benefit from a shift. Each change could make the benefits of supplementing with ashwagandha stronger.

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. Those thoughts can start out small, such as:

  • “I might be late to work.”
  • “I forgot to kiss my child goodnight.”
  • “I can't remember if I turned off the teapot.”
  • “I wonder when this bridge was last repaired.”

To those living free of anxiety, these may seem like harmless thoughts. For people with anxiety, however, they're triggers for stress. A worry about lateness to work becomes a worry about losing a job. Fear about a forgotten kiss becomes fear of forgotten love. Teapots become burned-down houses. Bridges become fears of accidents.

Mindful meditation, as Harvard Medical School explains, 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 the technique for an hour or so at a time. The ability to stay present in the moment, without the distraction of damaging thoughts, becomes stronger 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 good alternative. The movements help to distract people from the tough mind-work happening within.

The Mayo Clinic reports that there are many videos and at-home classes that 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, unless the company is selling an organic version or meets other certain criteria. While a company that sells vaccines and prescription medication must demonstrate that the production facility is clean, that the medicine they are selling meets a specific potency, and that it 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 vital to work with a company that has 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?

(We may be a bit biased here)

There are a variety of factors to consider when picking an ashwagandhasupplement. 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 and has been third-party tested for quality. That means we know just how much is in each dose, and we know how potent each dose really is. In addition to its high-potency dose, this supplement is formulated with black pepper extract to enhance bioavailability and nutrient absorption.

Taking it a step further, Physician’s Choice KSM-66 supplement 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 percent veggie capsule with organic, non-GMO, sustainably-sourced ashwagandha using no fillers, preservatives, or artificial ingredients.

Finally, our products are manufactured 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 NSF-certified facilities. The NSF certification goes above and beyond what most manufacturers do and requires strict manufacturing and product examinations, comprehensive material inspections, and reports along with spontaneous lab and factory inspections.

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 herb with a small snack may be helpful.

  • Can I take Ashwagandha while pregnant?

Medlinesuggests that ashwagandha is not safe during pregnancy, as it has been 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 a variety of different systems at the same time 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 really 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 tend to work on the human body in much the same way. But these are very different substances that aren't related in a botanical sense.