Ashwagandha: Benefits, side effects and how to take it?

Eu Natural
October 20, 2020
Fact checked
Dr. Stephanie Nichols, ND

Ashwagandha is an ancient medicinal herb that is known for helping the body manage stress tracing back to India in 6000BC.

The herb is also known as  Withania Somnifera, Rasayana (Rejuvenator) of Ayurveda, Indian Winter Cherry, Indian Ginseng, Amangura, Asgand, Avarada - and those are just to name a few! 

Translating to ‘Smell of the Horse,’ Ashwagandha is said to not only smell like a horse, but also it’s believed that those who consume the extract will develop the strength and energy of a horse.

The plant itself is native to India and North Africa. Its appearance is a stout shrub that blooms yellow flowers, hiding a circular orange-red berry, not too different from a physalis. The extract comes from either the fruit or the berry of the plant. 

What are the benefits of Ashwagandha?

ashwagandha benefits

Ashwagandha is an adaptogen and best known for its stress relief benefits.

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Let’s deep dive into what an adaptogen is for a moment! 

Adaptogen is the name given to a group of herbs that help the body cope with stress. 

Studies have demonstrated that adaptogens display neuroprotective, anti-fatigue, and antidepressant activity.

Taking an adaptogen is sometimes considered a healthier ‘pick me up’ than prescribed medication. 

Now let’s get back to exploring the benefits of Ashwagandha!

There is a long list of benefits that Ashwagandha is believed to have which include: 

  • Stress relief
  • Helping with depression
  • Treating arthritis
  • Increased strength
  • Increase fertility in men
  • Prevent loss of brain function
  • Reducing blood sugar levels
  • Stopping cancer growth
  • Helping with insomnia

We’ll be looking into these nine benefits of Ashwagandha and the science behind them in just a moment!

Besides health benefits, Ashwagandha is also known for its beauty benefits and considered a superfood for skincare and haircare. 

Some types of beauty care that you will most commonly find the extract in are:

  • Shampoos - Ashwagandha is also said to help strengthen hair, improve scalp circulation, and help eliminate dandruff.
  • Skincare - the herb has ample amounts of withanolides, saponins, and alkaloids, which can help cleanse the skin.

Now we’ve identified the potential benefits that Ashwagandha has, let’s see whether science can back them up! 

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Ashwagandha and stress relief

woman with stress

If you’re already familiar with Ashwagandha, it’s probably for the praise it receives for its stress relief abilities.

Ashwagandha is said to balance cortisol levels, which is the stress hormone.

As the herb is best known for its stress-reducing abilities, it’s no surprise that this has been the focus of the vast majority of Ashwagandha studies.

One study involved 64 participants that were split into two groups. One group took a placebo while the other took one capsule containing 300mg of highly concentrated extract from the Ashwagandha plant’s root twice a day for 60 days. The results of the study speak for themselves. The group showed a significant reduction in scores on all the stress-assessment scales compared to the placebo group. The serum cortisol levels were also substantially reduced compared to the placebo group. The outcome was that Ashwagandha ‘improves self-assessed quality of life.’

Another placebo-controlled study examined the results of Ashwagandha in 39 participants. The outcome was that Ashwagandha might be beneficial for individuals suffering from physical or psychological symptoms of chronic stress.

Ashwagandha and anxiety  

man with anxiety

Ashwagandha is also commonly linked to being a natural way to help overcome anxiety.

Anxiety affects around 40 million or 18.1% of the population each year. While many are reluctant to take prescribed medication, Ashwagandha could be the answer for those that prefer a natural supplement. 

Therefore, there have been several studies trying to identify the truth behind this.

A significant study took place to analyze and assess five existing human trials using Ashwagandha extract to treat anxiety.

The five separate studies’ analysis indicates that all participants taking an Ashwagandha extract resulted in greater score improvements on anxiety scales. In most cases, the improvements were significant. 

Another study followed 75 participants over eight weeks, and again, the outcome was significantly in favor of Ashwagandha, helping to manage anxiety. The 75 participants were split into two groups; the first received psychotherapy intervention, and the second group received dietary counseling and Ashwagandha extract. The subjects were initially measured using the Beck Anxiety Inventory, which is a self-report measure of anxiety, and following the eight weeks, the scores had decreased by 56.5%.

The outcomes of these reports strongly suggest that taking Ashwagandha extract can be hugely beneficial for those living with anxiety.

Ashwagandha and arthritis 

arthiritis hands

There are claims that Ashwagandha can help reduce inflammation and help relieve the pain of arthritis.

A small study has found a positive effect of Ashwagandha on participants with arthritis. The study involved 86 patients with existing joint pain. The patients were to take 5g of Ashwagandha powder mixed with water or milk twice a day for three weeks. After the three weeks, the results showed significant change in post-treatment scores of tender joint counts, swollen joint counts, physician global assessment score, patient global assessment score, pain assessment score, patient self-assessed disability index score significantly less, post-treatment.

Another study assessed the effect Ashwagandha has on knee joint pain. Sixty patients were divided into two groups. One group was to take a placebo and the second group was to take 250mg of Ashwagandha extract twice daily. After the twelve weeks, scores for pain, stiffness, and disability were significantly reduced in the group taking the Ashwagandha extract.

These outcomes suggest that Ashwagandha can improve life quality for those who have arthritis and joint pain.

Ashwagandha and increased strength

strong woman

Let’s take a look back at the translation of Ashwagandha to ‘strength of the horse’ and the science to support this theory.

One study split 57 young male participants into two groups. One half was to take a placebo, and the other half was to take 300mg of Ashwagandha root twice a day while enduring eight weeks of resistance training. Measurements were taken before and after the eight weeks.

The results shine light to there being truth behind the ‘strength of horse’ comparison. The group taking the Ashwagandha showed significantly greater increases in muscle strength on several exercises and increased muscle size. The participants also had reduced exercise-induced muscle damage.

These positive results are supported by other studies that have similar outcomes of increased muscle strength and reduced exercise-induced muscle damage compared to the placebo group.

Both studies signify that supplementing a workout regime with Ashwagandha helps muscle growth and recovery.

Ashwagandha and increased fertility in men

spring onions going towards egg

Ashwagandha is linked to increased fertility and sexual activities, specifically in men. 

A study involving forty-six male patients ages 22 and 40 took one capsule of highly concentrated Ashwagandha extract three times a day for 12 weeks. The results were an astounding 167% increase in sperm count, a 53% increase in semen volume, and a 57% increase in semen mobility. Those that had taken the placebo experienced a minimal gain.

Another study with a similar outcome of an increase in sperm count and motility, identified this to be due to a decrease in apoptosis and reactive oxidative stress among men. Apoptosis is essentially the ‘death of cells’; this is a method the body uses to get rid of abnormal or unwanted cells.

Ashwagandha and brain function

brain function

As Ashwagandha is known for reducing stress levels, several studies aim to understand the additional benefits it has on the brain.

One study aimed to evaluate the effects of Ashwagandha, specifically on cognitive and psychomotor performance. The participants were healthy individuals and took two 250mg capsules daily. After 14 days of treatment with the Ashwagandha extract, outcomes showed significantly improved reaction time in five psychomotor performance tests. Some of these tests included a simple reaction test, finger tapping test, and digital vigilance test.

A second study followed the participants for longer; eight weeks, and the overall results were similar.

After the eight weeks, the participants that had taken the Ashwagandha extract demonstrated significant improvement in both immediate and general memory compared to the placebo group. The group also showed significantly greater improvement in executive function, sustained attention, and information-processing speed.

Both studies indicate that Ashwagandha may be useful in enhancing memory and improving executive function, attention, and information processing speed.

Ashwagandha and reducing blood sugar levels

blood sugar

Ashwagandha has been linked to increasing insulin secretion and improving insulin sensitivity in muscle cells and could help treat diabetes.

One study experimented on 42 rats that were induced with diabetes. The rats were divided into seven groups, with some given Ashwagandha extract. The results concluded that the Ashwagandha extract had antidiabetic properties, including decreased blood glucose level, preventing hyperinsulinemia, and improved glucose tolerance.

There have been additional studies using 66 people with type 2 diabetes. The results showed that the participants that took the Ashwagandha extract experienced improvements in endothelial function.” The endothelial lines the inside of the blood and heart vessels and helps regulate blood clotting, immune function, and vascular relaxation. Endothelial dysfunction is linked to insulin resistance, which can lead to type 2 diabetes.

  Therefore it could be considered a possibility to control diabetes, but more research is necessary to support this. 

Ashwagandha and cancer

two people holding hands

Some studies suggest that Ashwagandha demonstrates anti-cancer effects against several cancer cell lines.

Another study identifies that an extract of ashwagandha selectively kills tumor cells. The experiment used both tumor formation assays in mice and growth assays of normal and human transformed cells. Following the results, the study labeled the herb as a ‘natural source for safe anticancer medicine’.

However, existing studies are limited, and more are needed to verify these observations.

Ashwagandha and insomnia

man with insomnia

As if all of the above wasn’t enough, Ashwagandha is also said to help with insomnia.

Insomnia is more than struggling to stay asleep and should be taken seriously. Insomnia can lead to fatigue, energy depletion, impairment in concentration, and increased irritability.

One study was placebo-controlled, involving 60 participants with existing insomnia. Half of the group were given 300mg of Ashwagandha root extract powder twice daily across ten weeks.

The participants were evaluated at weeks five and ten, and they were measured on sleep onset latency, total sleep time, wake after the onset of sleep, and then given an overall score.

The outcome of the study was positive and that Ashwagandha has sleep-inducing potential and can improve sleep quality.

Ashwagandha and the menopause

Ashwagandha is also know for relieving menopause symptoms.

How much Ashwagandha should I take?

ashwagandha how much to take

Ashwagandha extract is most commonly taken one to two times daily in a capsule format, or it is also available as a fine powder to then mix with water or honey.

Typical dosages range from 250-2000mg. As always, it’s best to consult a healthcare professional beforehand to determine the amount you should be taking based on your body.

Ashwagandha can be taken either daily or on an intermittent basis. 

How long does Ashwagandha take to work? 

As Ashwagandha is an ancient herb, it has not been designed to work straight away as what is usually found within modern medicine. Therefore, it may take some time to feel and see the benefits of this plant. 

However, if we refer back to the strength study, you could begin to feel the benefits in as little as eight weeks.

Does Ashwagandha have any side effects?

For the majority of people, Ashwagandha is a safe herb to consume. However, if you are pregnant or breastfeeding or have an autoimmune disease, then it is advised that you should consult with your healthcare provider first.

If you are on medication for thyroid diseases, consult a medical professional before taking the extract as it can worsen the symptoms.

Wrapping up

Ashwagandha is a herb with multiple health benefits, and the science backs it up!

Reducing stress and anxiety, helping tackle insomnia and increasing strength are just some of the many benefits the herb has. 

Taking Ashwagandha supplements alongside a healthy diet could improve your health. If you have arthritis, infertility etc, taking the herb could enhance your life quality.

What next? Read how Ashwagandha and Rhodiola work together to make a power combo.

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