Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is an ancient medicine that is returning to the limelight due to its incredible ability to aid our bodies in dealing with the degrading effects of stress. It is common to hardly know anyone who does not suffer from some form of stress.
Whether physical, emotional or psychological, every person has their own way of handling stress; some of us are better at it than others. However, most would agree that now more than ever, the levels and sources of stress are increasing and becoming more challenging to avoid.
This is why this age-old remedy, also known as Indian Ginseng, has been making a big comeback in many people’s daily essentials.
Ashwagandha has been around for thousands of years and is said to get its name from the Sanskrit words translating to “smell of a horse”. This is descriptive of the smell of the ashwagandha root. In India, where it has been used to strengthen the immune system and aid recovery after illness, they also call it the “Strength of the Stallion”.
Today, more than 200 studies on ashwagandha affirm its status as one of the planet’s most effective and versatile herbs. And coping better with stress is not the only benefit it offers. To understand why ashwagandha has become the focus of so many studies, let’s unpack what modern scientists have found.
Ashwagandha is a superfood containing many beneficial elements. These include, but are not limited to, antioxidants, flavonoids, amino acids, neurotransmitters, sterols, tannins, lignans, triterpenes and Withanolides.
Now, this can be a lot to take in, so let’s break them down into digestible nuggets that will shed some light on the superpowers of ashwagandha.
In plants, antioxidants help with photosynthesis but also protect the plant from environmental stress. In our bodies, antioxidants are free radical scavengers. Free radicals are unstable molecules that cause oxidative stress, leading to disease, inflammation and ageing.
This means antioxidants are essential in fighting disease and help slow down ageing. One of the antioxidants in ashwagandha is glutathione which is considered to be the “mother of all antioxidants”.
Flavonoids or Bio Flavonoids are phytochemicals that give fruit and vegetables their colour. Plants also use them to perform critical functions ranging from attracting insects to protection from environmental stressors. In humans, just as in plants, these phytochemical molecules can have varying benefits according to their chemical composition.
One thing they all have in common is the ability to “recharge” antioxidants. Once an antioxidant, like vitamin C, has come into contact with a free radical, it oxidises and becomes inactive. Bioflavonoids will reactivate these used vitamin C molecules to be used again. Pretty amazing!
Amino acids probably need no introduction, but if you are not familiar with these, they are the building blocks of our proteins and essential to us.
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers our bodies need to send signals through our nervous system. Everything we do, think or feel is controlled by our nervous systems; therefore, we cannot function without neurotransmitters.
Although plants do not have nervous systems as we do, scientists are now beginning to understand that plants use these neurotransmitters similarly to humans to carry messages throughout their plant bodies.
Sterols can be described as a type of plant cholesterols that are believed to play an essential part in the plant’s stress response. In humans, plant sterols have been found to lower cholesterol levels by limiting the amount of cholesterol that is absorbed. Some plant sterols may also limit our body’s cholesterol production.
Tannins are a phytochemical believed to play a part in protecting plants from microorganisms. They usually give the plant or fruits a bitter, astringent taste. For us, they typically provide the same benefits of antimicrobial protection.
It also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.
Lignans are a precursor to phytoestrogen and can assist with managing the different types of oestrogen levels. This is good for women, especially since oestrogen imbalances can lead to breast and other female cancers. Studies have also shown lignans to help reduce prostate cancer. In plants, lignans are part of the plant’s protection against certain herbivores and microorganisms.
Once again, we have a compound that plays a protective role in plants. Triterpenes help protect plants from microbes as well as herbivores. In humans, there is a lot of interest in their ability to prevent diabetes and its subsequent adverse effects, as well as being an antitumour.
Experiments have also shown that triterpenes can prevent the development of insulin resistance and normalise insulin levels. On top of all this, they are also immune-modulating, antiviral, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory.
It is clear that ashwagandha is packed with many beneficial components. But we were just getting started.
Withanolides are a type of plant steroid and the part of ashwagandha that really crowns it as the best adaptogen in the world. They are the most studied active ingredient in ashwagandha, and the part used to indicate its strength and ultimately determines its efficacy in therapeutic use.
There are 40 different Withanolides in Ashwagandha. The two most studied, Withaferin A and Withanolide D, have been researched for many incredible benefits. Studies have shown them to have immune modulating, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antistress and antioxidant properties that are essential to a healthy immune system in the fight against disease of any kind.
They also show immense potential for cancer treatment as they have been found to have antitumor, cytotoxic and apoptotic properties, reducing and preventing tumours. They also have been proven to destroy unwanted, damaged cells in the body. Withanolides are also being studied for their ability to protect nerve cells which could benefit many people who suffer from debilitating neurological diseases.
Health Benefits For The Human Body
Now that we understand all of these separate components of ashwagandha, we can zoom into the sum of benefits provided by ashwagandha.
Here is a look at what the studies have found and what so many who use this plant will be able to confirm.
Our adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol in response to stress. These are helpful and necessary hormones for survival, like running from a lion or a quick reaction to get ourselves out of harm’s way. However, this has become a “normal” state for many, who now experience chronic emotional, physical or mental stresses as part of their daily lives.
This can lead to adrenal fatigue, which can cause other hormonal imbalances. Ashwagandha has been shown to help us overcome these imbalances and have a calming effect on the mind and body.
Under Active Thyroid and Weight gain
Ashwagandha has been successfully used to help treat an underactive thyroid. Since thyroid hormones also play a part in your metabolism, an underactive thyroid can slow metabolism and cause weight gain. For this reason, ashwagandha’s ability to support thyroid function can also lead to weight loss in people struggling with this problem.
As we have discovered when looking into the properties of the compounds in ashwagandha, studies have confirmed that ashwagandha extract can benefit people with diabetes and those with insulin resistance. The findings of the studies suggest that ashwagandha may improve insulin sensitivity, as well as reduce blood sugar levels and inflammation.
Good news for many who now suffer from this lifestyle disease that seems to have escalated in the last few decades.
After mentioning both thyroid hormone and insulin, it should not be a surprise that ashwagandha has been used to increase low testosterone.
Depression & Anxiety
Ashwagandha has been proven to be as successful in managing depression and anxiety as its pharmaceutical counterparts but without the downside of dealing with the adverse effects.
If some of these conventional medicines report adverse effects such as drowsiness, insomnia, loss of sexual desire or even an increase in appetite, opting for ashwagandha is easy. Who wants to leave behind depression only to be trapped in one of these terrible situations?
If you realise that the stress hormone cortisol suppresses your immune system, it is straightforward to see why ashwagandha would be able to boost your immune function. This happens by simply helping you reduce your cortisol levels.
However, there are other reasons too. Research has also found that ashwagandha increases immunoglobulin production. Immunoglobulin is an antibody responsible for tracking down and neutralising the pathogens such as viruses and harmful bacteria.
Ashwagandha’s antitumor properties and its antioxidant and immune-boosting benefits make it an essential supplement in the fight against cancer. To that list, also add its anti-inflammatory and immune-modulating properties, which are very important in cancer patients. This is because inflammation plays a big part in the development and progression of many cancers. Managing inflammation and the immune response is vital in natural cancer treatments.
The powerful antioxidants in ashwagandha are the main reason this plant can help many boost their brain function and nervous system health and fight diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Stresses of all sorts will take their toll on our brain and nervous system while free radicals damage occurs on a cellular level.
Ashwagandha throws two punches in defence of your brain and nervous system by helping you cope better with stress and its debilitating effects on these while destroying the free radical assault on its cells.
Benefits for Athletes
Besides all the benefits to our health, studies have also been done on the effects of ashwagandha on stamina, endurance, and muscle and joint strength. For all of these, significant positive outcomes showed that supplementing with ashwagandha extract can benefit athletes and boost their performance. Ashwagandha increases muscle strength and size and reduces exercise-induced muscle injury. Studies also showed that it could boost endurance and stamina as well as improve concentration and motivation and, at the same time, reduce pain. These are all excellent reasons to consider Ashwagandha supplementation for athletes.
How To Take Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha supplements come in a variety of different forms. Apart from planting it and eating it from your garden, the most natural state would be the dried ashwagandha powder.
It is advisable to get a certified organic source; this would guarantee that it is free of any pesticides, heavy metals, or biological contaminants such as mould. This way, you will ensure you get the full benefit without adding other issues for your body to deal with.
The powder can be taken as a tea by simply adding warm water and honey if so preferred. It can also be added to drinks like coffee or mixed into smoothies. Find your favourite chocolate treat recipe and mix it proportionately into it, making sure each daily portion contains your recommended dose. Your options are endless as we keep finding new ways to take ashwagandha.
All The Benefits Without The Hassle
If making snacks and drinks is not your thing, you can find ashwagandha powder in a capsule. This is a non-fuss way for those who want the powder without the hassle.
If you need a therapeutic dose, you will need to use an extract available in different strengths. Simply look at the extract ratio and multiply it by the capsule weight.
Further, ashwagandha also comes in tincture form for those who do not want to take capsules. Dosage will depend on the strength of the tincture; see the label for a good guideline on this.
A Staple Superfood
With its impressive profile of benefits, ashwagandha is undoubtedly a superfood that everyone’s health can aid from in one way or another. Taking all of its benefits into consideration, it could easily be a staple supplement for almost any home for various reasons. It is available in pure powder form or in capsules to complement your lifestyle preference.