What is ashwagandha and what are its benefits?
What is ashwagandha?
Whilst some of us are yet to learn of the health benefits of ashwagandha, it has been used for thousands of years in India to not only manage stress-related conditions but also help with chronic fatigue, insomnia and adrenal fatigue to name a few.
Ayurveda (Indian traditional medicine) views ashwagandha as one of the most prized rejuvenating herbs, which is thought to nourish the mind and enhance energy, making them perfect for when we are feeling weak and exhausted.
Ashwagandha is also an adaptogen which, as the name suggests, means it helps us adapt to modern day stressors.
What are adaptogens?
Classed as a modern-day ‘adaptogen’, ashwagandha adapts to the needs of the body, helping to support it and reduce negative changes during times of emotional and physical stress by strengthening the endocrine and nervous systems.
Ashwagandha’s ability to help the body adapt to stress is reflected by its ability to thrive in very dry conditions in poor-quality soils. Most plants would suffer from severe stress in such an environment but ashwagandha can thrive! A growing body of evidence is now being collated around this powerful herb with an impressive variety of health benefits.
Here are 5 incredible wellbeing benefits of ashwagandha:
Lowers stress hormones and calms anxiety
Stress normally causes a surge in the adrenal hormones - adrenaline and cortisol – both of which increase alertness (sometimes known as ‘fight or flight’). Ashwagandha tackles the problem at the root as it acts directly on the trigger of stress by regulating the imbalanced cortisol level and nourishing the adrenal glands. It acts directly on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis modulating the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol, from the adrenal glands.
Ashwagandha has been well-researched in this regard with several studies supporting its effectiveness in managing the effects of stress[i],[ii]. However, this herb is unusual in that it is also a tonic, meaning it will strengthen an exhausted or agitated nervous system whilst calming it at the same time.
Ashwagandha for sleep
Stress is often at the root of our sleeping problems. When we’re troubled, our sleep is too. Ashwagandha’s botanical name, Withania somnifera, gives us further clues as to its properties. The Latin word ‘somnifera’ is translated as ‘sleep-inducing’, reflecting its ability to support deeper sleep. By nourishing and strengthening a weakened and over-anxious nervous system, studies show that ashwagandha helps us to relax enough to get a better night’s sleep. According to our circadian clock (the body clock that naturally prepares us for sleep and wake), cortisol should naturally decrease in the early evening in preparation for sleep. Stress can overrule these rhythms and cortisol can stay elevated into the night and affect sleep success. So, the great thing about ashwagandha is it controls the production of the stress hormones and allows our body to retain natural sleeping rhythms[iv].
Improves libido and sexual performance
Ashwagandha is traditionally used to improve sexual performance and libido in both men and women. When we are stressed, we produce a lot more adrenaline and place pressure on our adrenal glands and organs. Ashwagandha regulates the amount of adrenaline produced and strengthens organs, improving stamina as well as increasing sperm count and motility in men, and improving libido in women. One study showed that women[viii] who took a daily dose of ashwagandha over a month saw significant improvements in achieving orgasm and sexual arousal due to a significant reduction in sexually related distress. Beyond decreasing the effects of stress it was suggested that ashwagandha’s role in increasing testosterone was also key as this is a factor in androgen deficiency syndrome, which in turn is also associated with female sexual dysfunction[ix].
Most adaptogenic herbs have a positive effect on our immune system and ashwagandha is no exception. It is traditionally used to support a weakened immune system and it has now been shown to encourage anti-inflammatory and disease-fighting immune cells that help to ward off illness. More research is needed but early studies are encouraging, such as one showing a major change in immune cell activation after taking ashwagandha[xii].
Improves energy, stamina and endurance
As a rejuvenating tonic, ashwagandha has been used in Ayurveda to alleviate fatigue and improve general well-being for centuries. Its effects on increasing energy, stamina and endurance are becoming increasingly known. It has been shown to significantly enhance athletic performance by improving heart and lung capacity while increasing energy levels. This makes it a great support for those who struggle with energy or have fatigue-related conditions, such as chronic fatigue syndrome.
[i] Lopresti AL, Smith SJ, Malvi H, Kodgule R. 2019. An investigation into the stress-relieving and pharmacological actions of an ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) extract. Medicine (Baltimore). 98(37): e17186.
[ii] Auddy B, Hazra J, Mitra A, Abedon B, Ghosal S. 2008. A standardized Withania somnifera extract significantly reduces stress-related parameters in chronically stressed humans: A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study. JANA 11(1):51-57.
[iv] Langade D, Kanchi S, Salve J, Debnath K, Ambegaokar D. 2019. Efficacy and safety of ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) root extract in insomnia and anxiety: A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study. Cureus 11(9): e5797.
[viii] Azgomi RND, Zomorrodi A, Nazemyieh H, Fazljou SMB, Bazargani HS, Nejatbakhsh F, et al. 2018. Effects of Withania somnifera on reproductive system: A systematic review of the available evidence. Biomed Research Int article ID: 4076430.
[ix] Dongre, S., Langade, D. and Bhattacharyya, S., 2015. Efficacy and safety of ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) root extract in improving sexual function in women: a pilot study. BioMed research international, 2015.
[xii] Mikolai, J., Erlandsen, A., Murison, A., Brown, K.A., Gregory, W.L., Raman-Caplan, P. and Zwickey, H.L., 2009. In vivo effects of ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) extract on the activation of lymphocytes. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 15(4), pp.423-430.
[xiii] Biswal, B.M., Sulaiman, S.A., Ismail, H.C., Zakaria, H. and Musa, K.I., 2013. Effect of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) on the development of chemotherapy-induced fatigue and quality of life in breast cancer patients. Integrative cancer therapies, 12(4), pp.312-322.