Herbal supplements have become a particularly common way to promote overall health.
Indeed, herbs themselves have a long history of being used to treat disease and reduce the risk of any health problems.
When it comes to health, some herbs are more relevant than others. In many cases, taking an herbal supplement will offer few benefits (or none at all), especially if you have a healthy and balanced diet.
Nevertheless, some herbal supplements truly do have potential. One of these is ashwagandha root extract. Ashwagandha itself has a significant history of being used in traditional medicine and research also suggests that it offers a range of benefits to health.
So, what are the ashwagandha root extract benefits and is the supplement something you should be taking?
What is Ashwagandha Root?
Ashwagandha is an herb, with the scientific name Withania somnifera.
- It is a fairly small shrub that has yellow flowers.
- As the herb is native to North Africa and India, it is most commonly found in powder, leaf or extract form in the United States.
- Ashwagandha is also known by some other names, particularly Indian ginseng, poison gooseberry and also winter cherry (1).
Like many herbs, it has a reputation of being used in traditional medicine. Specifically, ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb. It's also associated with Ayurveda - a type of alternative medicine based on Indian healing principles (2).
Ashwagandha is significant in modern herbal medicine too. You'll often find it in the form of ashwagandha root tablets and extract. Researchers have also been interested in the root and its potential implications for health (3).
Also known as Indian ginseng and winter cherry, ashwagandha is a herb with strong ties to Indian herbal medicine
How does Ashwagandha Work?
Most of the research into ashwagandha root extract and ashwagandha itself, have focused on the benefits that the herb offers, rather than the mechanisms behind any positive outcomes.
- These two products are both associated with a wide range of health benefits, which are connected to the compounds that they contain.
- Yet, despite the large amount of research on both coffee and chocolate, we still do not fully understand all of the mechanisms behind the health benefits
In the case of ashwagandha, some chemical components are of particular interest and may contribute to health benefits. This includes compounds known as withanolides and these have been connected to fighting inflammation and cancer (4).
Ashwagandha Root Extract Benefits
The potential benefits of ashwagandha aren’t just connected to traditional medicine. Instead, there has been some research into this supplement and the impacts that it can have on health.
While there is still a lot that we don’t know about ashwagandha root in the body, it’s clear that this plant is worth seriously considering if you are trying to improve your health.
Can Lower Blood Sugar
One of the most frequently discussed implications of ashwagandha root is lowering blood sugar levels. This is particularly relevant for people with diabetes but decreasing blood sugar is often desirable even in healthy individuals.
Indeed, one study even indicated that ashwagandha root powder could be as effective as medication to decrease blood sugar levels (8). Nevertheless, that particular study was very small and further research needs to be done to confirm the findings.
One potential mechanism for this action is the the way that ashwagandha may be able to increase insulin secretion and sensitivity in some cells (9).
Significant evidence suggests that ashwagandha can lower blood sugar in people with and without diabetes
Improves Blood Chemistry
While the results in humans have not been dramatic, they are still relevant.
In particular, these outcomes suggest that ashwagandha may be another way to help keep your blood chemistry healthy and reduce your risk of problems like heart disease.
Ashwagandha can also improve cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood
Relevant for Fighting Stress
Stress is a fairly common component of modern life. For that matter, some people find that they are fighting stress on a daily basis.
As a result, fighting stress at the biological level can be a relevant goal and potentially offers health benefits (18). Likewise, doing so may be especially important if you want to achieve weight loss goals.
- Research indicates that ashwagandha plays a key role in fighting a range of biochemical indicators of stress (19).
- Likewise, research shows that ashwagandha can help to decrease cortisol levels and cortisol is widely known as the ‘stress hormone’ (20,21,22).
- For that matter, some research suggests that ashwagandha can interfere with the chemical stress pathway (23).
Research in humans also shows that supplementation can reduce symptoms associated with anxiety and stress disorders (24,25,26). This includes an overall reduction in the sense of anxiety (27,28) and an increase in the reported quality of life (29). This extends to reducing stress for those with schizophrenia.
Ashwagandha may be particularly relevant for fighting chronic stress through a range of mechanisms
Has the Potential to Reduce Depression Symptoms
A related area is the connection between ashwagandha root and depression.
That outcome makes sense, as there is some overlap between depression, stress and anxiety, especially in terms of symptoms.
For that matter, simply decreasing stress and anxiety could have positive outcomes for people with depression, even if ashwagandha didn’t directly impact depression.
The herb may also decrease symptoms of depression, although more research is needed
Can Improve Male Reproductive Health
This outcome may be partly related to stress.
For example, one study argued that stress plays a key role in male infertility.
- The authors of this study used treatment with ashwagandha root powder and found that the supplement decreased stress and also had an impact on stress-related infertility.
- The treatment led to pregnancies for the partners of 14% of the patients, who had previously been considered infertile (36).
That study and others have indicated that one outcome of the ashwagandha supplementation is to improve the quality of semen (37,38,39,40). Indeed, ashwagandha root isn't the only natural compound to have this impact either. For example, tongkat ali supplements are also used for improving male reproductive health, particularly through testosterone.
Ashwagandha may be especially relevant for males due to impacts on testosterone and male reproductive health
Can Help Improve Body Composition
One randomized trial on this topic looked at outcomes across an 8-week period. The study involved 57 young males who were split into two groups.
The authors of the study found that the group taking ashwagandha supplements experienced significantly greater muscle mass increases, along with improvements in strength. At the same time, the supplement group decreased in body fat percentage (44).
As I mentioned earlier, ashwagandha is also relevant for weight loss indirectly because of the impact that it has on stress.
The supplement may help people to gain muscle and lose weight
May Fight Cancer
Ashwagandha may also help reduce the spread of cancer across organs (50).
Now, research has only focused on animals and there is no evidence about effects in humans. However, this is not surprising, as cancer research is a slow and challenging process.The site Science-Based Medicine offers some insights into why that is the case.
There is early evidence that ashwagandha can help fight cancer
Could Improve Brain Function
There is also some early evidence that ashwagandha could help to improve function in the brain. In particular, the supplement may help people with problems as the result of disease or injury (51,52,53).
Some of this outcome may be the result of antioxidant activity.
Now, the herb is traditionally used to improve memory in healthy people as well.It isn’t clear whether or not ashwagandha has that effect because the research hasn’t been done.
Realistically, there are relatively few human studies on ashwagandha and most of these don’t focus on brain function.
Nevertheless, one study did indicate that 250 mg of ashwagandha twice daily can help to improve cognitive performance in healthy participants (54).
As such, there is some suggestion that an effect on brain function may be present. More research is still needed though, especially as that human study only used 20 participants.
Ashwagandha may be relevant for improving brain function but this is another area where research is limited
May Reduce Knee Pain
One interesting study looked at how ashwagandha might decrease knee pain (55). The study involved three different groups:
- Participants taking 250 mg of ashwagandha per day
- Participants taking 125 mg of ashwagandha per day
- Participants taking a placebo pill
The authors did find that outcomes were much better with the higher ashwagandha dose, with participants in the 250 mg group experiencing less stiffness and knee pain.
The outcomes may be due to ashwagandha having anti-inflammatory impacts. But, the mechanisms aren't fully understood.
Ashwagandha can reduce knee pain and potentially other pain as well, although more studies are needed.
Other Potential Benefits
Ashwagandha has also been linked to other advantages. There has typically been less evidence on these but they are still important.
- Improves thyroid function. Two studies have shown that ashwagandha can contribute to better thyroid outcomes across an 8-week period (56,57).
- May improve adrenal function. The idea of adrenal fatigue is highly debated and not one we're going to cover here. But, one article suggests that ashwagandha may be relevant for your adrenal function due to the implications for stress (58).
- Supports the immune system. The impacts on stress hormones may also help to improve immune system function and improve resistance to illness (59,60).
- Supports exercise performance. In one study, ashwagandha supplementation was able to improve cardiorespiratory endurance, suggesting an improvements to physical performance (61). Another study showed that the herb can improve muscle strength and muscle recovery (62).
Ashwagandha has various other advantages too, including benefits for exercise performance and the immune system
Taking Ashwagandha Root Extract
As the previous section shows, there are a number of benefits associated with ashwagandha. However, the studies varied in the specific form of the herb they used. For example, many made use of a powdered supplement, while others have focused on an extract.
Typically, the term extract means that specific compounds were taken from the herb, while a powdered supplement often involves the herb itself, typically dried and crushed (63).
There hasn’t been enough research to know which form is more effective. However, you’ll often find that extracts have a higher concentration of the beneficial compounds but may not contain all of the compounds that are relevant to health.
But, regardless of the form, the doses in the studies above varied anywhere from 125 to 1,250 mg per day.
As you might expect, the higher doses were typically associated with more health benefits. The balance of evidence suggests that doses of around 500 mg can be a good place to start and you can take one or two of them per day.
There is no consensus about how much ashwagandha to take but studies suggest that around 500 mg once or twice per day may be a good dose
Ashwagandha Side Effects
Most studies into Ashwagandha report no significant side effects in participants taking Ashwagandha. This was true for the powdered supplement and also for studies that directly looked at ashwagandha root benefits (64,65).
Nevertheless, there are some potential side effects for specific groups of people.
- For example, you shouldn’t be taking the supplement if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
- Speak to your doctor first if you have an autoimmune condition, as there is the potential for ashwagandha to have negative interactions.
At the same time, ashwagandha is associated with the ability to decrease blood sugar levels. So, it shouldn’t be used at the same time as any medication that affects blood sugar.
Things to Consider with Supplements
It’s also important to remember that any pill comes with a degree of risk and this is especially true for herbal supplements.
As discussed previously, plants contain a large number of compounds that can significantly influence health. But, we don’t know what all of the compounds are or how they interact. As a result, there may be problems that we aren't aware of.
As a result, you should always be careful if you have any health issues or are on medication.
One way of doing this is via Medscape, which offers a Drug Interaction Checker. While this isn’t foolproof, it does allow you to look for any known interactions between medications you take and ashwagandha root.
If possible, it’s best that you talk to your physician before you start taking ashwagandha root regularly, even if there is no evidence of a potential interaction.
Additionally, you should pay attention to any symptoms after beginning to take ashwagandha root. This is simply because research hasn’t looked into every possible combination of supplement and medication.
Relatively few side effects have been reported for ashwagandha supplementation. Nevertheless, it's important to be aware of potential interactions with medication
Should You Use Ashwagandha?
There is no shortage of herbal extracts on the market and most of them haven’t been the subject of much research.
Ashwagandha is an exception to that rule.
Instead, the balance of evidence strongly suggests that there are health benefits, especially in relation to stress management. As a result, this may be a good supplement for many people, especially those who suffer from chronic stress. In a future article recommended brands will be covered, because as ConsumerLabs points out, most ashwagandha supplements are not the highest quality.
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