Ashwagandha: The Wonder Herb
A Bite-Size Read for Your Health and Your Waistline
Typically in the supplement aisle, you may have seen it as an ingredient in gummy vitamins or testosterone powder. But what is ashwagandha? How does it work? And is it worth using?
Ashwagandha (also known as Withania Somnifera or Indian ginseng) is an herb native to India and North Africa. While it might be new to some of us, it certainly is not new. It has been used for 3000 years to relieve stress (yes, they had stress 3,000 years ago), increase energy, and improve concentration. Research suggests ashwagandha may have calming capabilities and help us balance moods. This amazing herb also has some antioxidant properties and can support healthy cortisol levels.
What interests me most about ashwagandha is that it falls into a category of herbs called adaptogens. Adaptogens have been used for thousands of years to help with mood stabilization. They are natural substances that help the body adapt to physical and emotional stressors by bringing us back to equilibrium through raising or lowering certain hormone levels. If something’s too high, it brings it down, and if something’s too low, it brings it up.
There’s some evidence that ashwagandha can help lower blood sugar. A test-tube study found that it increased insulin secretion and improved insulin sensitivity in muscle cells. Human studies suggest that ashwagandha can reduce blood sugar levels in both healthy people and those with diabetes. Of course, work with your healthcare provider, but I think it’s interesting.
For men, studies on ashwagandha show: improved fertility, increased muscle mass, strength, body composition, testosterone, sperm count, and motility. Most of the men got their partners pregnant shortly after the study as well.
There were also some studies about inflammation that show ashwagandha contains CRP (C-Reactive Protein) which is a marker of inflammation and is connected to cardiovascular health. That same study that saw the reduction in CRP also showed a 70% decrease in bad cholesterol and an 11% decrease in triglycerides. So ashwagandha could provide some real cholesterol triglyceride cardiovascular support!
Ashwagandha can also reduce the stress placed on our adrenal. We often hear about adrenal fatigue — ashwagandha may be helpful with that. It’s thought that ashwagandha can mimic GABA, which is our primary inhibitory neurotransmitter that controls a lot of functions in the mind and body. Researchers reported that ashwagandha blocked the stress pathway in the brains of rats by regulating chemical signals from the nervous system. There are several human studies on this also. One study followed 64 people with chronic stress for 60 days. Those who supplemented with ashwagandha reported a 69% reduction in anxiety and insomnia on average, compared to 11% in the placebo group. In another study of people that lasted six weeks, 88% of the people who took ashwagandha reported a reduction in anxiety compared to 50% who took a placebo.
You might hear people talk about the anti-cancer properties of ashwagandha. A lot of these studies actually point to improvement or support around a variety of different types of cancer in body parts such as breasts, lungs, colons, ovaries, and brains. That’s thanks to a compound known as withaferin, which helps induce apoptosis, which is programmed cell death. One of the things we know about cancer cells is that they don’t die when they’re supposed to. So ashwagandha supports the death of cells when they’re supposed to die! Another study found that withaferin may impede the growth of new cancer cells. There were studies on mice that had ovarian tumors who were treated with withaferin. These studies showed a 70 to 80% reduction in tumor growth and researchers found withaferin also prevented the spread of cancer to other organs. While we don’t know a whole lot about how this works with humans, the animal studies definitely show interesting results and I have to think that research on the human side is soon to come.
A couple of caveats: Notice, a lot of these studies are on animals like mice and rats, and while some are on humans, it would be great to continue and expand the research. If you’re currently taking antiplatelet, anticoagulants, antihypertensives, antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, are a kidney transplant recipient or have any ongoing medical conditions, consult your healthcare provider or pharmacist, as with most things you read about. Pharmacists are often more knowledgeable about contraindications than a lot of our doctors; don’t forget about them as a resource! Also, note that because of the calming effects, it might impact or decrease the effects of caffeine and other stimulants, including ones meant to promote the burning of body fat. Finally, if you experience any stomach upset your dosage might be too high.
All in all, ashwagandha research is promising for supporting our overall health, especially through these challenging times. Perhaps this adaptogen is exactly what you’ve been looking for?