What Is All The Hype About Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha, otherwise known as “Indian Winter Cherry” or “Indian Ginseng” or by its scientific name Withania Somnifera is one of the most important herbs of Ayurveda – the traditional system of medicine in India. Its roots have been used for thousands of years for its claimed wide-ranging health benefits.1 As you already know if you follow our newsletter, it is probably no surprise that ashwagandha is packed with polyphenols. Several ancient healing traditions, like Aryurvdeic Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine, or those practiced by indigenous cultures, use many such plant derived compounds. There is increasing evidence that polyphenols do not only have antioxidant properties when studied in test tubes or laboratory animals, but that most of the ingested substances pass unabsorbed through our gut until they are metabolized by microbes in the large intestine into absorbable and active molecules. Polyphenols act as prebiotics for beneficial microbes and exert various health benefits through their absorbable metabolites. In an article looking at the composition of ashwagandha, eight polyphenols (Gallic, syringic, benzoic, p-coumaric and vanillic acids as well as catechin, kaempferol and naringenin) were identified by HPLC in Ashwagandha. Among all the polyphenols, catechin, which is also contained in high amounts in green tea, dark chocolate, and black berries, was detected in the highest concentration.2
Ashwagandha is believed to have a wide range of health benefits, including improved brain function, promotion of healthy sexual and reproductive balance, enhanced stress resilience and improved defense against disease by improving cell-mediated immunity, and protection against cellular damage through its antioxidant properties.1
Recently, there has been a frenzy of online videos and blogs talking about the benefits of regularly taking ashwagandha. One quick trip to Amazon and you can see there are hundreds of ashwagandha supplements to choose from all with thousands of 4- abd 5-star reviews. Is the hype real or is this another fad?
Surprisingly, and in contrast to many other supplements, there are several publications of results from controlled human studies, supporting some of the health claims of ashwagandha, even though most of the published results come from studies done in isolated cells or in laboratory animals. Let’s go over some of these studies.
Lower Blood Sugar Levels in Diabetic Populations
Although the evidence is limited, several studies have shown that ashwagandha can lower blood sugar levels in both healthy people and those with diabetes.
The first such study was a randomized, double blind, placebo controlled, clinical trial in a small number of healthy volunteers (n=18) which found that after 1 month of 400mg daily intake of ashwagandha, fasting blood glucose and serum triglycerides significantly decreased compared to the placebo group.3
Might Have Anti-Cancer Properties
Animal studies have found that withaferin can promote apoptosis – the programmed death of cancer cells – as well as slow malignant cell growth in chemically-induced cancers in experimental rodents, and retard tumor xenograft growth in athymic mice. Anticancer effect of ashwagandha is generally attributable to steroidal lactones collectively referred to as withanolides.4
Other animal studies suggest that it may have benefit in the treatment of several types of cancer, including breast, lung, colon, brain, and ovarian cancer.5,6,7 The cancer-preventive activity of an extract of ashwagandha roots was examined in female transgenic mice that received a diet containing the extract (750 mg/kg of diet) for 10 months. Mice in the treated group (n=35) had an average of 1.66 mammary carcinomas, and mice in the control group (n=33) had 2.48, showing a reduction of 33%.8
May Help Reduce Stress, Cortisol levels and Anxiety
Healthy, but chronically stressed adult individuals who took ashwagandha, had significantly greater reductions in cortisol compared to the control group. In a double-blind, randomized control study with 98 subjects, those taking the highest dose of ashwagandha experienced a 30% reduction on average.9 Several human studies have also shown that it can reduce symptoms in people with stress and anxiety disorders. One double-blind randomized control study (n=64) found that supplementing with ashwagandha decreased anxiety and insomnia by 69% compared to 11% in the placebo group.10 Consistent with this stress reducing effect, is a study in rats which showed an inhibition of the central stress pathway by activating GABA channels.11
May Boost Testosterone and Increase Fertility in Men
One study which looked at 75 infertile men found that the group treated with ashwagandha had increased sperm count and motility, as well as a significant increase in testosterone levels.12
May Increase Muscle Mass and Strength
Ashwagandha has been shown to increase muscle mass, reduce body fat and increase strength in healthy men. Consumption of ashwagandha may improve body composition and increase strength. In an 8-week, randomized, double-blind controlled clinical study with 57 subjects, those who were treated with ashwagandha had significantly greater increases in muscle strength.13 Similar findings were obtained in two other studies. In one, healthy men who took 750-1,250mg of ashwagandha powder, gained muscle strength after 30 days.3 In another study, those who took ashwagandha had significantly greater improvements in muscle strength and size. More so, supplemental ashwagandha more than doubled their reductions in body fat % compared to the placebo group.13
May Reduce Inflammation
Several human studies have shown that ashwagandha may reduce systemic markers of inflammation, including a reduction in plasma levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), which is linked to an increased risk of heart disease. In one double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study (n=98), a group who took 250mg of ashwagandha extract daily, had a 36% decrease in CRP compared to 6% in the placebo group.14
May Lower Cholesterol and Triglycerides
Ashwagandha may help reduce the risk of heart disease by decreasing cholesterol and triglyceride levels. One study in rats where ashwagandha was added to their diet at 0.75 and 1.5mg/rat/day found that it lowered total lipids (-40.54%, -50.69%), total cholesterol (-41.58%, -53.01%), and triglyceride levels (-31.25%, -44.85%).15 While these results sound amazing, I’m unaware of any human studies finding similar results – so take these with a grain of salt.
When it comes to supplements that get a bunch of hype in the mainstream, I always think it’s good to be skeptical as usually it’s just influencers trying to sell some “magic pill”. The use of ashwagandha over thousands of years in ancient healing traditions, and the results from some controlled human studies support the claim that ashwagandha may reduce stress, inflammation and increase muscle mass. To corroborate these claims, and to determine if the reported benefits are a result of the product itself, from its mixture of health promoting polyphenols or from knowing you’re taking this ancient healthy root powder, placebo-controlled studies with larger sample sizes would be required.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts on ashwagandha. Have you taken it before? Do you take it now? Where’d you hear about it? Have you noticed anything from taking it?
Reach out to @emeranmayer on Instagram and let me know!
E. Dylan Mayer is a recent graduate from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a major in Neuroscience and a minor in Business. He is fascinated by the connections between the health of the planet, the soil, the food that we eat and our own health.