Over the past few decades, people have turned toward herbal and natural treatments for a variety of common issues. From weight loss to anxiety and depression, many people have found that some old herbal supplements can provide the benefits that they need. Ashwagandha is one of the more popular herbal treatments, and many of the ashwagandha benefits have now been backed up by science.
Ashwagandha is an herb that has been an integral part of Ayurvedic medicine in India for centuries. With the introduction of ashwagandha to the western world, people have come to discover and embrace the many ashwagandha benefits.
Ashwagandha benefits range from stress relief to infertility treatments. The claims of the ashwagandha benefits are many. In recent years, medical science has begun to test these claims in clinical studies, and they have found that many of the ashwagandha benefits are valid.
What is ashwagandha? What is the origin of ashwagandha? And what are the benefits of ashwagandha? This guide will introduce you to ashwagandha and its many health benefits.
What is Ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha, Withania somnifera, is often called Indian ginseng. It is part of a class of plants called adaptogens. These are widely known for having health benefits and are used in teas, powders, and tinctures, and eaten in raw forms. Ashwagandha is from a shrub, and the roots and berries are harvested for their health properties.
What is the origin of ashwagandha?
Ashwagandha is a shrub that grows in the dry subtropical regions of Asia and Africa. It has been used as a medicinal plant for hundreds of years in India, Pakistan, and China. The word ashwagandha comes from two Sanskrit words, ashwa—which means “horse, and gandha—which means “smell.” The name refers to the smell of the shrub which can smell like a horse, and the plant has been associated with the strength of a horse.
Ashwagandha is found in traditional medicinal systems such as Ayurvedic medicine, and the use of ashwagandha for medicinal purposes is believed to go back about 5000 years. Ayurvedic practitioners claim the earliest mention of ashwagandha is in the Chakra Samhita, a foundational Ayurvedic text that dates from between 200 BCE and 2000 CE. In this early text, there are preparations of ashwagandha for treating skin and respiratory conditions
How does Ashwagandha work?
Historically, ashwagandha has been a staple in Ayurvedic medicine which uses herbs, special diets, and other natural practices to enhance health and to treat all manner of medical conditions. Ayurvedic medicine is an ancient practice that grew out of traditional healing methods and practices.
In Ayurvedic medicine, ashwagandha is considered one of the most important herbs available. It is used to treat a wide array of conditions. In the Ayurvedic system, ashwagandha is used to treat the following conditions:
- skin conditions
- gastrointestinal issues
- nervous breakdowns
- snake bites
- memory loss
The roots of the ashwagandha are used to treat these conditions, but the fruits, leaves, and seeds are also used to treat still more conditions.
While the precise physiological mechanisms of ashwagandha are not known, it is known to consist of a variety of important chemical agents that offer health benefits. It contains steroidal lactones. Alkaloids and other chemical agents are known to be powerful antioxidants, anti-inflammatory agents, and chemicals that relieve stress and anxiety.
Ashwagandha health benefits
Since ashwagandha has been such an important part of traditional medicinal practices, people have begun taking ashwagandha in several forms to treat a variety of conditions. With the increasing popularity of ashwagandha as an herbal remedy, medical science has begun testing it for use in these conditions. Some of the benefits of ashwagandha include:
One of the things ashwagandha is most known for is its use for treating anxiety. People claim that ashwagandha can markedly decrease anxiety levels.
Ashwagandha is classified as an adaptogen, a substance that helps the body cope with stress. It contains cortisol and a stress-activated protein called c-Jun N-terminal kinase. These both reduce stress in the body and help control anxiety.
It appears that ashwagandha also affects the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which is a system in the body that regulates the stress response. The ways ashwagandha affects this system in the body produces a demonstrable reduction in anxiety and stress.
One study showed that participants who took up to 600 mg of ashwagandha extract for 8 weeks, compared to a control group that took a placebo, showed significant reductions in stress levels. Many of these same participants also showed significant improvements in the quality of their sleep.
Maintain heart health
Research has shown that ashwagandha has the effect of increasing what is called VO2 max levels. These are the maximum levels of oxygen you can take in while exerting yourself, and these levels are important benchmarks for cardiac health. VO2 max levels indicate how well your heart functions during physical activity. Ashwagandha has been found to significantly boost VO2 max levels and improve heart health.
Can reduce cortisol levels
One thing ashwagandha has long been known for is its ability to reduce cortisol levels in the body. Cortisol is one of the main hormones linked to stress. Because ashwagandha naturally reduces cortisol levels in the body, it inhibits the physiological stress response. This helps you relax and promotes good sleep.
In the Ayurvedic system, ashwagandha is been widely accepted as an effective pain reliever. It is believed that ashwagandha blocks signals sent by nerves that register pain. It also has anti-inflammatory properties that work with this pain-relieving effect. Since ashwagandha relieves pain by blocking the neurotransmission of pain signals to the brain rather than by following the path of a narcotic, it does not present the risk of dependency we find in narcotic drugs.
Recent research indicates that ashwagandha may hold promise for treating arthritis. Preliminary studies have found that the anti-inflammatory properties in ashwagandha can operate as anti-arthritic treatments. Ashwagandha is also effective for treating arthritic pain.
Additional studies showed that ashwagandha reduces joint pain, decreased swelling, and slowed the degradation of joints associated with arthritis. Regular use of ashwagandha appears to increase the overall mobility of people suffering from arthritis.
Can help treat depression
Since ashwagandha is such a potent source of antioxidants, it appears that it can help reduce the oxidative buildup and degradation of mood-regulating chemicals and neurotransmitters in the brain. Ashwagandha also helps protect against cellular damage to the thyroid caused by free radicals. All of this produces the effect of lowering the risk of depression and elevating moods.
Some studies have demonstrated that ashwagandha significantly improves mood, lowers anxiety, and helps alleviate depression.
Improves brain function
Studies show that ashwagandha can help improve memory and help repair damage from brain injuries. Research all suggests that ashwagandha is effective in repairing memory loss from injury and can improve normal brain function in healthy people. Some of these effects are from the high levels of antioxidants found in ashwagandha that help reduce free radicals that can damage brain cells. These same effects can help reduce the damage brought on by neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.
One important clinical study provided evidence that ashwagandha may improve cognitive functioning in some people, including people with some forms of mild cognitive impairment and people with schizophrenia.
Cognitive functions that benefit from ashwagandha include:
- executive functioning
- reaction time
- performance on cognitive tasks
Another study demonstrated that 600 mg of ashwagandha taken over an 8-week period revealed improvements in all cognitive functioning measurements. These improvements include:
- immediate and general memory
- information-processing speed
Many of the cognitive improvements from ashwagandha are attributed to the tremendous antioxidant effects on the brain.
Ashwagandha for hair
One important use of ashwagandha in Ayurvedic medicine is as a hair treatment. Ashwagandha significantly lowers levels of cortisol in the body. This is one of the main stress hormones, and the presence of cortisol is linked to hair loss. By using ashwagandha to control cortisol levels, you can preserve your hair from hair loss due to damage to the hair follicles.
Ashwagandha also stimulates the production of a hormone in the body that functions as a natural antioxidant. Dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, naturally protects your hair from the free radicals that can cause damage to hair follicles.
Ashwagandha is rich in flavonoids which are a great source of protein, vitamin C, iron, glucose, tannins, and nitrate. All of these are healthy nutrients for healthy hair.
Ashwagandha for weight loss
Virtually all of the health benefits of ashwagandha have the collateral benefit of helping you lose weight and maintain a healthy weight.
The powerful antioxidant effects of ashwagandha help to speed up your metabolism. This causes your body to burn more calories and lose weight.
Since ashwagandha has such a tremendous boost to the immune system, the energy from your immune system gets redirected toward the process of losing weight. When the body is compromised due to a drain on the immune system, metabolism for other regions of the body comes to a standstill. When you boost the immune system with ashwagandha, you allow your body to burn excess calories.
It is well known that stress and anxiety are major contributors to weight gain. With the anti-anxiety and anti-stress effects of ashwagandha, you have a much better chance to stop gaining weight due to stress and anxiety.
Ashwagandha also boosts the function of the thyroid. One of the most dangerous causes of obesity is hypothyroidism or an underactive thyroid. Ashwagandha helps protect against this condition.
Finally, elevated cortisol levels contribute to an increase in insulin in the blood. This causes the body to store sugars as fat. By taking ashwagandha to reduce cortisol levels, you naturally reduce insulin levels allowing your body to properly use and consume sugars. This prevents weight gain.
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Ashwagandha Side Effects
Ashwagandha is considered to be generally safe. Taking large amounts of ashwagandha can cause digestive upset, nausea, and vomiting. Ashwagandha appears to irritate the intestinal mucosa when taken in large quantities.
Pregnant women should avoid taking ashwagandha since can cause distress to the fetus and premature labor.
The Food and Drug Administration cautions users of ashwagandha, and all Ayurvedic herbal remedies, because these products are not subject to the same standards for contaminants and heavy metals such as lead and mercury.
Wrapping things up
Ayurvedic medicine has been around for centuries. In places like India, Pakistan, China, and parts of Africa, Ayurvedic medicine is effectively an established practice for healthcare. Much of the reason Ayurvedic medicine has persisted for so long is because of two reasons. Ayurvedic medicine relies primarily on herbal and natural remedies that can be obtained from the surrounding areas. Second, Ayurvedic medicine appears to work.
The more western science studies some of the main features of Ayurvedic medicine, the more we discover the sound biochemical basis for many of the central herbal remedies that make up Ayurvedic practice. This is the case with ashwagandha. Ashwagandha has been a staple of Ayurvedic medicine for centuries, and in recent decades people in the western world have started using ashwagandha for a variety of common ailments.
Ashwagandha has historically been sued to treat stress and anxiety. Now, western medical science has demonstrated that there are several chemical components in ashwagandha that relieve stress and anxiety. The same holds true for ashwagandha as a potential remedy for depression.
Ashwagandha has now been linked to several important health benefits. It supports a healthy immune system with the powerful antioxidant properties found in the plant. It can boost heart health for the same reason. And all of these benefits appear to contribute to losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight. Ashwagandha is even used to promote healthy hair growth.
Certainly, anyone with severe health issues should consult a physician before relying on any herbal supplement. But for people who are looking to improve their health or to take steps to prevent developing serious health issues, ashwagandha appears to be a sound herbal treatment.