Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine to treat people of all ages. Ashwagandha is considered a Rasayana, which means that it restores health, lengthens lifespan and rejuvenates the body.
The steroidal lactones (withanolides) obtained from the roots of this plant have been implicated in a wide range of therapeutic activities, especially in maintaining general health and mental wellbeing. Numerous studies have shown that this plant has anti-inflammatory, immunomodulating, antioxidant, anticancer, anxiolytic, antidepressant, neuroprotective, cardioprotective and many other powerful metabolic effects.
This guide will explore the healing potential of this important and revered medicinal herb.
What is ashwagandha?
Withania somnifera (WS) – also known as ashwagandha, Indian ginseng, and winter cherry – is a medicinal plant in the Solanaceae family. The name “ashwagandha” is derived from Sanskrit and refers to the root. The root smells (“gandha” = odour) like a horse (“ashwa”), which is why it’s called ashwagandha (on consuming it, one gains the power of a horse) (1).
It ranks as one of the essential medicinal plants in Ayurvedic medicine to help a person live longer and stronger. In Ayurveda it’s used to promote longevity and vitality, improved memory, strength, endurance, overall health, healthy sexual functioning and more.
In the West, it is considered an adaptogen for its ability to help the body deal with stress and its health complications.
This plant has an abundance of phytochemicals that have been identified as having medicinal benefits. The root alone has more than 35 chemical constituents that have been identified.
What makes ashwagandha an adaptogen?
Nicolai Lazarev created the concept of plant adaptogens. In essence, adaptogens strengthen the body and help it to cope with challenging or stressful circumstances, internal or external. They also help restore and maintain homeostasis or balance, an essential concept for overall health and well-being. And importantly they do not harm to the body.
Because ashwagandha helps the body to reduce stress and to normalize bodily functions, it has been classified and accepted as an adaptogen.
The compounds found in ashwagandha
Ashwagandha contains a large number of phytochemicals including alkaloids, steroidal lactones (such as withanolides and withaferins) and saponins. The steroidal lactones found in the root have a wide range of therapeutic activities.
Additionally, ashwagandha is high in iron.
What are its therapeutic actions?
There have been over 200 studies on ashwagandha’s benefits. These studies have confirmed that these health benefits include:
Improved body stress response
Stress affects our ability to think clearly, to sleep well and to feel happy. Stress also impacts our physiology, which sets the body up for many chronic health issues.
There’s been a great deal of research around ashwagandha’s ability to reduce stress. Studies have shown physiological, cognitive and psychological improvements after taking ashwagandha supplementation.
Adaptogens exert their stress-protective effects in two ways. They regulate homeostasis via several mechanisms of action associated with the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis. They also control key mediators of the stress response, such as heat shock proteins (Hsp70), stress-activated c-Jun N-terminal protein kinase (JNK-1), cortisol, and nitric oxide (NO). (2)
It has been shown that serum cortisol levels decline after taking ashwagandha. When stressed or anxious, the body goes into the “fight or flight” response and cortisol is released into the bloodstream. A decline in cortisol levels shows that the body is returning to a more balanced state. (3)
In one study, subjects were given one ashwagandha slow-release capsule once daily for 90 days. There were improvements in memory and focus, psychological well-being, sleep quality, and stress levels. And, importantly, ashwagandha was found to be safe and well-tolerated. (4)
Furthermore, studies have shown that ashwagandha may be useful in the prevention and treatment of many stress-induced diseases. This includes premature ageing, diabetes, arthritis, hypertension, arteriosclerosis and even gastric ulcers.
Improved thyroid function
An underactive thyroid does not create or release enough thyroid hormone. When this happens, the body’s metabolism slows down. People may feel tired, gain weight, have dry skin or become unable to tolerate cold temperatures.
Ashwagandha has been shown to improve thyroid function by helping thyroid hormones function better.
Sleep quality and quantity is vital for good health. Research has demonstrated that ashwagandha helps to improve both the quality of sleep and the time it takes to fall asleep (sleep onset latency) in patients with insomnia at a dose of 300mg extract twice daily. (5)
Anxiety can interfere with one’s ability to function normally (physically, mentally and emotionally). For some, it can be overwhelming.
Research has shown that ashwagandha works as a natural remedy for anxiety due to its GABA-like activity. GABA (Gamma Amino-butyric Acid) produces a calming effect in the brain and is known to help to reduce anxiety.
Many people experience cognitive decline as they age. Ashwagandha has been used in Ayurvedic medicine to enhance memory and improve cognition. A study published in 2017 (6) demonstrated that the herb also improved attention, information processing speed and mental skills. The study involved 50 adults who received 300 milligrams of ashwagandha root extract twice a day for an eight-week period. Researchers concluded that ashwagandha treatment was able to boost memory and other cognitive skills.
Other studies have shown that ashwagandha may help to delay, prevent, interrupt or perhaps even reverse certain nerve cell damage found in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s at earlier and middle stages of the disease. (7)
Increased stamina and endurance
In our fast-paced lives, it’s natural to feel drained and exhausted. Ashwagandha has been used in Ayurvedic medicine to help build stamina, increase strength and increase our overall ability to exercise and to work. (8)
Ashwagandha has powerful antioxidant properties. Withaferin, which is a compound in ashwagandha, has been shown to help promote the formation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) inside cancer cells, thereby disrupting their function and inducing apoptosis. (9)
We all need a strong immune system in order to maintain our long-term health against viruses, bacteria and allergens.
A recent study (10) showed that supplementation with ashwagandha extract improved the immune profile of healthy subjects by modulating the innate and adaptive immune systems.
Inflammation underlies many health conditions; keeping it under control is essential to good health.
Ashwagandha has been shown to promote an anti-inflammatory environment. It also downregulates the immune system and therefore may be helpful in painful inflammatory conditions such as arthritis. (11)
Improved male and female sexual health
Ashwagandha has been used to help women with dysmenorrhoea or amenorrhoea. It’s also been used to ease peri-menopausal and menopausal symptoms including insomnia, anxiety, agitation, restlessness, fatigue, cloudy thinking, and muscle pain.
It’s been used to help men increase their sperm motility, sperm count and libido (12).
How to use
Ashwagandha may be taken as a powder or tincture, in capsules or even as a tea.
In Ayurveda it’s recommended to consume the powder with milk, as milk is seen as the most suitable vehicle for the healing properties of this plant. One can, however, consume it with water or even add it to smoothies or juice.
Whilst ashwagandha has been shown to be well tolerated, it should be avoided in certain circumstances.
Do not use ashwagandha if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
It’s also best to avoid it if you have an allergy or sensitivity to plants in the nightshade family (ie: tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant).
Consult your healthcare practitioner before using ashwagandha if you have hyperthyroidism, as it stimulates the thyroid.
It may also interfere with certain medications, including medications for thyroid, blood sugar and blood pressure. If you’re on medication, it’s always a good idea to consult with your healthcare practitioner before using herbal supplements.
This incredible plant offers so many benefits! And there’s ample research to suggest that it is one of the essential adaptogenic herbs to consider when dealing with chronic stress and related issues.
1. Singh N, Bhalla M, de Jager P, Gilca M. An overview on ashwagandha: a Rasayana (rejuvenator) of Ayurveda. Afr J Tradit Complement Altern Med. 2011;8(5 Suppl):208-213. doi:10.4314/ajtcam.v8i5S.9
2. Salve J, Pate S, Debnath K, Langade D. Adaptogenic and Anxiolytic Effects of Ashwagandha Root Extract in Healthy Adults: A Double-blind, Randomized, Placebo-controlled Clinical Study. Cureus. 2019;11(12):e6466. Published 2019 Dec 25. doi:10.7759/cureus.6466
3. Chandrasekhar K, Kapoor J, Anishetty S. A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults. Indian J Psychol Med. 2012;34(3):255-262. doi:10.4103/0253-7176.106022 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3573577/
4. Kumarpillai Gopukumar, Shefali Thanawala, Venkateswarlu Somepalli, T. S. Sathyanaryana Rao, Vijaya Bhaskar Thamatam, Sanjaya Chauhan, “Efficacy and Safety of Ashwagandha Root Extract on Cognitive Functions in Healthy, Stressed Adults: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study”, Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 2021, Article ID 8254344, 10 pages, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1155/2021/8254344
5. Langade D, Kanchi S, Salve J, Debnath K, Ambegaokar D. Efficacy and Safety of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) Root Extract in Insomnia and Anxiety: A Double-blind, Randomized, Placebo-controlled Study. Cureus. 2019 Sep 28;11(9):e5797. doi: 10.7759/cureus.5797. PMID: 31728244; PMCID: PMC6827862.
6. Dnyanraj Choudhary, Sauvik Bhattacharyya & Sekhar Bose (2017) Efficacy and Safety of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera (L.) Dunal) Root Extract in Improving Memory and Cognitive Functions, Journal of Dietary Supplements, 14:6, 599-612, DOI: 10.1080/19390211.2017.1284970
7. Ng QX, Loke W, Foo NX, Tan WJ, Chan HW, Lim DY, Yeo WS. A systematic review of the clinical use of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) to ameliorate cognitive dysfunction. Phytother Res. 2020 Mar;34(3):583-590. doi: 10.1002/ptr.6552. Epub 2019 Nov 19. PMID: 31742775.
8. Choudhary B, Shetty A, Langade DG. Efficacy of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera [L.] Dunal) in improving cardiorespiratory endurance in healthy athletic adults. Ayu. 2015 Jan-Mar;36(1):63-8. doi: 10.4103/0974-8520.169002. PMID: 26730141; PMCID: PMC4687242.
9. Palliyaguru DL, Singh SV, Kensler TW. Withania somnifera: From prevention to treatment of cancer. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2016;60(6):1342-1353. doi:10.1002/mnfr.201500756
10. Tharakan, A.; Shukla, H.; Benny, I.R.; Tharakan, M.; George, L.; Koshy, S. Immunomodulatory Effect of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) Extract—A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo Controlled Trial with an Open Label Extension on Healthy Participants. J. Clin. Med. 2021, 10, 3644. https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm10163644
11. Biological activities of Withania somnifera https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Rupesh-Dudhe/publication/265245087_Biological_activities_of_Withania_somnifera/links/551e4f430cf29dcabb03ae02/Biological-activities-of-Withania-somnifera.pdf
12. Nasimi Doost Azgomi R, Zomorrodi A, Nazemyieh H, et al. Effects of Withania somnifera on Reproductive System: A Systematic Review of the Available Evidence [published correction appears in Biomed Res Int. 2019 Nov 21;2019:7591541]. Biomed Res Int. 2018;2018:4076430. Published 2018 Jan 24. doi:10.1155/2018/4076430