Ashwagandha is considered an Ayurvedic medicine and is a powerful adaptogenic herb. Adaptogens have very unique properties that help your body adapt to stress. In order to be classified as an adaptogen, they must have balancing properties and work on multiple biological and physiological levels. For example, ashwaganda works to balance blood sugar by lowering it in people with elevated blood sugar and helping to raise it in those who may be hypoglycemic. It has the ability to help hypothyroid sufferers as well as hyperthyroid folks. No pharmaceuticals that I know of, can claim these unique balancing benefits.
While ashwaganda is best known for its ability to reduce stress and cortisol—a harmful hormone by-product of stress, it also has far reaching benefits for the whole body.
Reduces Chronic Stress, Cortisol and Adrenal Fatigue
Chronic stress can become very problematic to our health over time. During periods of high stress, the adrenal glands produce too much cortisol. This can result in chronically high blood sugar levels, which makes one more susceptible to diabetes, and chronic hunger—leading to weight gain. Excess cortisol also inhibits the body’s immune response, making it more easy to catch common illnesses like colds and flu, but also more serious stuff like pneumonia, and even cancer. Cortisol also inhibits digestion, exacerbating digestive issues, like heartburn and constipation or diarrhea. Cortisol also causes problems with blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and sleep.
When adrenal glands become overused, adrenal fatigue results. Unfortunately, adrenal fatigue starts a chain reaction that can also affect progesterone (in women), which is also a calming hormone, as well as affecting fertility and pregnancy—and DHEA (in men and women) which is a precursor to sex hormones, fights aging and adds stamina. Ashwagandha has been scientifically studied and has been found to not only reduce cortisol and C-reactive protein (CRP), but also to reduce stress, increase DHEA, lower blood pressure and heart rate, support the adrenal glands and even improve fertility issues.
Prevents and Helps Treat Cancer
Ashwagandha is also a powerful weapon against cancer. Not only does it show possible benefits in fighting existing cancer cells, but it also impedes the growth of new cancer cells. Animal studies show ashwagandha to be effectively beneficial against breast, lung, colon, brain and even ovarian cancer. In a study on mice with ovarian cancer, the mice who were given ashwagandha or a combination of ashwagandha and an anti-cancer medication, and had a 70-80% reduction in tumor growth and metastasis—that’s pretty significant!
It is thought that ashwagandha’s power against cancer may stem from it’s ability to boost the immune system, and its antioxidant power. Ashwaganda is known to increase white blood cell function, which is the body’s primary army against disease pathogens, including cancer. Ashwaganda also has a unique ability to stop the growth of blood vessels around cancer cells and tumors, thereby helping to starve cancer cells of necessary nutrients needed to survive.
Ashwagandha is also a partner to traditional chemotherapy for cancer. While most chemo treatments suppress immune function, ashwagandha, in combination with chemotherapy, actually allows the immune system to function better. This keeps cancer patients from being at such a high risk for developing infections and catching communicable diseases. Cancer experts are actually now beginning to recommend ashwagandha for both cancer prevention and cancer treatments.
As an adaptogen, ashwagandha helps to balance hormones, including thyroid hormone. In one study on mice, it was found that ashwaganda increased both T3 and T4 hormones after 20 days. Ashwaganda’s properties help to increase the overall function of the thyroid gland, including two of its principle thyroid hormones.
Ashwagandha can also help to balance out hyperthyroid issues as well, with its unique adaptogenic compounds. One important note for those on thyroid medication—since ashwagandha can affect thyroid hormone levels, be cautious when taking it, or ask your doctor. (Note: here’s a good guide on thyroid health if you’re concerned about your thyroid)
Boosts Brain Function, Decreases Anxiety and Depression
Ashwagandha contains the ability to bring about calmness, focus and raise mood, partly because it not only decreases cortisol, but it also helps to regulate key brain neurotransmitters, including serotonin—that ‘happy’ brain chemical and GABA, a beneficial calming and inhibitory neurotransmitter that is involved with anxiety disorders, insomnia, and muscle spasms.
In fact, in a recent study on ashwaganda on anxiety and depression, the results were comparable to the pharmaceutical drugs lorazepam and imipramine without harmful side effects that these drugs produce. In one study 300mg of ashwagandha, twice a day helped to reduce anxiety, improve focus, reduce stress, and decrease fatigue.
Ashwagandha’s powerful anti-inflammatory properties also protect the brain from degeneration, protect the neurons, and improve symptoms of Alzheimer’s. It is thought that the naturally occurring antioxidants in ashwagandha may help eliminate the free radicals that attack the brain and cause inflammation that is one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.
Results from one study on mice by the National Brain Research Centre showed after supplementing with ashwagandha for 20 days, the mice showed markedly improved retention and memory, with a reduction in the amyloid plaques, which are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.
Blood Sugar Control, Triglycerides and LDL Cholesterol
Several studies on ashwagandha and the blood show it highly effective in balancing or lowering blood sugar, as well as increasing insulin secretion and improving insulin sensitivity. Not only does it help to regulate blood sugar in those with diabetes, but it also helps to lower blood sugar levels in healthy people—which is a good thing. Studies have shown that higher blood sugar levels in even healthy individuals can raise the risk for heart disease, strokes, and even cancer.
Several human studies have confirmed its ability to reduce blood sugar levels in people with and without diabetes, and those whose blood sugar levels were elevated as a side effect of medication. In one study on patients with schizophrenia with elevated blood sugar from antipsychotics, those on ashwaganda had an average reduction in fasting blood sugar of 13.5mg/dL. And in one other small study of type 2 diabetics, it was reported that supplementing with ashwagandha for 30 days lowered their fasting blood sugar levels as effectively as a popular oral glycemic medication.
Because ashwagandha helps to regulate blood sugar, it also helps to lower triglycerides (which can be a result of high blood sugar. Not only does it help to lower triglycerides, but it also helps to lower the more harmful type of cholesterol, LDL. One study in rats found it lowered total cholesterol as much as 53% and triglycerides by 45%. And another study on human subjects LDL cholesterol decreased by 17%.
Boosts Testosterone and Increases Fertility
Ashwaganda’s positive effects on hormones in the body continue with testosterone. In one study of 75 infertile men, the group treated with ashwaganda had a noticeable increase in sperm count and motility. And this treatment jacked up their testosterone as well! And another study on ashwaganda and stress, showed that the men not only experienced a reduction in stress and an increase in antioxidants—but on top of that, 14% of the men’s partners became pregnant due to the increase in sperm count and motility. (Note for men interested in learning more about Testosterone, read this article: 7 foods that boost your sagging Testosterone)
Ashwagandha should be in every athlete’s supplement cabinet. Studies show it can actually boost endurance. It is thought this is because it not only sharpens brain activity, but reduces pain and inflammation, and lowers stress hormones. One scientific study on rats showed that they were able to swim twice as long as the test group.
Ashwagandha’s ability to balance adrenal hormones that build up over prolonged physical activity, combined with its ability to reduce inflammation, as in sore muscles and joints, and keep energy levels steady, can give competitive (or non-competitive) athletes an edge over their competition. Some studies also show ashwagandha’s ability to help with actual muscle gain and fat loss, as well as increasing strength.
Decreases Harmful Inflammation
Inflammation is one of the hallmarks of disease, and chronic inflammation can cause everything from heart attacks and diabetes, to arthritis and joint pain. Reducing inflammation is a key to maintaining good health. Ashwagandha helps improve joint pain in those who have arthritis, as well as increasing the body’s natural killer cells, which are the immune system’s first line of defense against harmful pathogens. Many pharmaceutical anti-inflammatories contain steroids which actually reduce immune system function.
Ashwagandha’s anti-inflammatory action also extends to reducing levels of C-reactive protein, a harmful inflammatory compound that is one of the key markers and risk factors for heart disease. This controlled study found a 36% decrease in CRP in the group taking 250mg of ashwagandha daily.
How to Take Ashwagandha
Ashwaganda is a safe supplement for most people but if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, avoid it until you check with your doctor. People with autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and type 1 diabetes should also avoid taking it unless cleared by a physician.
If you are taking medication for blood sugar or blood pressure, ashwagandha may interfere with or increase the effect of your medication, so again, check with your doctor before taking it.