Ashwagandha (also known as Withania somnifera) is a powerful herb that has been used for hundreds of years to treat a wide variety of conditions in the traditional form of Indian medicine known as Ayurveda. The health benefits of Ashwagandha include its well-known ability to enhance stamina and its truly extraordinary stress-relieving properties.
In Sanskrit ashwagandha means “smell of a horse.” That’s because this herb is said to impart the vigor and strength of a stallion, and has traditionally been prescribed to help people strengthen their immune system after an illness.
Although ashwagandha is frequently referred to as “Indian ginseng” because of its restorative properties, traditional Chinese and Korean ginseng and ashwagandha are not related botanically.
Ashwagandha extracts contain many beneficial bioactive compounds, including withanolides – a group of naturally occurring bioactive compounds – as well as alkaloids, choline, fatty acids, amino acids, and sugars. While its leaves and fruit contribute to ashwagandha’s health benefits, extracts of its roots are most commonly used in herbal remedies.
As many as 200 studies have been carried out on ashwagandha’s many health benefits. Let’s take a closer look at some of the scientific evidence for this superstar medicinal herb.
#1 – Ashwagandha Is an Adaptogen
Ashwagandha is primarily used as an “adaptogen.” Adaptogens are substances that stabilize and balance various physiological processes within the body, especially in response to stress and a changing environment. For example, ashwagandha is known to reduce overall cellular sensitivity to stress.
Chronic stress is an ever-present facet of our modern lives and has been linked to a higher risk for a number of illnesses. In a 2016 study, a double-blind, randomized clinical trial was carried out on 52 people who were subjected to chronic stress and who received either 300 milligrams (mg) of ashwagandha or a placebo control twice daily.
Treatment with ashwagandha reduced stress levels felt by the study subjects, as assessed by various questionnaires. At the same time, blood cortisol levels (a reliable indicator of stress levels), body weight, and body mass index (BMI) were noticeably better in the ashwagandha treatment group when compared to controls.
Similarly, 60 days of treatment with ashwagandha significantly reduced both stress and cortisol levels in 64 subjects in another double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial.
These studies and others indicate that ashwagandha’s health benefits include effectively and safely managing chronic stress and its consequences. Along with alleviating stress symptoms, it is also known to combat fatigue, infuse energy, and enhance the powers of concentration.
Overall, ashwagandha confers a sense of rejuvenation and wellbeing.
#2 – Ashwagandha Boosts Thyroid Function
Ashwagandha may be able to benefit people with low thyroid function, since animal studies show that it has a thyroid hormone balancing effect.
For instance, when ashwagandha root extract was given daily to adult mice for 20 days, researchers found that their blood levels of both thyroxine and tri-iodothyronine (T3) were increased.
Thyroxine is the hormone secreted by the thyroid gland into the blood, from where it travels to organs like the liver and kidneys and gets converted to its active form, tri-iodothyronine or T3. T3 affects almost every physiological process in the body, from growth and development to metabolism, body temperature, and heart rate.
Similarly, in a randomized clinical trial, 8 weeks of treatment with ashwagandha was seen to increase levels of thyroxine in patients with bipolar disorder.
In other words, one of the major health benefits of ashwagandha appears to be correcting hypothyroidism by balancing levels of thyroid hormones.
#3 – Ashwagandha Lowers Blood Sugar and Insulin Levels
In a 2015 laboratory study, rats given fructose for 8 weeks showed significant increases in their blood sugar and insulin levels, along with higher insulin resistance – all symptoms that indicate the onset of diabetes in humans.
However, rats treated with ashwagandha root extract along with fructose did not show these unhealthy changes. In other words, the onset of diabetes-like symptoms was stopped in its tracks by ashwagandha treatment.
Separately, ashwagandha has been shown to raise the levels of the liver enzyme glucose 6-phosphatase, which is known to play a key role in controlling blood sugar levels.
#4 – Ashwagandha Is an Antioxidant
In the study described earlier in which ashwagandha root extract was given daily to adult mice for 20 days, lipid peroxidation in the livers of these mice was found to be reduced as well.
Lipid peroxidation is the process by which harmful free radicals steal electrons from lipids that make up protective cell membranes, damaging them and the cells they are meant to protect. In other words, treatment with ashwagandha root extract significantly reduced the extent of free radical-induced damage in the liver.
At the same time, it also enhanced the activity of other antioxidant enzymes that are found naturally in the liver, including superoxide dismutase (SOD) and catalase, thereby boosting overall antioxidant activity.
#5 – Ashwagandha: An Anticancer Agent?
Promising new evidence is emerging that ashwagandha may act powerfully against various types of cancer.
For instance, recent laboratory studies show that extracts of ashwagandha have significant toxicity against human T-leukemia cells and breast cancer cells, without damaging normal cells.
Similarly, treatment with an extract of ashwagandha reduced the levels of malondialdehyde while also boosting total antioxidant capacity in an animal model of benign prostatic hyperplasia – a condition that can lead on to prostate cancer.
Malondialdehyde is an indicator of oxidative stress. This result indicates that ashwagandha extract may lower cancer risk by combating harmful oxidative stress, while also simultaneously boosting antioxidant capacity.
Other laboratory studies using ashwagandha have shown similar anti-cancer actions against other types of cancers, including gliomas, colon cancer, and skin cancer.
Evidence suggests that the anti-cancer health benefits of ashwagandha may be related to its ability to dramatically increase numbers of white blood cells, boosting the immune system so that it is better able to prevent cancer cells from growing and spreading.
Indeed, studies have shown that ashwagandha can successfully complement chemotherapy by preventing the immune system from becoming suppressed during the treatment. Normally lower white blood cell counts occurring as a result of chemotherapy places cancer patients at a higher risk of infections, but this risk may be reduced or even eliminated by complementary ashwagandha therapy.
In conclusion, ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a powerful adaptogenic herb whose many studied health benefits include increased stamina, relief from the effects of stress, rejuvenation, balanced thyroid hormone levels, lowered blood sugar and insulin, neutralization of harmful free radicals, and powerful anti-cancer activity against many different types of cancers.
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- What Is Ashwagandha?
- Body Weight Management in Adults Under Chronic Stress Through Treatment With Ashwagandha Root Extract: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial.
- A prospective, randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study of safety and efficacy of a high-concentration full-spectrum extract of ashwagandha root in reducing stress and anxiety in adults.
- Changes in thyroid hormone concentrations after administration of ashwagandha root extract to adult male mice.
- Withania somnifera and Bauhinia purpurea in the regulation of circulating thyroid hormone concentrations in female mice.
- Subtle changes in thyroid indices during a placebo-controlled study of an extract of Withania somnifera in persons with bipolar disorder.
- Protective effects of Withania somnifera root on inflammatory markers and insulin resistance in fructose-fed rats.
- Withania somnifera Induces Cytotoxic and Cytostatic Effects on Human T Leukemia Cells.
- Evaluation and Comparison of the In Vitro Cytotoxic Activity of Withania somnifera Methanolic and Ethanolic Extracts against MDA-MB-231 and Vero Cell Lines.
- Antiproliferative and Antioxidant Effects of Withania coagulans Extract on Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia in Rats.
- Studies on immunomodulatory activity of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) extracts in experimental immune inflammation.