Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an herb native to India and southeast Asia that has been used for medicinal purposes since the early days of Ayurvedic medicine, which originated in 6,000 B.C.
Traditional uses for ashwagandha include promotion of a “youthful state,” with touted benefits including its diuretic effects, anti-parasitic effects, improvements in libido, physical and mental health, increased longevity, as well as promotion of positive states of mind. Many of us feel stressed, and would like more energy, vigor, and a greater sense of wellbeing and happiness in spite of that stress.
However, for many of us, such claims based on tradition mean little if they do not hold up to the scrutiny of modern scientific research.
Can ashwagandha really benefit your mental and physical health, or is it an over-hyped waste of money?
Read on to learn the current research findings regarding ashwagandha as it relates to the health and wellbeing of both men and women!
**If you’re looking to buy an ashwagandha supplement, I go over 5 of the best ones (including one I take myself) in my ashwagandha supplement buying guide.**
- 1 Where Did Ashwagandha Come From?
- 2 Ashwagandha chemical properties
- 3 Current research findings: Ashwagandha & Health Benefits
- 4 Ashwagandha Health Benefits for Women
- 5 Ashwagandha Health Benefits in Men
- 6 Are there any risks in taking ashwagandha?
- 7 Wrapping it up
Where Did Ashwagandha Come From?
Ashwagandha derives its name from the Indian term for “horse,” ashwa–purportedly due to its smell, or due to the strength and vigor it allegedly bestows upon its users.
As part of the Ayurvedic traditional system of Indian medicine, ashwagandha is believed to serve as an adaptogenic herb.
Adaptogens, generally speaking, are substances such as herbs that are believed to support the body during times of stress. Research notes adaptogens may boost resilience against stress with the following actions:
- Nerve cell protection
- Stimulation of the central nervous system
- Reductions in sensations of fatigue, anxiety, and depression
- Improved mental and physical work capacity against a background of stress and fatigue
- Reductions in stress-induced dysfunction of the neuro-endocrine and immune systems (leading to a balancing of hormones and preservation of immunity despite stress)
Ashwagandha chemical properties
The precise bioactive components of ashwagandha have not yet been definitively identified. With more than 35 potential bioactive chemical components, including alkaloids, steroidal lactones, saponins, withanolides, and withaferin, research is beginning to hone in on several compounds of particular interest.
Sitoindosides VII-X and Withaferin-A may be responsible for some of the stress-reducing effects, while many of the compounds are believed to work synergistically to positively affect the immune system.
Current research findings: Ashwagandha & Health Benefits
While the traditional uses of ashwagandha are documented extensively, research on humans is limited at this time. The available research, however, has noted some very interesting findings.
Research findings in lab settings and with animals
Research findings in animals do not always carry over to humans, though serve as indicators at times for therapeutic potential of biologic agents, as well as potential for toxicity of such agents in humans. As such, animal studies are of some interest but results need to be taken “with a grain of salt.”
Research findings of note with animal studies includes:
- Improved endurance in a swimming time test for rats treated with ashwagandha, with the ashwagandha treated rats swimming 740 minutes versus 385 minutes for the control group
- Reduction of stress-challenge-induced gastric ulcers in rats
- Reduction in cortisol levels during a 5 hour swimming stress test for rats
- Anti-cancer effects against ovarian cancer in hamsters, protection against lung cancer formation in mice exposed to the carcinogen urethane
- Reversal of symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and restoration of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (impaired in Alzheimer’s disease) in rats with experimentally induced brain lesions (used to mimic Alzhimer’s disease)
- Protection of nerve cell integrity in experimental models in rats designed to mimic Parkinson’s disease
- Stimulation of nerve cell growth and connection formation in mouse models after damage due to exposure to amyloid toxin
- Anti-anxiety effects similar to the drug lorazepam (Ativan) in rats exposed to a stress challenge
- Pain reduction in rats exposed to a hot plate challenge
- Anti-inflammatory effects in animal models
While these findings are of interest, human research trials as listed below provide better evidence regarding the effects of ashwagandha in humans.
Human Clinical Trials Shows Ashwagandha Reduces Stress, Anxiety, Depression, & Insomnia
In one double-blinded, randomized controlled study, 64 participants with a history of high chronic stress and low self-ratings of wellbeing were randomly assigned to receive a placebo or one capsule twice daily containing 300mg high concentration, full spectrum ashwagandha root extract for a period of 60 days. The capsules were standardized to contain at least 5% withanolides.
The outcomes measured in the study included levels of the stress hormone cortisol, side effects, as well as participant perceptions of stress levels and general health as measured by standardized questionnaires.
The group taking ashwagandha experienced a 44% reduction in self-ratings of stress levels according to the Perceived Stress Scale versus the placebo group, which experienced only a 5% reduction in stress levels. The difference was rated as highly statistically significant, meaning there is a low chance that the effects were due to factors aside from the ashwagandha intervention.
On the General Health Questionnaire 28, which evaluates the effects of stress on bodily symptoms, anxiety, insomnia, depression, and social dysfunction, the group taking the ashwagandha again had significant, superior improvements as follows:
- Reduction of bodily symptoms of stress by 76.1% versus 4.9% for the placebo group
- Reduction of anxiety and insomnia by 69.7% versus 11.6% for the placebo group
- Reduction of social dysfunction by 68.1% versus an increase in social dysfunction by 3.7% for the placebo group
- Reduction of severe depression by 79.1% versus an increase in severe depression for the placebo group of 10.6%
- Overall reduction in stress symptoms by 72.3% versus a reduction of 2.3% for the placebo group
Similarly, a reduction of symptoms by 71.6% on the Depression-anxiety Stress Scale was noted for the group taking ashwagandha versus the placebo group.
Finally, these improvements in subjective self-ratings were supported by the measurement of stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is considered a biological marker of stress.
Participants taking ashwagandha saw a significant reduction of their serum cortisol levels by 27.1% versus the control group experiencing only a 7.9% reduction.
No significant adverse reactions were experienced by the group taking ashwagandha. The study is limited by its small group size and short term duration.
Ashwagandha Health Benefits for Women
Based on variations in hormone profiles and physiology, herbal supplements can affect men and women at times in different ways. Studying the groups separately can be useful for identifying unique benefits based on sex.
Improvements in sexual function and satisfaction
A pilot study randomized 50 women with current sexual partners experiencing sexual dysfunction into two groups with one group receiving high-concentration ashwagandha root extract at a dose of 300mg twice daily versus a group receiving placebo capsules for a period of 8 weeks. Similar to the study above, the ashwagandha capsules were standardized to contain at least 5% withanolides.
To be enrolled in the study, the women had to be experiencing a diagnosable level of hypoactive sexual desire disorder, female sexual arousal disorder, female orgasmic disorder, or a combination of genital and subjective psychological arousal disorder.
These disorders are characterized by symptoms such as pain during intercourse, lack of sexual desire, vaginal dryness, and difficulty achieving an orgasm. These symptoms can at times be caused or worsened by high levels of chronic stress.
In this study, the women in both groups also received counseling, with the ashwagandha (or a placebo) serving as an adjunctive treatment.
Significant improvements for the group taking ashwagandha versus the placebo were as follows:
- Improved arousal
- Improved lubrication
- Improved orgasms
- Improved sexual satisfaction
- Improved number of successful sexual encounters with their partner.
Both groups saw similar levels of improvement in pain and desire levels. No adverse side effects were noted in either group. Similar to the study referenced above, this study is limited by its small size, as well as limited time duration of 8 weeks.
Ashwagandha Health Benefits in Men
A study was conducted on 120 men to determine the effects of ashwagandha root powder on fertility. Sixty participants who were healthy and fertile served as a control group, while three groups of 20 participants plagued by infertility served as the experimental group.
The three groups of 20 infertile participants had normal sperm cells (showing that sperm counts and semen quality were factors in their infertility as opposed to abnormal sperm cells) upon inspection, and were grouped based on heavy smoking, high stress levels, and infertility due to unknown factors. They were given ashwagandha root powder at a dose of 5 grams per day for a period of 3 months.
Outcomes measures included semen quality analysis, testosterone, luteinizing hormone (LH), follicle stimulated hormone (FSH), prolactin hormone, and serum cortisol levels. Findings for the groups receiving ashwagandha powder were as follows:
- Improved sperm concentration in the smoking group by 20%, in the group reporting high stress levels by 36%, and by 17% in the group with infertility of unknown origins
- Improved sperm motility by 10%, 13%, and 9% in those same groups respectively
- Improved liquefaction time with reductions of time to liquify by 20%, 34%, and 19% amongst the groups respectively
- Successful induction of pregnancy during the study for 10% of the smokers, 15% for the group reporting high stress, and 15% for the group with infertility of unknown origins
- Improved levels of antioxidants and reductions of pro-oxidants in the seminal fluids upon analysis of the semen for all three groups
For these improvements, sperm concentration and reduced liquefaction times were statistically significant for all three groups–meaning the effects are unlikely due to other factors aside from the ashwagandha. For the improved motility, all three groups improved but only the smokers and those suffering from psychological stress achieved statistically significant improvements.
Restore A Healthy Hormone Balance
Men who took ashwagandha experienced an increase in testosterone and luteinizing hormone, and a reduction in cortisol and follicle stimulating hormone.
While you may care less about fertility depending on where you are at in life, chances are you do care about having healthy hormone profiles. For the participants in the study above, hormone profile changes trended towards normalcy after treatment with the ashwagandha.
Prior to the intervention, the infertile group had lower testosterone and luteinizing hormone levels compared to the fertile control group.
- Everyone is familiar with testosterone–the hormone that drives lean body composition, sex drive, reductions in anxiety, among other effects.
- Luteinizing hormone is produced in the anterior pituitary gland and stimulates the production of testosterone in the testes.
The infertile group compared to the healthy control group prior to the intervention had higher hormone levels of:
- Prolactin hormone: high levels have been linked to development of femine characteristics and erectile dysfunction
- Follicle stimulating hormone : elevated levels can occur with damage to the testes
Following the ashwagandha, these differences were reduced significantly, with a trend towards normalcy following treatment.
Improvements in hormone profiles for the groups receiving ashwagandha were as follows:
- Increased testosterone levels in the smokers by 8%, in the psychologically stressed group by 22%, and by 13% in the group that was infertile for unknown reasons
- Increased luteinizing hormone by 16%, 21%, and 11% in the same groups respectively
- Decreased prolactin to the point that it matched the healthy control group in the infertile smoking group and infertile group with infertility of unknown origins, but not in the psychologically stressed infertile group
- Decreased follicle stimulating hormone levels in all three groups, with levels dropping to essentially match the levels found in the healthy control group
- Decreased cortisol levels in all three treatment groups, with a reduction of 28% in infertile smokers, 32% in those with high stress, and 11% in those with infertility of unknown origins.
Are there any risks in taking ashwagandha?
Studies in humans tend to be short term/ limited in duration. As such, the long term effects of ashwagandha are unclear. Medication/ herb interactions are possible. Consult your healthcare provider prior to taking an herb to treat any medical condition.
Side effects can include drowsiness, loose stools, and nausea, though these effects were not generally reported in the research described above. Allergic reactions are possible, especially for those who have allergies to other plants found in the nightshade category (such as peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplant).
Additional, safety considerations may include rare cases of elevations of liver enzymes/ liver damage, particularly when withanolides are dosed at high levels, decreases in blood sugar and blood pressure, blood thinning effects, and uncertainties regarding safety during pregnancy. Persons with underlying kidney disease or liver disease may want to avoid ashwagandha.
Wrapping it up
Ashwagandha is a promising adaptogenic herb that appears to promote a more healthy stress response by promoting normalization of hormones that become dysregulated during times of chronic stress.
Improved mood, reduced anxiety levels, improved sexual function, and improved hormone profiles have all been observed in both animal and human research trials.
Until more is known, ashwagandha usage may best serve as a short-term measure during times of high stress.
Nonetheless, if you are looking to reduce stress levels, balance your hormones, and improve your sexual health, thousands of years of traditional uses in Ayurvedic medicine–in combination with a growing amount of supporting scientific research–support adding an ashwagandha supplement to your diet!
Further reading: If you’re looking for the best ashwagandha supplements, make sure to check out our ashwagandha supplement buying guide here. There’s a lot of crappy ashwagandha supplements, so we did a deep dive into most reputable companies so you can feel confident you’re getting pure ashwagandha and not some filler. I take the #1 option on our list myself.