Amidst the constant breakthroughs of modern medicines, a growing demand for organic treatments gained significant attention in global health industry. A lot of money have recently been invested in looking for promising medicinal herbs and researchers are beginning to steer away from conventional drug development and look toward more alternative and natural forms of treatment (1). About 25 percent of the drugs prescribed worldwide are derived from plants and out of the 252 drugs in the World Health Organization’s essential medicine list, 11 percent are exclusively of plant origin (2).
An herb is a plant or plant part used for its scent, flavor, or therapeutic properties (3). Traditional herbal medicines are naturally occurring, plant-derived substances with minimal or no industrial processing that have been used to treat illness within local or regional healing practices (4). People use them to try to maintain or improve their health. One of the promising herbs there is today is Ashwagandha.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera, fam. Solanaceae) is commonly known as “Indian Winter cherry” or “Indian Ginseng”, one of the most important herbs of Ayurveda (the traditional system of medicine in India), and used for millennia as a Rasayana for its wide ranging health benefits. (5). It is commonly available as a churna, a fine sieved powder that can be mixed with water, ghee (clarified butter) or honey and it enhances the function of the brain and nervous system and improves the memory, improves the function of the reproductive system promoting a healthy sexual and reproductive balance (6). It’s classified as an “adaptogen,” that enhances the body’s resilience to stress by improving the body’s defense against disease (6), (7). With its potent antioxidant properties, it helps protect against cellular damage caused by unwanted radicals.
Here are 5 benefits of Ashwagandha:
- Fights cancer cells. Ashwagandha’s extract disrupts cancer cells’ ability to reproduce in certain types of cancers. Research suggests that Ashwagandha has promising anti-tumor effects, can help reduce tumor cell growth and may work to prevent cancer cells from growing and its extract has been shown to help inhibit the proliferation of cancer cells — specifically breast, lung, stomach and colon cancer cells, which are among the leading types of cancers in the world (8). Naturopathic doctor, Marie Winters, in a research study, published in the Alternative Medicine Review has described Ashwagandha as an emerging and novel alternative in the field of oncology, in association with radiation therapy and chemotherapy, because of its cancer-killing properties (9). Very promising studies conducted on animals showed the herb’s the ability to decrease a lung tumor while encouraging findings suggest the herb has potential to slow human cancers including breast, lung, kidney, and prostate (10). With its immune-boosting and antioxidant abilities, researchers also suggest that the herb can help reduce the side effects of anti-cancer agents that can reduce immunity and quality of life (11). Another study reveals that withaferin, a constituent of Ashwagandha, has beneficial effects that might help prevent the reoccurrence of ovarian cancer and it is also known to reduce the side effects of chemotherapy without interfering with the tumor cell-killing activity (12), (13).
- Combats stress and anxiety. If you are anxious, Ashwagandha will calm you; if you are constantly fatigued, Ashwagandha will boost your energy and stamina (14). It has a calming effect on anxiety symptoms when compared to the drug lorazepam (a sedative and anxiety medication) (15). A study published in the journal Phytomedicine showed that the herb had the ability to reduce anxiety levels (16). This adaptogenic herb has traditionally been used for stress management, sleep, cortisol balance, nervous system health and more (17). It also may help to nourish and maintain optimal health by supporting a stabilized mood, energy levels, and overall immune function to help you stay centered and thrive. Multiple studies have shown that taking a high-potency extract of Ashwagandha for five days produced anxiety-relieving effects – reduces the effects that stress has on the brain by up to 80% or more, making it a key herb for anyone who feels burnout or lives and works in a high-stress environment and in fact, reduces cortisol levels, a key stress-related hormone, by 26% on average (18). Cortisol is known as a “stress hormone” because your adrenal glands release it in response to stress, as well as when your blood sugar levels get too low (19). Emotional, physical and chemical stress can have damaging effects to the brain and nervous system. Recent research shows that Ashwagandha is more than a stress reliever — it also protects the brain from cell degeneration, which can lead to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s (20).
- Helps improve sexual function and fertility. Ashwagandha can increase testosterone levels and support sexual function and fertility (21). A study is conducted among men in one 8-week, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, men aged 18-50 years old with little experience in resistance training either took a placebo or 300mg of Ashwagandha root extract twice daily while engaging in resistance training. Those taking Ashwagandha had much greater increases in testosterone over the 8 weeks as well as in muscle size and strength, compared to placebo, and experienced greater reductions in exercise-induced muscle damage and body fat percentage (22). Another study finds that women can also benefit from Ashwagandha as revealed with one study that healthy women who took 300mg of the herb twice daily for 8 weeks enjoyed significant improvements in arousal, lubrication, orgasm, satisfaction, and the number of successful sexual encounters and improvements on two psychometric scales, the Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI) Questionnaire and the Female Sexual Distress Scale (FSDS) (23). It helps the health of the thyroid and adrenal glands which have a direct impact on our sexual vitality, including our libido and, particularly for males, performance as well and it is also known to increase sensation in both men and women, thus, it is often used as an aphrodisiac in both men and women (24).
- Enhances and protects brain health. Ashwagandha has powerful antioxidant properties that protect the brain and nervous system. Protecting the brain and improving nervous system function is one of the major life changing health benefits of Ashwagandha (25). Ashwagandha supplements may improve brain function, memory, reaction times and the ability to perform tasks (26). Test-tube and animal studies suggest that Ashwagandha may reduce memory and brain function problems caused by injury or disease (26), (27). In one controlled study, healthy men who took 500 mg of standardized extract daily reported significant improvements in their reaction time and task performance, compared to men who received a placebo (28). Another eight-week study in 50 adults showed that taking 300 mg of Ashwagandha root extract twice daily significantly improved general memory, task performance and attention (29). Ashwagandha could help reverse states of brain and nervous system degeneration. This makes it a potent defense against dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders (30). As shown in research studies at universities in Japan, the herb is used to regenerate nerve cells and dendrite growth throughout the brain and body, making it a frontline treatment in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and an all-around bio-enhancing substance for anyone looking for a significant health boost, hence, it improves communication between nerve cells and stimulates the body to heal nervous system damage (31).
- Increases muscle strength. Ashwagandha has the ability to increase muscle mass and strength which might be a helpful tool for people engaging in resistance training and other forms of exercise that can be strenuous on your muscles (32). It has been found to be useful in improving the muscular strength of the lower limbs and helping recover weakness and has a positive impact on neuro-muscular coordination (33). A 2015 eight-week study involving 57 males between the ages of 18 and 50 with little experience in resistance training finds that Ashwagandha supplementation was associated with significant increases in muscle mass and strength and reveals that treatment group had significantly greater increases in muscle strength on the bench-press and leg-extension exercises and displayed significantly greater muscle size increase of the arms and chest, a significantly greater reduction of exercise-induced muscle damage, increased testosterone levels, and greater decrease in body fat percentage (34, 35). Even with increased muscle mass, your joints must be strong to operate at peak performance levels (36). Ashwagandha appears to help with that, too. Clinical trials studying general joint pain and joint pain related to rheumatoid arthritis have found extremely positive results (37). It’s not just a muscle booster—it’s a muscle booster fortified with bone broth protein (38).
Final Thoughts on Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is a traditional medicinal herb with multiple health benefits like reducing anxiety and stress, fighting cancer cells and depression, boosting fertility and testosterone in men and brain function among others. It is a miracle herb that is effective to improve our health and quality of life. Despite its claimed benefits, it is still advised to take caution when taking this herb. And consultation with your doctor is needed especially for patients undergoing other treatments.