Ashwagandha root has many health benefits including reducing stress and improving brain function. Find out more about all the incredible ashwagandha benefits.

By Rachael Schultz
October 30, 2018
Photo: eskymaks / Getty Images

Ashwagandha root has been used for more than 3,000 years in Ayurvedic medicine as a natural remedy to countless concerns. (Related: Ayurvedic Skin-Care Tips That Still Work Today)

Ashwagandha benefits are seemingly endless. "It's a single herb that has so many positive effects and no known side effects when used properly," says Laura Enfield, N.D., a naturopathic doctor in San Mateo, CA, and board member of the California Naturopathic Doctors Association.

Ashwagandha root-the most powerful part of the plant-is best known for reducing stress levels. But it's a favorite among herbalists because its benefits really span all different conditions and diseases that impact many lives on a daily basis, says Irina Logman, a nationally board-certified herbalist and acupuncturist and the founder of Advanced Holistic Center in NYC.

Ashwagandha's benefit largely comes from its ability to act as an adaptogen-or support the body's adaptive response to stress and to balance normal body functions, Enfield explains. (Learn more: What Are Adaptogens and Can They Help Power Up Your Workouts?) Ashwagandha powder or a liquid capsule-the two forms easiest for your body to absorb-is so versatile, the herb can be found in pretty much every Indian household, similar to ginseng in China, adds Enfield. In fact, it's commonly called Indian ginseng as well as Withania somnifera.

In short, the big benefit of ashwagandha is that it brings balance to the mind and body because of its many functions and adaptability.

Ashwagandha Benefits

Ashwagandha benefits cover most every serious concern. A 2016 study analysis in Current Pharmaceutical Design found the plant's unique biochemical structure makes it a legit therapeutic form of immunotherapy and for treatment of anxiety, cancer, microbial infections, and even neurodegenerative disorders. Another study analysis in Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences adds fighting inflammation, stress, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes to that list.

"Anecdotally, ashwagandha has been used as a tonic to help emaciated children put on weight; an adjunct treatment for poisonous snake or scorpion bites; an anti-inflammatory for painful swellings, boils, and hemorrhoids; and as a treatment for increasing sperm count and motility, improving male fertility," says Enfield.

Here, the science behind some of the most widely proven ashwagandha benefits.

Reduces Blood Sugar Levels

Ashwagandha can help increase insulin sensitivity in healthy people and in those with high blood sugar, says Logman.

A 2015 Iranian study found the root helped normalize blood sugar in hyperglycemic rats by reducing inflammation and improving insulin sensitivity, and an older study in humans with mild type 2 diabetes found ashwagandha lowered blood glucose similar to oral hypoglycemic medication.

Other bonuses: "Oftentimes we see diabetic patients have elevated lipid panels, and this study in humans also showed a significant decrease in total cholesterol, LDL, and triglycerides, so the benefit was multifold," adds Enfield.

Reduces Stress and Anxiety

"Ashwagandha has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol [the stress hormone] and increase levels of DHEA, the hormone that counterbalances the activity of cortisol in humans," says Enfield. The anti-anxiety effects of ashwagandha root may be due, in part, to its ability to mimic the activity of the calming neurotransmitter GABA, which helps decrease overactivity in other neurons, promoting good sleep and elevating mood, says Enfield. (Related: 20 Stress Relief Tips Techniques to Chill out ASAP)

And that dominos down to help more than just lower stress. If ashwagandha root prevents stress, then you're overall health will improve, as stress is proven to cause many problems, such as headaches, stomach pain, fatigue, and insomnia, adds Logman.

May Increase Muscle Mass

A 2015 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that men who coupled their strength training with 300mg of ashwagandha root twice a day for eight weeks, gained significantly more muscle mass and strength, and had less muscle damage, compared to the placebo group. Previous research has found similar (albeit, perhaps not as strong) results in women.

There are a few things at play here: For one, ashwagandha health benefits include increasing testosterone, but "because ashwagandha is an adaptogen it could be affecting so much more hormonally and biochemically," adds Enfield. (Related: Take Advantage of Your Hormones to Sculpt Your Best Body Ever)

Improves Memory and Brain Function

"Many studies show that ashwagandha is very effective at supporting memory and brain function," says Enfield. "It has been shown to slow, stop, or reverse the inflammation of nerves and synapse loss seen in brain degeneration." Using it proactively can help support your brain function and increase your odds of preventing neurodegeneration.

Plus, its ability to reduce anxiety and improve sleep improves brain function and therefore memory, adds Logman. (Related: Adaptogen Elixirs for More Energy and Less Stress)

Lowers Cholesterol and Improves Heart Health

"Ashwagandha's anti-inflammatory properties reduce cholesterol and decrease inflammatory markers that increase the risk of heart disease," says Logman. Plus, ashwagandha increases muscle endurance which can indirectly improve the functioning of the heart, adds Enfield. It's even more powerful for the heart when used in conjunction with another Ayurvedic herb called Terminalia arjuna, she adds.

Improves Immunity and Reduces Pain

"Ashwagandha also has an amazing ability to stimulate the immune system and reduce inflammation," says Enfield. "The steroidal constituents in ashwagandha have been shown to have a stronger anti-inflammatory effect than hydrocortisone." That goes for acute inflammation as well as chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, she adds.

In rats, the extract has helped counteract arthritis and reduce inflammation, according to one 2015 study. And another 2018 Japanese study found that extract of ashwagandha roots can help reduce skin inflammation in humans.

May Help with PCOS

While Enfield says she uses ashwagandha to help women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), the medical jury is still out on this potential benefit of ashwagandha. PCOS is the result of high levels of androgens and insulin, which in turn negatively affect adrenal function and can result in infertility, she explains. "PCOS is a slippery slope: When the hormones are out of balance, one's stress levels are increasing, which can lead to more dysregulation." This makes sense as to why ashwagandha could be the perfect herb for PCOS, because it balances blood sugar, cholesterol, and sex hormones-just to name a few.

May Fight Cancer

Ashwagandha definitely boosts the immune system, which can help counteract the hit your natural defense takes during chemo and radiation treatment, says Enfield. But a 2016 study analysis in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research reports ashwagandha may actually have tumor-fighting abilities, making it a contender to help prevent the spread of cancer.

"There have been studies dating back to 1979 in animal models with tumors, where the size of the tumor has shrunk," says Enfield. In one recent study in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, ashwagandha improved antioxidant activity and decreased inflammatory cytokines in cancer cells within just 24 hours.

Who Should Avoid Ashwagandha?

While, "for most people, ashwagandha is a very safe herb to take on a long-term daily basis," says Enfield, you should absolutely consult your doctor before starting. There are two known red flags when it comes to taking ashwagandha:

There is not enough definitive research on the safety of ashwagandha for pregnant or nursing women or for those with specific pre-existing conditions. "Ashwagandha can aid in treating certain symptoms while making others worse," says Logman. For example, it helps lower blood sugar levels, but if you're type 1 diabetic, it could lower them to a dangerous level. Same with if you take it to lower your blood pressure but already take a beta-blocker or another med that's supposed to lower blood pressure-the two together could reduce that number to dangerous levels. (Must read: How Dietary Supplements Can Interact with Your Prescription Drugs)

If you're taking any medication or have any existing health condition, just run it by your doctor first so he or she can confirm you're safe to take the supplement.

How to Take Ashwagandha Root

All parts of the plant can be used, but you'll probably reach for the root. "Ashwagandha root has more of the active constituents-specifically the withanolides-which is most frequently used. However, it is not uncommon to use ashwagandha leaf for making a tea or using a combination of the two parts," says Enfield.

The plant comes in many forms including tea and capsules, but ashwagandha powder and liquid are easiest for the body to absorb, and a fresh ashwagandha powder is thought to have the strongest effect, she adds. Logman says that the powder is easiest since you can just sprinkle it in your food, smoothies, or morning coffee and it doesn't have a taste.

A safe starting dosage is 250mg per day, says Enfield, but it's a good idea to talk to your doctor to get a more personalized (and safety-approved) dosage.


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