Ashwagandha: Benefits, Uses, and Side Effects
Ashwagandha supplements have become popular in recent years and are frequently touted as an important part of healthy lifestyles. Here is what the science says about this supplement.
A supplement rooted in traditional medicine
Ashwagandha, also known as winter cherry, is an herb native to the Indian subcontinent. It has long been a centerpiece in the vast repertoire of natural remedies and has been used for centuries.
Often referred to as “Indian ginseng”, Ashwagandha is not merely a supplement. It has a 3,000-year history as being part of Ayurveda and is steeped in cultural and historical significance. As it has been a cornerstone in traditional medicine, it has been used to treat a myriad of ailments ranging from stress to inflammation .
Ashwagandha, a Sanskrit word meaning “smell of the horse”, was believed to give the strength and vitality of a stallion . The classic texts of Ayurveda extolled its virtues as a potent “rasayana”, meaning restorative herb . Ayurveda practitioners believe it to promote longevity and holistic well-being. Ashwagandha has also found a place in Middle Eastern and African traditional medicine [4, 5].
Ashwagandha is marketed as standardized capsules, raw powder, and tea infusions. While capsules offer convenience, traditionalists often lean toward the powdered root and blend it into warm milk for enhanced absorption.
What is ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera) is a small shrub with velvety, branched stems and simple, ovate leaves. Its distinct red berries, enclosed in a lantern-like calyx, often draw attention. However, it’s the roots that are of the most scientific interest.
Thriving primarily in the arid regions of India, the Middle East, and Northern Africa, it is remarkably drought-resistant and adaptable, flourishing in challenging environments.
Ashwagandha has several potent bioactive constituents. Among these, withanolides, which are naturally occurring steroidal lactones, take center stage . Specifically, withaferin A and withanolide D have been found to be the primary drivers behind ashwagandha’s various health benefits .
While the herb contains many alkaloids, saponins, and amino acids , it’s the withanolides that are most interesting to modern researchers. These compounds modulate pathways in the human body in a way that may impact health outcomes.
Understanding the interplay of withanolides with physiological systems sheds light on ashwagandha’s enduring presence in traditional medicine. Ashwagandha’s reported health benefits primarily include reduced stress and anxiety, improved cognitive and neurological function, and enhanced immune function.
The herb exerts its effects by regulating cortisol , the body’s primary stress hormone. Elevated cortisol levels, which accompany chronic stress, can wreak havoc on bodily systems . Ashwagandha’s role in normalizing these levels provides a biological foundation for its anti-stress claims.
Cognitive and neurological health may also benefit from ashwagandha. Several studies have unearthed its potential in not just halting cognitive decline , but, in some cases, even reversing it .
By modulating neural pathways, fostering the growth of neurons, and protecting the brain [13, 14], ashwagandha may be useful for conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s .
The immune system may also be be bolstered by ashwagandha. With its ability to manipulate the immune system, the herb enhances the creation of lymphocytes and white blood cells vital for immune response .
This effect does not seem to be transient; instead, ashwagandha appears to boost the body’s inherent defense systems . It has also been reported to have anti-inflammatory benefits, likely due to its ability to block pro-inflammatory signals . Anecdotally as well as clinically, there have also been reports of improved strength, stamina, and overall health with use [19, 20].
Ashwagandha is being explored in the fields of neuropsychiatry and immunology . There are also recent studies that are exploring its anti-cancer properties .
While ashwagandha can be beneficial, it had some potential adverse effects. Excessive consumption can lead to symptoms like constipation, bloating, reflux, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and cramps. It can even lead to more subtle symptoms such as drowsiness.
In terms of reproductive health, pregnant and breastfeeding women are often advised to exercise caution, with some professionals recommending complete avoidance.
Half a gram to a gram appears to be a safe dose of ashwagandha. However, people with medical conditions or prescriptions should consult with healthcare providers before taking it .
This article is only a very brief summary, is not intended as an exhaustive guide, and is based on the interpretation of research data, which is speculative by nature. This article is not a substitute for consulting your physician about which supplements may or may not be right for you. We do not endorse supplement use or any product or supplement vendor, and all discussion here is for scientific interest.
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