One of the oldest medicinal herbs around, Ashwagandha can help your body manage stress, while providing several other benefits to your brain and body. Boosting brain function, and lowering cortisol levels (fighting anxiety/depression) are just a few.
In this blog, we’re taking a closer look at Ashwagandha – including the benefits, side effects, and more.
Let’s dive in:
What is Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an ancient medicinal herb that can be traced all the way back to about 6,000 BC. It was utilized in the Indian healing system of Ayurveda, and later, in Chinese healing traditions. Here, we are going to learn all about the history of this powerful herb and all of its wonderful benefits that are sure to pique your interest!
What’s in the Name?
Glad you asked. Time for a mini Sanskrit lesson!
Ayurvedic Medicine deems ashwagandha as one of the most important herbs within its healing practice (needless to say, ashwagandha’s kind-of a big deal). Many of the healing abilities of ashwagandha correlate to the philosophies within this ancient healing practice; treating the whole person (mind, body, and spirit), creating balance between our various bodily systems/organs, and more.
The Sanskrit word ‘Ayurveda’ can be broken down to Ayur, meaning ‘life’, and Veda, meaning ‘knowing’. The word as a whole can be translated to ‘science of life’.
As for ‘ashwagandha’: Ashwa translates to ‘horse’, and gandha translates to ‘smell’. In Sanskrit, the word as a whole essentially means ‘smell of the horse’, referring to a horse’s strength, power… and unique smell.
Interestingly, in grounding the herb for personal use, it is said that it gives a distinct horse-like aroma! In application, the benefits also resemble that of a horse’s stature and ability, which the ancients experienced as healthy libido and increased vitality.
Pretty cool, huh?
Origins and History of Ashwagandha
This evergreen shrub was originally found in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and parts of northern Africa. Over the years, we have been able to cultivate the ashwagandha plant in more temperate climates right here in America.
Ashwagandha, amazingly, can grow in conditions that not many other herbs and plants can grow in, let alone thrive! This powerful herb can not only withstand, but flourishes in arid conditions and alkaline soils. It can endure droughts too, which makes it the perfect shrub to plant in places that may be difficult to irrigate.
This is a cool fact in that ashwagandha’s high-potency in our bodies reflects its own incredible abilities in growing and developing in difficult climates. The environmental stress it adapts to in the wild correlates to how, as a medicinal herb, it helps us adapt to our own stressors. More on that to come!
Ashwagandha in Ayurveda
Although different parts of the shrub were utilized at one time or another, the root of ashwagandha is where most of its medicinal properties are concentrated.
Back then, the root of ashwagandha was renowned for being a powerful health tonic that improved the lifespan of people and helped in the rejuvenation of our bodily systems. For thousands of years, it enhanced the performance of the “neurological, immune, energy-production, endocrinal, and reproductive systems”.
In Ayurveda, it was used as a Rasayana, which can be described as an herbal preparation that “promotes a youthful state of physical and mental health and expands happiness”. Children were given them as tonics, and they were also utilized by adults and the elderly to enhance longevity.
5 Ashwagandha Benefits
1. Ashwagandha and Stress
If you’ve already heard of ashwagandha (also known as Indian ginseng or winter cherry), you probably already know that it is classified as an adaptogen. This means that this herb is popular for its incredible ability to safely and effectively help the human mind and body handle stress, with no withdrawal symptoms.
Count me in!
Cortisol, the stress hormone in which most of us are well-acquainted, is released by our adrenal glands in stressful situations. Evidently, we live in a very stressed and caffeinated society in which our cortisol levels are at an all-time high. If these levels are elevated for too long, it can cause high blood sugar, chronic anxiety, sleep problems, cognitive issues, weight gain, and more.
Thankfully, ashwagandha has proven to help our body regulate cortisol levels in healthier ways, thus helping to decrease our anxiousness and high stress levels.
All in all, ashwagandha root is linked to improving an individual’s resistance to anxiety with no adverse effects.
2. Ashwagandha: Memory and Concentration
Who doesn’t want a good memory and strong concentration skills? We now have studies that validate Ayurvedic uses for ashwagandha as a memory enhancer!
The roots of this herb have been shown to protect nerve cells from oxidative stress by promoting antioxidant activity. The damaging effects that free radicals can potentially have on our brain (memory and concentration) can be dramatically reduced through the use of ashwagandha.
One study showed that in randomizing 20 healthy male participants, in which some received 250mg, 2 times daily, had significantly better reaction times, cognitive performance, and memory (through a variety of tests), than the placebo group.
It has been shown that ashwagandha “slows, stops, reverses, or removes neuritic atrophy and synaptic loss”. This means that, besides having beneficial effects on brain health in general, ashwagandha can go as far as improving brain function in those with injuries or disease (e.g., Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s).
3. Ashwagandha and Exercise
Since we have highlighted how ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb in relation to mental stress, it is also important to note that it helps our bodies in physically stressful situations, too.
Male and female participants, in taking KSM-66® Ashwagandha (a full-spectrum extract of the root of ashwagandha), showed to have enhanced cardiorespiratory endurance.
In another study, males who underwent resistance training whilst taking 300mg of ashwagandha were shown to have significantly greater:
- Strength in arms and chest (bench-press exercise)
- Reduction in exercise-induced muscle injury
- Testosterone levels
- Decreased body fat percentage
4. Ashwagandha and Heart Health
Ashwagandha is an incredibly powerful and easy way to support heart health. Here are just some of the ways this herb can help our hearts:
- Can help lower high cholesterol
- Can help lower high blood pressure
- May ease chest pain
- May prevent heart disease
- Can help lower high cholesterol
5. Other Benefits
Ashwagandha has other incredible benefits that are worth mentioning!
For starters, this herb works wonders on the nervous system; it supports a healthily functioning nervous system by its antioxidant effects, which in turn aids the GABA pathways in the brain. GABA is a neurotransmitter that encourages calmness and supports muscle tone.
As mentioned before, ashwagandha proves to have soothing effects by regulating cortisol levels. In having our cortisol levels better managed, it leaves room for reproductive hormones to be produced. If we are constantly under stress, the body is more apt to produce cortisol than these reproductive hormones, such as testosterone, estrogen, or progesterone. Here, we see ashwagandha supports yet again another essential area of the body in supporting reproductive health.
Sleep! It’s a key part of our life that is regenerative, restorative, and essential for longevity. Ashwagandha can support a good night’s rest by supporting our adrenal health, which plays a role in our sleep schedule/quality (adrenal fatigue can also really disturb sleep, which is all the more reason to take this herb).
Ashwagandha Side Effects
There are side effects to this herb, but not many. Taking ashwagandha could potentially give you an upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting, especially when taken at higher doses. It has also been recommended not to take ashwagandha for more than 3 months at a time. Ashwagandha is additionally not recommended for pregnant women or those with autoimmune disorders.
As always, the dosage depends on the type of ashwagandha supplement you are taking, and what the manufacturer suggests. Another element to take note of is what part of the plant that particular supplement is using (roots, leaves, etc.), as well as if the supplement is an extract, or just ground ashwagandha (in powder form). Typically, when getting all the benefits that ashwagandha has to offer, you are taking an extract from the root. The dosage of this is usually around 450-500mg, once or twice daily, depending on your personal needs. Additionally, you can consult with a trusted herbalist to adjust the dosage depending on what it is you want to achieve from taking ashwagandha. Whether it is to reduce anxiety, boost fertility, enhance exercise performance, or boost memory, there are healthcare practitioners that can help guide you to the proper dosage.
When to Take Ashwagandha
Since ashwagandha is so versatile, it can be good to take anytime, anywhere! Similar to the dosages, the answer to when you should take ashwagandha depends on what you want out of it.
In helping with stress and anxiety to cope with your crazy work day, it might be beneficial to begin incorporating ashwagandha in your daily morning routine (and, it might be more convenient for you to take them with your other supplements at this time). Some people experience an upset stomach upon taking ashwagandha on an empty stomach. If this is you, it might be helpful to get a little breakfast in before taking this herb.
Taking ashwagandha at night can also promote feelings of relaxation, and to help you get a solid sleep. Whether you take this supplement in the morning, at night, or twice a day, you are sure to reap the benefits you seek! One thing to note, however, is that (depending on the individual), it might take days to weeks before experiencing the benefits of this herb, since it takes longer than most herbs/supplements for its effects to be felt. If supplementing with ashwagandha sounds like something you’re interested in, see my supplement dispensary for high quality options! You can also look for ashwagandha in the form of tinctures or herbal tea.
Either way, ashwagandha is an incredible medicinal herb that may prove to work wonders in your life!