Stress is the most common cause of sleep disturbances, mental disorders and other health problems. A natural ingredient such as the ashwagandha herb is known for combating stress and anxiety.
Ashwagandha has been one of the most important medicinal herbs used in India for thousands of years. The name ‘ashwagandha’ is derived from the Sanskrit word that means ‘the smell of a horse’. It is probably due to the natural smell of its root that is akin to the horse. Back in ancient times, ashwagandha is described as a herbal preparation or tonic to promote physical and mental health.
Today, many have regarded ashwagandha as an ‘adaptogen’. As the name suggests, an ‘adaptogen’ can assist the body to ‘adapt’ to physical, chemical or biological stress, including environmental pollution, climate change, radiation and infectious diseases. The adaptogen can help maintain homeostasis (a steady-state maintained by the body system to function well) of the body, thereby offsetting disorders caused by external stress.1
Health Benefits of Ashwagandha
Commonly known as Indian ginseng or winter cherry, or its scientific name featured in numerous studies, Withania somnifera, several evidence-based health benefits of ashwagandha are worth highlighting here.
During times of stress, a region of your brain will set off an ‘alarm system’ to prompt the body to release the stress hormone, such as cortisol. In response, cortisol will increase the heart rate, blood pressure, blood glucose, and muscle tension. It will also alter your immune system, control your mood, and suppress your digestive system and reproductive system. If the body is constantly under stress, the high levels of stress hormone can negatively affect the overall body functions.
The extract of ashwagandha root can help normalize the levels of plasma cortisol, blood glucose, and triglycerides of mice after exposure to stress conditions.2 A human study conducted on overweight subjects with chronic stress has shown similar outcomes.3 Other human studies that evaluated the adaptogenic effects of ashwagandha also found that subjects with pre-treatment of ashwagandha root extract had declined perceived stress scores and cortisol levels, as well as an anxiety rating scale.4,5,6
Good sleep is of utmost importance. People who experience sleep loss, sleep disorders or poor sleep quality are prone to emotional distress, mood disorders, poor quality of life, declined memory and cognitive function.7 Long-term sleep disturbances can also increase the risk of developing high blood pressure, heart attack, diabetes and obesity.
A study found that ashwagandha root extract has improved the sleep latency (the time it takes a person from being fully awake to sleeping) and sleep quality in patients with insomnia and anxiety after administrated 300mg extract twice daily for 10 weeks.8 Besides, healthy subjects who experience non-restorative sleep (a subjective experience of unrefreshing sleep) have improved overall sleep quality after supplementation of ashwagandha root extract at a dose of 120mg once daily for 6 weeks.9
Enhances athletic performance
Apart from relieving stress and improving sleep, ashwagandha extract helps enhance physical performance.
A recent study has shown that ashwagandha root extract successfully enhanced cardiorespiratory endurance and improve the quality of life in healthy athletic adults after intake of 300mg ashwagandha root extract, twice daily, for 8-weeks.10 Earlier studies had also demonstrated the efficacy of ashwagandha in increasing the maximal aerobic capacity (VO2 max), thereby improved the cardiorespiratory endurance in athletic adults.11,12
Supplementation of ashwagandha helps increase muscle strength and muscle mass, as well as reduce the exercise-induced muscle damage in individuals who undergo resistance training.13
Supports heart health
Cardiorespiratory endurance is the level that can reflect how well your heart and lung deliver oxygen to working muscles during continuous exercise. It is also an indicator of your physical health. A study suggests that low cardiorespiratory capacity (fitness) is associated with the clustering of cardiovascular disease risk factors in children and adolescents, independent of country, age and sex.14
The ability of ashwagandha in improving cardiorespiratory endurance by increasing the maximal aerobic capacity (VO2 max) has demonstrated its potential in cardioprotective effect.
Improves cognitive function and memory
Ashwagandha appears to be a promising supplement for improving cognitive function.
Administrating 600mg of ashwagandha root extract daily for eight weeks has improved the memory, executive function, attention, and information processing speed in adults with mild cognitive impairment.15 Ashwagandha has also improved memory, reaction time and social cognition in bipolar disorder patients.16 Other studies also demonstrated the same positive effects of taking ashwagandha root extract in healthy subjects.17,18,19
Boosts testosterone levels in men
The male sex hormone testosterone plays a crucial role in male reproductive health. Low testosterone level caused by age, medical conditions and other lifestyle factors is likely to result in symptoms such as decreased energy, decreased libido, erectile dysfunction, and infertility.
Human studies have demonstrated that supplementing 240mg to 600mg of ashwagandha extract a day has increased the testosterone levels of male subjects.6,13 Ashwagandha is also a potential remedy for male infertility, with evidence showing that it increased the sperm count by 167%, semen volume by 53% and sperm motility by 57% in male patients with low sperm count after a daily dose of 675mg ashwagandha root extract treatment for 90 days.20
May improve sexual function in women
One study suggests that ashwagandha root extract can help to improve sexual function in women. The self-report result by healthy female subjects from the study indicates overall improvement in arousal, lubrication, orgasm and satisfaction, as well as an increase in the number of successful sexual encounters at the end of the treatment with daily 600mg ashwagandha root extract for eight weeks.21
Lastly, the ashwagandha root extract is a generally safe and well-tolerated supplement when consumed in recommended doses. However, it may not be for everyone. Due to the lack of available studies, the pregnant and lactating mother should avoid taking it or speak with the doctors before taking it. It is the same for those who are under certain medical conditions such as thyroid disorders, auto-immune diseases, etc.