Ashwagandha: Stress, Strength, Smarts and Sex
This adaptogenic, Ayurvedic herb has been used for thousands of years to rejuvenate and strengthen the body
Ashwagandha is an Ayurvedic herb that has been used for over 2,500 years as a vitalizer, which is like what we would today call an adaptogen. Ancient healers used ashwagandha as a rejuvenative tonic that had the ability to give back strength to an emaciated body. It is reputed to give strength and vigour and to increase stamina. Being an adaptogen, it is able to help the body to increase nonspecific resistance to disease. It has traditionally been used for arthritis, asthma, bronchitis, cancer, candida, fever, inflammations, nausea, rheumatism, diabetes, leukoderma, cancer, to improve cognitive function and stress. Ashwagandha has a reputation as a sedative, a hypotensive, an antispasmodic, is antitumour, is an analgesic and an antiinflammatory.
Today, an explosion of research has stamped a seal of approval on ashwagandha’s claims.
Ashwagandha helps both men and women with sex.
Low sperm count is a common cause of infertility. A double-blind study gave 46 infertile men a placebo or 225mg of ashwagandha root extract a day for 3 months. The ashwagandha was standardized for at least 5% with anolide. Sperm concentration improved by 167% versus 29% in the placebo group; sperm motility improved by 57% versus 9% in the placebo group; seman volume improved by 53% versus 20% in the placebo group. Testosterone went up by 17% in the ashwagandha group but by only 4% in the placebo group; lutenizing hormone went up by 34% in the ashwagandha group but by only 8% in the placebo group (Evid Based Complement Alternat Med 2013;2013:571420).
In a second study, 180 infertile men were given 5g of ashwagandha a day for 3 months. Sperm concentration, motility and free radical damage improved significantly. Testosterone and luteinizing hormone went up; folicle stimulating hormone and prolactin went down: all positive hormonal changes for fertility. The authors concluded that ashwagandha “can be used as an alternative . . . therapy for the treatment . . . of male infertility” (J Ethnopharmacol 2013;149:208-214).
A third study of infertile men showed that 5g of ashwagandha root powder improves sperm count and motility. It again positively affected hormones by increasing testosterone and lutenizing hormone and reducing follicle-stimulating hormone and prolactin. The ashwagandha also returned seminal levels of antioxidants to normal (Fertil Steril 2010;94:3).
In a study on women, 50 women with female sexual dysfunction, who all had either hypoactive (underactive) sexual desire disorder, female sexual arousal disorder, female orgasmic disorder or combined genital and subjective arousal disorder, were given a placebo or ashwagandha root extract standardized for at least 5% withanolides. The dose was 300mg twice a day for 8 weeks. The Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI) improved significantly more in the ashwagandha group. In the placebo group FSFI scores went from 13.57 to 20.06; in the ashwagandha group scores went up from 13.63 to 23.86. FSFI measures desire, arousal, lubrication, pain, orgasm and satisfaction. Ashwagandha improved arousal, lubrication, orgasm and satisfaction significantly better than placebo. Scores on the Female Sexual Distress Scale, which measures worry and distress about sex, also improved significantly more in the ashwagandha group (Biomed Res In 2015;2015:284154).
57 men were given a placebo or 300mg ashwagandha root extract twice a day for 8 weeks in a double-blind study. During the 8 weeks, they did a resistance training program. After 8 weeks, upper body strength improved significantly more in the ashwagandha group: the placebo group increased the amount they bench pressed by 26.4 kg. But the ashwagandha group increased theirs by 46 kg. The same results were obtained for lower body strength. The placebo group increased their leg extensions by 9.8 kg compared to a 14.5 kg increase in the ashwagandha group. The ashwagandha group built bigger muscles too: arm muscles were 5.3cm larger in the placebo group but 8.6cm larger in the herbal group; chest muscles were 1.4cm larger in the placebo group but 3.3cm larger in the herbal group. The ashwagandha also improved muscle recovery time better than placebo and significantly reduced muscle damage. It also produced significantly greater loss of body fat percentage. Testosterone levels increased significantly more in the ashwagandha group (J Int Soc Sports Nutr 2015;12:43).
Another double-blind study set out to see if ashwagandha could improve endurance and quality of life. 49 healthy people took a placebo or 600mg a day of ashwagandha root extract, standardized for 5% withanolides for 12 weeks. They then underwent a shuttle run test to measure their oxygen consumption at peak physical exertion (V02max). V02max is an indicator of cardiorespiratory endurance. The ashwagandha group had significantly greater increases in cardiorespiratory endurance than the placebo group. They also had significantly better scores on a quality of life questionnaire (AYU 2015;36:63-68).
Research has shown that ashwagandha eases anxiety (Acta Nerv Super 1990). When 64 people with low sense of well-being and high sense of stress were given a placebo or 300mg of ashwagandha root extract twice a day for 60 days, scores of perceived stress dropped by 44% in the ashwagandha group versus a drop of only 5% in the placebo group. Levels of the adrenal stress hormone cortisol dropped by almost 28% in the herb group, but by only 8% in the placebo group (Indian J Psychol Med 2012;34:255-262).
98 people suffering from stress were given a placebo or ashwagandha. People on ashwagandha had improved well-being at 30 and 60 days. While the placebo group had no significant improvement on the Hamilton Anxiety Scale, there was a significant improvement in the ashwagandha group. The stress hormone cortisol decreased significantly in the ashwagandha group, as did blood pressure and pulse rate. Blood glucose levels and markers of inflammation also improved as did levels of LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol and triglycerides (JANA 2008;11: 50-56).
A systematic review of 5 controlled studies found that ashwagandha significantly improves anxiety (J Altern Complement Med 2014;20:901- 908).
Ashwagandha reduces stress and the effects of stress on the cardiovascular system, like elevated blood pressure, showing that it not only reduces stress, but may reduce the effect of stress on the cardiovascular system (Curr Top Nutraceutical Res 2013;11:151-158).
Stress also contributes to weight gain. But when people with chronic stress were given a placebo or 300mg ashwagandha root extract (5% withanolides) twice a day for 8 weeks, the ashwagandha group had significant improvement on the Perceived Stress Scale and the Oxford Happiness Scale. Their cortisol levels were significantly lower. They had significant improvement in some scores on a food cravings scale. They had a significanlty greater decrease in weight and BMI, and their uncontrolled and emotional eating improved significantly more (J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med 2016; doi:10.1177/2156587216641830).
30 people with OCD added a placebo or 120mg of ashwagandha root extract to their SSRI 4 times a day. While scores on the Yale-Brown Obsessive-Compulsive Scale went down from 18 to 16 in the placebo group, they went from 26 to 14 in the herb group: a significantly better improvement (Complement Ther Med 2016;27:25-9).
When 20 healthy men were given 1000mg of an extract of ashwagandha root and leaf or a placebo in a 14 day double-blind study, the ashwagandha led to significantly greater improvement in attention, alertness, response speed, central integration, visuo-motor coordination and sensorymotor performance (Pharmacognosy Res 2014;6:12- 18).
Diabetes & Heart Disease
As we have seen, ashwagandha improves blood sugar and cholesterol levels. It has been shown to lower LDL and VLDL cholesterol and triglycerides and to lower blood sugar in people with diabetes or elevated cholesterol (Indian J Exp Biol 2000;38:607- 9). Ashwagandha has also been shown to improve endothelial function and total, LDL and HDL cholesterol and triglycerides as well as markers of inflammatin and free radical damage (Int J Ayur Pharma Research 2014;2:22-32).
This double-blind study set out to test the traditional Ayurvedic claim that ashwagandha treats arthritis. The 60 people in the study were between 40 and 70 years old. They had had knee pain for at least 6 months and experienced mild to moderate physical limitations. They were given either 125mg of ashwagandha, 250mg of ashwagandha or a placebo twice a day for 12 weeks. They were allowed to take acetaminophen if they had to. The ashwagandha was standardized for 10% withanolides.
At the end of the study, WOMAC scores, a measure of pain and stiffness, were significantly decreased in the higher dose ashwgandha group compared to the placebo group. Scores on the Knee Swelling Index were also significantly improved in the higher dose ashwgandha group compared to the placebo group. When the people in the study assessed their pain, stiffness and disability on a visual analog scale, they were all significantly improved in the high dose ashwagandha group compared to the placebo group.
Though the people in the placebo group averaged 17 acetaminophen tablets, those in the lower dose ashwagandha group averaged 13, while those on the higher dose needed only 10: an important benefit given the well established dangers of acetaminophen.
The 250mg a day dose of ashwagandha was also better than the placebo, but the 500mg dose was significantly better than both (J Ayurveda Integr Med 2016;7(3):151-157).
An earlier study had also shown that ashwagandha in combination with boswellia, curcumin and zinc was effective in treating osteoarthritis (Rheumatology 2001;40:779-93).
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For additional research on the health benefits of ashwagandha, visit the GreenMedInfo database on the subject.