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Last updated June 3, 2020. 8 minute read

Ashwagandha uses: what can this medicinal plant help with?

Ashwagandha is known to help with stress, but its potential ability to lower cortisol benefits many other systems in your body. It’s believed that by lowering cortisol, ashwagandha may help build muscle mass and boost testosterone levels in men.

Linnea Zielinski Written by Linnea Zielinski
Reviewed by Dr. Mike Bohl, MD, MPH

Jim Carrey does so much more than absurd comedies. Despite the quality of movies like Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, he’s best known for his antics in films like The Mask. That’s not to say he isn’t a fantastic dramatic actor but rather that people tend to cling to one defining attribute. And that holds true whether we’re talking about film stars or supplements. The uses of ashwagandha span far beyond stress reduction, and yet that’s what it’s most widely known for.

Vitals

  • Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, a plant that may help your body adapt to different kinds of stress.
  • This root gets many of its benefits from potent compounds called withanolides.
  • Ashwagandha is known to help with stress, but its potential ability to lower cortisol benefits many other systems in your body.
  • It’s believed that by lowering cortisol, ashwagandha may help build muscle mass and boost testosterone levels in men.
  • But you need to buy supplements from a company you trust since ashwagandha is not regulated.

Ashwagandha or Withania somnifera, also called Indian ginseng or winter cherry, is an adaptogen—a family of medicinal plants such as herbs and roots popular in alternative medicine that potentially help the body adapt to or deal with all kinds of stressors. Those stressors may be mental or physical. (Other popular adaptogens include American and Siberian ginseng, some mushrooms like cordyceps, and rhodiola.) Although ashwagandha has been gaining popularity in the United States for the past few years, it has long been an essential herb of Ayurvedic, Indian, and African traditional medicine, which use both the roots and berries of the plant for treatments.

What is ashwagandha used for?

Ashwagandha root is considered a drug of “Rasayana,” a Sanskrit word that translates to path of essence and a practice of Ayurvedic medicine that refers to the science of lengthening lifespan. And this herb earns its place thanks to withanolides, naturally occurring steroidal lactones (the most well-known of which is withaferin A) that are found in the root that give it its potent medicinal power. Living a long life requires a lot of systems of your body to keep working properly, and, as you’ll see below, ashwagandha’s uses extend to most parts of the body.

But it is worth noting that just because participants in studies saw some health benefits from this adaptogen doesn’t mean the same will necessarily happen for you.

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It’s commonly used to help treat stress

In the Western world, this has been the headliner for ashwagandha. But we’re a little short-sighted when we talk about stress. Stress on our bodies can be from emotional, physical, or psychological sources—but no matter where they come from, they affect our cortisol. You probably know cortisol as the stress hormone, which gets the nickname because our adrenal glands release it in response to stress. (For the record, some cortisol is not just good but vital for get-up-and-go reactions like waking up and having the energy to go about your day.)

Ashwagandha may help lower how much cortisol your adrenal glands pump out in response to stress. One study that gave participants a high-dose of ashwagandha root extract found that, compared to a placebo, it significantly reduced serum cortisol levels. The participants of this study also reported a better quality of life because their perceived stress levels diminished (Chandrasekhar, 2012). And another clinical trial gave employees who had experienced at least six weeks of moderate to severe anxiety high-dose ashwagandha and found it significantly improved mental health, concentration, energy levels, social functioning, vitality, and overall quality of life (Cooley, 2009).

It may be used to boost testosterone and fertility in men

Infertile men treated with ashwagandha powder had increased sperm count and motility in one study that included 75 fertile and 75 infertile men. Their oxidative stress, an imbalance between damaging free radicals and antioxidants in the body, also decreased while their testosterone levels went up (Ahmad, 2010). But another study is especially promising for men struggling with infertility. In men experiencing stress, ashwagandha decreased their stress levels but also did more—the supplement was associated with increased antioxidants in the blood and improved sperm quality (Mahdi, 2011).

It may be used to reduce blood sugar levels

This herb from Ayurveda may be surprisingly effective at controlling blood sugar, human studies have found. Powder made from ashwagandha root was able to lower blood sugar in patients with type 2 diabetes as much as an oral diabetes medication, one study found (Andallu, 2000). Another study underscored the connection. Researchers noted significant differences in fasting blood glucose between patients taking high-dose ashwagandha and those given a placebo. In the second study, the effects were dose-dependent: the larger the dose of the adaptogenic root, the larger the reduction in blood sugar levels (Auddy, 2008). It’s believed this is due to how it acts on cortisol, which plays a role in regulating blood sugar.

It may be used to decrease inflammation

The anti-inflammatory medicine from Ayurveda that gets a lot of attention is turmeric. While turmeric may have already earned its place in your spice cabinet, it’s not the only Ayurvedic staple with powerful effects on inflammation. One study found that ashwagandha was associated with the decrease of a marker of inflammation linked to negative health effects. In fact, this marker—called C-reactive protein (CRP)—was decreased by 36% in participants in one study with a daily dose of 250 mg of ashwagandha extract (Auddy, 2008). In another study, tea made with Withania somnifera, and four other Ayurvedic herbs were associated with increased levels of natural killer (NK) cells in humans (Bhat, 2009). These cells are part of your immune system and fight infection, one potential source of inflammation.

It may be used to increase muscle mass

The word ashwagandha is Sanskrit for “smell of the horse,” and references the herb’s ability to increase strength—and its unique smell. Indeed, studies have found that one of the benefits of ashwagandha may be boosting muscle mass and muscle strength (Raut, 2012). Although it was a small study, another showed that this herb from Ayurveda might benefit those on a weight lifting regimen. At the end of the eight-week study, participants taking the supplement had increased their bench press by 176% more than those taking the placebo. Their strength gains on leg extension also outpaced their placebo-taking counterparts, and they gained significantly more muscle size. Researchers believe this may be due to ashwagandha’s ability to lower cortisol, which is catabolic, meaning it breaks down muscle tissue (Wankhede, 2015).

It may be used to help with rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory disorder that commonly affects the joints but may affect more. Inflammation is the driving force, which you already know ashwagandha may help diminish. There’s a long history of Withania somnifera being used to address joint inflammation. Ayurvedic medicine would mash the root into a paste that was applied to ulcers and caruncles as a pain reliever as well as to joints to ease inflammation. A small study found scientific backing for this tradition, noting that in combination with another Ayurvedic treatment for arthritis called Sidh Makardhwaj, ashwagandha powder eased swollen and painful joints in people with RA (Singh, 2011). More research needs to be done to confirm the findings.

It may be used to lower cholesterol

We do actually need some cholesterol, despite its bad reputation. Among other things, cholesterol is integral in the production of key hormones in our bodies. But elevated levels of LDL cholesterol can damage arteries and increase your risk of heart disease and stroke over time. Withania somnifera appears to lower LDL cholesterol with consistent use (Raut, 2012). A very small study noted a similar decrease in LDL cholesterol as well as VLDL (very low-density lipoproteins) cholesterol in participants after 30 days of use (Andallu, 2000).

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It may (eventually) be used to help mental function

Though the practice of using ashwagandha for brain health is a long Ayurvedic practice, research in humans is lagging behind. There are small studies that have suggested one of the health benefits of ashwagandha is improved cognitive functioneven in those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) (Pingali, 2014; Choudhary, 2017). But we’re eager to apply that science to people with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and the science just isn’t there yet. Animal studies show great promise as a treatment for these diseases, but more research is needed in humans.

These animal studies suggest that this herb can potentially help dendrite formation (which would help brain cells communicate better with each other) and protect the brain against beta-amyloid, a plaque that causes cell damage and death and plays a role in the development of Alzheimer’s (Kuboyama, 2009; Jayaprakasam, 2010). Many of these potential benefits come from compounds in the herb called glycowithanolides, which have antioxidant properties. But we cannot be sure this holds true in humans until more research is done.

Potential side effects of ashwagandha

Ashwagandha has remarkably low rates of side effects across various clinical trials, but they do happen. One participant in a study on Withania somnifera dropped out after experiencing increased appetite and libido as well as vertigo (Raut, 2012). But there are groups of people who shouldn’t take it, especially not without first talking to their healthcare provider.

Pregnant and breast-feeding women should avoid ashwagandha. And people with an autoimmune disease—such as Hashimoto’s, rheumatoid arthritis, or lupus—need to consult with a medical professional before starting a supplement regimen. Also, talk to a healthcare provider if you’re on thyroid hormone medication. Ashwagandha may increase your thyroid function, which could interact with your prescription. It’s also part of the nightshade family, so those following a diet that eliminates this group of plants (that includes tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants) should avoid taking this supplement.

Things to consider when purchasing ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is considered a supplement, a class of products that’s only loosely regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). So though products like ashwagandha powder, extract, and capsules are readily available at health stores and online, it’s important to buy from a company you trust.