Ashwagandha: An Ayurvedic Herb With Unexpected Benefits
Vitamins & Supplements

Ashwagandha: An Ayurvedic Herb With Unexpected Benefits

While primarily known to help the body adapt to stress and anxiety, ashwagandha may also protect the brain, increase endurance, and improve sexual function.
March 16, 2024
March 16, 2024
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Ashwagandha is a top-selling, stress-reducing herbal remedy from Ayurveda, the traditional Indian system of medicine. In Ayurveda, it’s been considered a “rejuvenator” for millennia. “Ashwa” in Sanskrit means “horse,” and “gandha” means “smell,” and it’s believed to impart the power of a horse to those who use it.

Consumer demand for ashwagandha increased by 1,100 percent from 2018 to 2021, making it one of the most popular supplements in the United States.

As its popularity has increased, so has the scientific research into its potential health benefits. There were 159 research papers published in 2021 alone about ashwagandha’s effect on stress, anxiety, neuroprotection, sports performance, and sexual function.

Certified Ayurvedic practitioner Veena Hassl-Blilie told The Epoch Times that ashwagandha has gained mainstream popularity over the past few years for several reasons.

“First, people are experiencing high levels of chronic stress and unrelenting pressures on many fronts, and second, they are seeking alternatives to pharmaceuticals.” She also noted that the Ayurvedic herbal market is booming and is projected to reach $21.6 billion by 2028.

“Ashwagandha is now a household word,” Ms. Hassl-Blilie said. Terms like “adaptogenic” and “Ayurveda” were once obscure but have now become familiar to many supplement consumers because of the popularity of ashwagandha.

(Azay photography/Shutterstock)
(Azay photography/Shutterstock)

Research and Proven Benefits

Ashwagandha comes in many forms, including powder, pills, capsules, and tinctures, and has traditionally been prescribed in Ayurveda to fight fatigue, improve metabolism, and serve as an aphrodisiac. Scientific studies continue to show evidence that ashwagandha may have benefits ranging from mood and stress improvements to better sleep, neuroprotection, athletic performance, and sexual health in both men and women.

Reduces Stress and Anxiety, Improves Sleep

Marketed as an adaptogen, ashwagandha is probably best known for its stress- and anxiety-relieving benefits. Adaptogens are compounds found in various plants and mushrooms that can help the body adapt to stress, anxiety, fatigue, and general well-being.
A 2019 study published in Cureus found that adults who took ashwagandha for eight weeks experienced a significant decrease in perceived stress levels compared to the placebo group. Additionally, the treatment group had a substantial drop in blood cortisol, a hormone produced when a person is stressed.
A 2021 systematic review analyzed the effects of ashwagandha on stress and anxiety in close to 500 Indian adults and found that the group who took the herb for six to eight weeks saw a reduction in anxiety, stress, and cortisol. The treatment group also reported less fatigue and better sleep than those not taking ashwagandha.

Ashwagandha’s botanical name, Withania somnifera, means “sleep-inducing,” and it’s been recommended for centuries in Ayurveda for sound sleep.

A 2021 clinical evaluation of the impact of ashwagandha on sleep, published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, showed significant improvement in sleep quality and managing insomnia with ashwagandha root extract, irrespective of health condition or age.

Protects the Brain 

Ashwagandha consists of several phytoconstituents, active compounds within a plant to protect it from infection and infestation. These phytoconstituents have been found to have pharmacological effects on brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s diseases.
A 2022 study in Frontiers in Pharmacology investigating ashwagandha as a future potential pharmacological candidate found that ashwagandha may control disease progression and promote DNA and cellular repair while protecting normal cells from destruction.
The study also found the herb could reverse amyloid-induced toxicity and increase neuroprotective proteins in Alzheimer’s disease. In people with Parkinson’s disease, it reduced oxidative stress and increased dopamine levels. It also reduced neuronal damage and oxidative stress in people with Huntington’s disease. The study’s researchers concluded that ashwagandha’s neuroprotective properties are due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.

Improves Muscle Strength and Endurance

A 2015 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition analyzed ashwagandha’s effect on strength and recovery. The eight-week double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 57 men aged 18 to 50 gave subjects in the treatment group 300 milligrams of ashwagandha root extract twice daily.

After eight weeks, the treatment group had significantly greater muscle strength on the bench-press and leg-extension exercises and increased muscle size in the arms and chest. The treatment subjects also experienced less exercise-induced muscle damage than the placebo group, a significant increase in testosterone level, and a higher reduction in body fat percentage.

A 2021 randomized, controlled trial published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology evaluated the safety and efficacy of ashwagandha in enhancing cardiorespiratory endurance in athletes. The ashwagandha group received 300 mg twice daily for eight weeks.
The study findings suggested that ashwagandha root extract can enhance cardiorespiratory endurance in healthy athletic adults. It was also shown to reduce fatigue and improve recovery, energy, and fitness.

Supports Sexual Health

The American Journal of Men’s Health published a 2019 study examining ashwagandha’s hormonal and vitality effects in aging and overweight men. Overweight men, 40 to 70 years old, experiencing mild fatigue, were given a placebo or an ashwagandha extract for eight weeks.

Fifty enrolled participants completed the first eight-week trial period, and 43 completed all 16 weeks. Although improvements in sexual and psychological well-being, fatigue, and vigor showed no difference between the groups, those taking ashwagandha had an 18 percent increase in the sex hormone dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEA sulfate) and a 15 percent increase in testosterone.

Studies demonstrate women’s sexual health may also benefit from ashwagandha.

A 2022 study published in Cureus examined the effects of ashwagandha root in improving sexual function in healthy females. The study enrolled 80 women; half were supplemented with 300 milligrams of ashwagandha twice daily for eight weeks, and the other half took a placebo. The treatment group demonstrated a significant improvement in sexual function and satisfaction while also reducing sexual distress compared to the placebo group.

Despite mounting scientific evidence citing ashwagandha’s benefits, Ms. Hassl-Blilie stresses the importance of using an Ayurvedic approach to using the herb.

“Ashwagandha can support those who are stressed or fatigued, but it is not the correct herb for everyone, though it’s commonly marketed as a one-size-fits-all solution,” she said.

Ayurvedic Approach

Ayurvedic medicine dates back thousands of years and has continued to evolve into a holistic system of medicine that not only addresses physical illness but also promotes the harmonious balance between mind, body, and spirit by combining a unique blend of natural remedies, dietary guidelines, and lifestyle practices to restore balance and vitality.

Understanding Ayurveda and how and why herbs are used is vital when starting a supplement like ashwagandha, according to Ms. Hassl-Blilie.

“Ayurveda is all about balance. When we achieve optimal balance in the body, mind, and spirit, we are healthy and free to pursue our fullest spiritual lives,” she said. “Practitioners use food as medicine, gentle herbs, and Ayurveda lifestyle practices like meditation, pranayama (breathwork), yoga-asana (poses), and much more from the 5,000-year-long history.”

The herb acts on specific tissues such as blood, muscle, fat, bone, nerve, and reproductive tissues and within the reproductive, nervous, and respiratory systems. It can potentially help with specific symptoms, but it can also aggravate others if it’s not the right herb for someone.

Ayurveda practitioners thoroughly assess their patients for signs and symptoms of imbalance and choose herbs to treat them accordingly.

The Ayurvedic framework looks at the world and the human body in terms of five elements. They are air, space, fire, water, and earth. These elements combine to form doshas, the foundational energies.

“As we move through life, the doshas become imbalanced, and we feel it in terms of signs, symptoms, disorders, and disease,” she said. “Ayurveda can restore balance to the doshas by treating the person at the root cause of the imbalances, versus treating or masking symptoms.”

When ashwagandha isn’t the correct herb, an imbalance can manifest differently for each person.

“Some may feel too much sexual energy, and others may feel anxious, hot, or irritable. This is why the whole person and Ayurveda’s holistic approach are important, instead of taking ashwagandha simply because you’re tired and stressed. One needs to understand the herb in-depth,” Ms. Hassl-Blilie said.

“If it is the correct herb for the individual, it helps calm the mind, improves energy, increases vitality, and promotes restorative sleep. It also supports a healthy libido and reproductive system.”

Precautions and Side Effects

According to the Merck Manual, ashwagandha has a few potential side effects, including diarrhea, headache, sedation, nausea, and possible liver problems. It can also increase testosterone levels.

Ashwagandha shouldn’t be used during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.

It can increase thyroid hormone levels, decrease blood glucose, lower blood pressure, and may interfere with immunosuppressants and sedatives. It’s important to consult your doctor before taking ashwagandha if you have any contraindications.

The Bottom Line

As an adaptogen, ashwagandha may enhance the body’s ability to better manage stress and balance cortisol levels. Numerous scientific studies show a range of additional potential health benefits, including protection from debilitating neurological diseases, increased muscle strength and endurance, sexual well-being, and sleep improvement.

Although many people experience the benefits of ashwagandha, Ayurveda recommends a thorough assessment by an Ayurvedic practitioner to be sure it’s the right herb for them.

While considered safe for most people, pregnant or breastfeeding women shouldn’t use ashwagandha. It’s best to consult a health care professional if you take medications or have health conditions.