Ashwagandha (Withania Somnifera) is an extraordinarily useful herb, particularly for those struggling to keep up with the hectic pace of modern life. Its name literally means “the smell of a horse” in Hindi, indicating the herb’s ability to impart the strength and vigor of a stallion. But this ancient herb doesn’t just boost energy, it reduces the effects of stress and pathogens in the body, reduces anxiety and more. Below, I’ve listed some of Ashwagandha’s most renowned health benefits:
- Reduces the effect of stress on the body
- Protects the immune system
- Reduces anxiety and depression
- Boosts energy
- Stabilize blood sugar
Ashwagandha for better immunity
Ashwagandha is an adaptogenic herb, meaning it has the ability to decrease cellular sensitivity to stress and maintain a balance, which prevents or minimizes one’s susceptibility to disease. Multiple clinical research studies have backed up these claims, by proving that Ashwagandha is an effective immunomodulator. An immunomodulator is a substance that affects the functioning of the immune system, either by inducing, enhancing or even suppressing an immune response. ‘Studies on immunomodulatory activity of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) extracts in experimental immune inflammation’, cites mice studies wherein each group was given a different immunosuppressive drug – cyclophosphamide, azathioprin, and prednisolone – to induce myelosuppression: a condition in which bone marrow activity is decreased, resulting in fewer red and white blood cells and platelets. The assessment of immunomodulatory activity in the mice, before and after treatment, was determined by hematological and serological testing. In each of these studies, “A significant modulation of immune reactivity was observed in all the three animal models used. Ashwagandha prevented myelosuppression in mice treated with all three immunosuppressive drugs tested.”1
Ashwagandha for mental health
Multiple studies have shown that Ashwagandha is effective for treatment of both anxiety and depression. The results of one animal study comparing Ashwagandha to the popular anxiety drug Lorazepam (aka Ativan) was mentioned in ‘An Overview On Ashwagandha: A Rasayana (Rejuvenator) of Ayurveda’. Here’s an excerpt: “Ashwagandha induced a calming anxiolytic effect that was comparable to the drug Lorazepam in all three standard Anxiety tests: the elevated plus-maze, social interaction and the feeding latency in an unfamiliar environment. Further, both Ashwagandha and Lorazepam, reduced rat brain levels of tribulin, an endocoid marker of clinical anxiety, when the levels were increased following administration of the anxiogenic agent, pentylenetetrazole. Ashwagandha also exhibited an antidepressant effect, comparable with that induced by imipramine, in two standard tests, the forced swim-induced ‘behavioral despair’ and ‘learned helplessness’ tests. The investigations support the use of Ashwagandha as a mood stabilizer in clinical conditions of anxiety and depression.”2
Ashwagandha for energy
Ashwagandha is most often used to boost energy levels, and there is scientific evidence to support the anecdotal experiences of Ashwagandha devotees. One study, published in the World Journal of Medical Sciences, found that Ashwagandha not only increased energy levels, but prevented heart failure as a byproduct of its energizing activity. A quote: “The formulation favorably altered the myocardial energy substrate, improved cardiac function and reduced infarct size.”3 To clarify, the myocardial energy substrate is the energy that keeps the heart functioning optimally, preventing heart failure.
Ashwagandha for diabetes
Ashwagandha is also of benefit to those suffering from diabetes and hypoglycemia. In the study ‘Hypoglycaemic and Hypolipidaemic Effects of Withania somnifera Root and Leaf Extracts on Alloxan-Induced Diabetic Rats’, Ashwagandha was able to stabilize blood sugar levels in alloxan-induced diabetic rats.
A more recent study, published in the journal Phytochemistry, backs up previous studies on the topic and helps to further understanding of the mechanism behind it. “In the present study, we evaluated the anti-diabetic activity of W. somnifera extract and purified withanolides, as well as the effect of various elicitors on this activity. W. somnifera leaf and root extracts increased glucose uptake in myotubes and adipocytes in a dose dependent manner, with the leaf extract more active than the root extract. Leaf but not root extract increased insulin secretion in basal pancreatic beta cells but not in stimulated cells. Six withanolides isolated from W. somnifera were tested for anti-diabetic activity based on glucose uptake in skeletal myotubes. Withaferin A was found to increase glucose uptake, with 10μM producing a 54% increase compared with control, suggesting that withaferin A is at least partially responsible for W. somnifera’s anti-diabetic activity.”4
Ashwagandha’s lesser known health benefits
In 2013, a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled, clinical trial with human subjects, at a teaching hospital, was conducted to determine whether or not Ashwagandha could help prevent metabolic syndrome in patients taking second-generation anti-psychotics. Metabolic syndrome is a risk factor for those taking second-generation anti-psychotics.
The patients in the study were all schizophrenics over 18 years of age, receiving “second-generation antipsychotics for 6 months or more, having serum triglycerides more than 150 mg/dl, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol less than 40 mg/dl in men and less than 50 mg/dl in women, fasting blood glucose(FBG) level more than 100 mg/dl.” Pregnant and lactating women, and those on more than one medication, were excluded from the study. The results were positive. “Demographic characteristics were comparable in the two treatment groups. No change in all three biochemical parameters was found after 1 month of treatment in the placebo group. However, a statistically significant (P<0.05) reduction in serum triglycerides and [fasting blood glucose] was observed after 1 month of [Ashwagandha] treatment compared to the placebo group.”5
Additionally, Ashwagandha has been credited with improving memory, concentration, cognition and thyroid function, protecting adrenal health, maintaining the immune system of chemotherapy patients, neutralizing salmonella poisoning and even defending against malaria.
Ashwagandha’s pharmacological activity
Scientists have identified more than 12 alkaloids and 35 withanolides within Ashwagandha, but attribute most of the herb’s “pharmaceutical activity” to two primary withanolides – withaferin A and withanolide D. Withaferin A is a steroidal lactone which binds to and inhibits vimentin – a protein that, in humans, is encoded by the VIM gene. Withanolide D induces apoptosis (cell death) in leukemia by targeting the activation of neutral sphingomyelinase-ceramide cascade mediated by synergistic activation of c-Jun N-terminal kinase and p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase. Scientists also speculate that some of Ashwagandha’s benefits are a result of its antioxidant properties and ability to scavenge free radicals.
As interest in this amazing herb grows, I’m certain more researchers will want to prove (or disprove) old and new anecdotal raves. In any case, the more we learn about how this herb functions and what ailments it’s capable of treating the better.
1 Agarwal R, Diwanay S, et al. “Studies on immunomodulatory activity of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) extracts in experimental immune inflammation”. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, October 1999. Web.
2 Singh N, Bhalla M, et al. “An Overview On Ashwagandha: A Rasayana (Rejuvenator) of Ayurveda”. African Journal of Traditional Complementary Alternative Medicine, 2011. Web.
3 Ojha SK and Arya DS. “Withania somnifera Dunal (Ashwagandha): A Promising Remedy for Cardiovascular Diseases”. World Journal of Medical Sciences, 2009. Web.
4 Gorelick J, Rosenberg R, et al. “Hypoglycemic activity of withanolides and elicitated Withania somnifera.” Phytochemistry, August 2015. Web. September 5, 2015
5 Agnihotri AP, Sontakke SD, et al. “Effects of Withania somnifera in patients of schizophrenia: A randomized, double blind, placebo controlled pilot trial study”. Indian Journal of Pharmacology, July-August 2013. Web. September 5, 2015
Udayakumar R, Kasthurirengan S, Mariashibu TS, et al. “Hypoglycaemic and Hypolipidaemic Effects of Withania somnifera Root and Leaf Extracts on Alloxan-Induced Diabetic Rats”. International Journal of Molecular Science, May 2009. Web.