Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera, Indian ginseng) is probably the most well-known adaptogen herb there is, which is used in Ayurveda medicine. Ayurveda, the traditional system of medicine practiced in India can be traced back to 6000 BC. For most of these 6000 years, Ashwagandha has been used as a Rasayana (nourishes, detoxifies, enhances immunity). The root of Ashwagandha is regarded as a tonic, aphrodisiac, narcotic, diuretic, antiparasitic, astringent, thermogenic and stimulant. The root smells like horse (“ashwa”), that is why it is called Ashwagandha (on consuming it gives the power of a horse). The Nagori Ashwagandha is the supreme among all Ashwagandha varieties.
The biologically active chemical constituents of ashwagandha include alkaloids (tropine, cuscohygrine, isopelletierine, anaferine, cuseohygrine, anahygrine, etc.), steroidal lactones (withanolides, withaferins) and saponins (1).
Ashwagandha has numerous benefits, and here are a few:
- has a GABA mimetic effect which promotes the formation of dendrites, the growth of new neurons, is anti-anxiety and increases growth hormone (2)
- improves energy levels and mitochondrial health (better energy production, less fatigue) (3)
- is anti-inflammatory, analgesic & anti-arthritic (provides arthritis relieve, or just general pain relieve) (4, 5)
- is a powerful adaptogenic herb which enhances the body’s resilience to stress (makes you more calm, less likely to get angry or frustrated) (6)
- has a calming (anti-anxiety) and anti-depressing effect (7)
- improves immunity (less likely to get an infection) (8)
- is a potent anti-oxidant (protects against oxidative stress which can lead to inflammation and disease) (9)
- has cognition promoting effects and a nootropic effect (10)
- promotes better sleep (A)
- has thyroid mimetic properties
Keeps cortisol in check
Cortisol is a good hormone your body very much needs, however too much of it is not a good thing. Having chronic high cortisol can lead to adrenal fatigue, trouble falling asleep and getting up in the morning, eye floaters, hot flushes, etc..
In this study (14), 300 mg of high-concentration full-spectrum extract lowered cortisol by 27.9% after 28 days, and the results remained the same even after 60 days of use, indicating that there isn’t a need to cycle after 2 months.
As we know high cortisol lowers testosterone by inhibiting the pulsating secretion of LH, increases the aromatase, slows the thyroid and prevents the liver from detoxifying toxins. (15). So it’s a good thing to keep cortisol levels under control.
Ashwagandha lowers the cortisol response associated with chronic and acute stress, prevents the reduction in adrenal ascorbic acid, and helps to maintain normal cortisol levels. (16)
More about lowering cortisol here…
Anti-anxiety & anti-learned helplessness & nootropic
In order to focus optimally, your brain needs to be quiet, undistracted from intrusive thoughts. Anxiety, stress and learned helplessness are all associated with elevated cortisol and serotonin/low dopamine and alterations with our cholinergic signalling.
Thus, we want to boost dopamine (for focus, motivation, etc), lower cortisol (less brain fog, anxiety, frustration, etc), increase cholinergic signalling (focus and attention) and activate GABA receptors (calmness and relaxation).
Ashwagandha is very effective at:
- boosting dopamine in the brain (16)
- increasing cholineacetyltransferase which increase acetylcholine synthesis
- enhancing M1-muscarinic-cholinergic receptor-bindings (greater acetylcholine receptor sensitivity)
- lowering cortisol
- activating GABA-A receptors. (17, 18)
- potentially lowering serotonin, as it’s effect is potentiated by cyproheptadine (R)
GABA-A is mainly inhibitory, which make it more difficult for excitatory neurotransmitters to depolarize the neuron and generate an action potential.
As a side note, ashwagandha significantly enhances the sensitivity of 5 HT2 (serotonin-2) receptors in the brain and a reciprocal sub-sensitivity of the 5HT1A receptors (19). Enhanced sensitivity could indicate reduces binding, as over-stimulation of a receptor will reduce its sensitivity. 5-HT2 stimulation increases prolactin (5-HT2A) and ACTH (5-HT2C) release. This may indicate one of the mechanisms at which ashwagandha is potently anti-cortisol, as it reduces 5-HT2C sensitivity, thus reducing cortisol synthesis. This may also indicate that ashwagandha may be effective at lowering prolactin.
Ashwagandha increases testosterone, not only in infertile men, but also in normal men.
Let’s look at these studies:
- Ashwagandha root powder increases testosterone significantly in infertile men, as well as lowers prolactin (possible via lower 5-HT2A binding) (20).
- 675 mg/d of ashwagandha full-spectrum root extract increases testosterone by 17% and LH by 34% after 12 weeks of treatment in oligospermia (low sperm count) men (21).
- 5g/d of ashwagandha root powder increases testosterone by 13% after 12 weeks in men with normozoospermia (normal sperm count, meaning, not low testosterone). (22)
- 300mg of ashwagandha KSM-66 extract twice daily combined with resistance exercise resulted in significant greater increase in strength (nearly double), significant greater hypertrophy and fat loss after 8 weeks plus significant greater increase in testosterone (630 to 726.6 ng/dl) compared to the placebo (675 to 693 ng/dl) group. (23)
Many ashwagandha users can attest of its anabolic and androgenic effect.
Improves thyroid function & energy production
The thyroid is very important for overall health.
- increase basal metabolic rate (help burn fat)
- increase protein synthesis (help build muscle faster)
- work in synergy with growth hormone
- increase the body’s sensitivity to catecholamines, such as adrenaline
- increases cortisol excretion from the body
- significantly increase testosterone and DHT (A)
- lowers estrogen
- increase energy production
- increases brain power
The active thyroid hormone, T3:
- synthesizes testosterone in the Leydig cells of the testes, which increases testosterone production. (26)
- inhibits the aromatase effect. Meaning less testosterone gets irreversibly converted to estrogen. Resulting in more free T. (27)
- up regulates androgen receptors –> more receptors for testosterone to bind to. (28)
- cause proliferation of the cytoplasmic organelle peroxisome and stimulate the production of steroidogenic acute regulatory protein (StAR) and StAR mRNA in Leydig cells; both peroxisomes and StAR are linked with the transport of cholesterol (29)
Further in vitro evidence show that ashwagandha increases uncoupling in the mitochondria and Mg2+ dependent ATPase activity of granulation tissue (8) and restores the altered activity levels of succinate dehydrogenase, MTT, membrane bound enzymes viz., NADH-cytochrome-c reductase and succinate-cytochrome-c reductase due to neurotoxins back to normal. (30)
Improves performance & greater hypertrophy
Ashwagandha is the bomb when it comes to exercise.
Ashwagandha root improves the cardio-respiratory endurance of elite athletes, by increasing VO2max and time before exhaustion. (31, 32) Ashwagandha also improves the hemoglobin (Hb) count and red blood cell (RBC) count, (33) which increases oxygen transport to muscles. It even doubles the swimming time in rats, due to the lowering of cortisol and anxiety. (34)
It’s not only good of aerobic exercise, but also in anaerobic exercises.
This one study showed (35) that individuals who ingest 300mg of ashwagandha root extract twice daily, increased their bench press strength (46kg) to nearly double that of the placebo group (26.4kg), gained 62% and 135% more muscle on their arms and chest respectively and a 133% greater amount of fat loss.
This increase in muscle and strength could all be accounted for by lowering cortisol (which is catabolic), inflammation and oxidative stress and increasing thyroid. The net effect would lead to higher testosterone, fat loss, faster muscle recovery, better mitochondrial function and energy production, and an increase in muscle protein synthesis.
Ashwahandha – 300mg (KSM-66) per cap, 120 caps
For my South African viewers:
Ashwagandha – 500mg (KSM-66, 5% withanolides) per serving, 60 servings, >99% purity.