What is Ashwagandha?
Have you heard about ashwagandha? Sounds like a distant country, right?
Ashwagandha is an herb in the Solanaceae family. Its scientific name is Withania somnifera. The herb is more commonly known as Indian ginseng or winter cherry, and comes from India. It is a very robust plant that flourishes in dry regions and high altitudes.
Ashwagandha has been used for centuries, yet only now is modern medicine looking into the plant. Initial studies on Ashwagandha show potential therapeutic properties with no related toxicity to the chemical compounds of the herb.
The initial research suggest that Ashwagandha contains anti-oxidizing, anti-inflammatory, sleep inducing, anti-stress, and drug withdrawal properties. Some formulas of the herb help with symptoms of musculoskeletal diseases like arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
It’s known as an adaptogenic herb, meaning it has properties that help to stabilize physiology and return the body to homeostasis. It has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for more than 2,500 years.
Ashwagandha’s ability protect against stress has made it a popular herb in our increasingly stressful culture. As with other adaptogenic herbs, ashwagandha normalizes the body’s flight or fight response, even during emotional or physical stress.
Benefits of Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha is made up of several medicinal chemicals, including withanolides (steroidal lactones), choline, alkaloids, amino acids, fatty acids, and a variety of sugars. Even though the leaves and fruit can be useful in therapeutic processes, the root of the plant is the most commonly used portion.
There have been more than 200 studies on the healing benefits of Ashwagandha. Some benefits are as follows:
Protects the immune system
Helps combat the effects of stress
Improves learning, memory, and reaction time
Reduces anxiety and depression without causing drowsiness
Helps reduce brain-cell degeneration
Stabilizes blood sugar
Helps lower cholesterol
Offers anti-inflammatory and analgesic benefits
Contains antimalarial properties
Enhances sexual potency for both men and women
May be an effective anti-tumor agent
Promotes new nerve growth
Ashwagandha is known to improve physical performance, as well as reduce Low-density Lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Ashwagandha studies suggest that the herb can improve the creation of memories and may eventually be used to treat Alzheimer’s.
Ashwagandha is most frequently offered to cancer patients. It works well to reduce immunosuppression and can ease the discomfort of chemotherapy treatment through reducing fatigue and stress.
Some studies have also suggested that there are particular benefits to men who supplement with Ashwagandha.
Ashwagandha for men
A study to, “…analyze the spermatogenic activity of ashwagandha in patients with low sperm concentrations and possible male infertility” was conducted by researchers. There were 46 men in the study. They received either 675 milligrams of ashwagandha, three doses per day for 90-days, or they received a placebo.
When the study concluded, researchers found that there was a, “…167 percent increase in sperm count, 53 percent increase in semen volume and 57 percent increase in sperm motility,” for the men who took the ashwagandha supplement. There was no significant change in men who took the placebo.
Also, a 2010 study published in Fertility and Sterility found that ashwagandha improved testosterone production in 75 men undergoing infertility testing. Ashwagandha also reduced oxidative stress and increased levels of multiple antioxidants in those being treated.
Benefits to men in particular included the following:
lower levels of stress
increase in concentration and memory
stronger sex drives
strengthening immune system
improving sleep quality
Beyond studies designed to understand benefits of ashwagandha by gender, there are studies that suggest the herb can specifically help the thyroid gland.
Ashwagandha and your thyroid
The thyroid is a small gland, located at the bottom of the neck, that is largely responsible for regulating the body’s metabolism through the release of the right hormones.
When the thyroid gland is underactive or even stops working, the body experiences metabolism-related problems. The most common symptoms of this condition include the following:
- Fatigue and tiredness, no matter how much you rest
- Periodic muscle weakness in different parts of the body
- Steady or sudden weight gain that is hard to lose
- Cramping in various major muscle groups
- Increased sensitivity to cold temperatures
- Hair loss that can’t be traced to stress or hormonal imbalances
- Chronic constipation
- Depression and mood swings
- Anger and overblown reactions to small irritations
- Dry skin and hair that does not respond well to typical moisturizers
- Pale skin despite sun exposure or a complexion that is naturally darker
- Absent or irregular menstrual cycles
- Loss of sex drive and sexual response to stimulus
It doesn’t take much to set off thyroid dysfunction and these symptoms can significantly disrupt your life.
What causes hypothyroidism?
For most patients, most markedly women, there’s no specific cause for this disease. It can evolve from damage to the thyroid itself during other medical treatments. There is also research to suggest that hypothyroidism is at least partially hereditary.
Ashwagandha works to balance the immune system and metabolism, working to help balance both over and under active thyroid diseases. Adaptogen herbs are very effective in handling hormonal imbalances. Bringing balance to a struggling thyroid will help relieve symptoms and restore health without the potential side effects of conventional medications.’
How does this herb help?
Surprisingly the herb will help not only underactive thyroid glands; it will also help an overactive thyroid brought on by an illness like Grave’s disease. Ashwagandha encourages your thyroid to produce more or fewer hormones as needed. Other benefits include:
- Reduced cortisol levels (the stress hormone)
- Restored insulin sensitivity (reducing symptoms of diabetes or risk of developing it)
- Improved estrogen and progesterone levels
- Stabilized and improved moods
Before using Ashwagandha, it’s important to rule out interactions with any medications you take. Regular visits with your doctor and periodic thyroid function tests will help determine how much effect you’re getting from a regimen of herbal supplements.
One of the best aspects of adaptogenic ashwagandha is that it can help people with both under-active and overactive thyroid problems.
“Ashwagandha has been shown to support a sluggish thyroid for people diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, and has been shown to improve the health of those with an overactive thyroid, or Grave’s disease, although the research on the herb’s effects on hyperthyroidism is limited.”
There are millions of patients struggling with thyroid problems, some who don’t even know it. Ashwagandha could be the solution they’ve been searching for. In a 2017 pilot study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, ashwagandha benefits for patients with subclinical hypothyroidism were evaluated.
There were 50 diagnosed participants with thyroid disorder who didn’t display obvious symptoms of thyroid imbalance.
“During an 8-week period, the treatment group received 600 milligrams of ashwagandha root extract daily, and the control group received starch as the placebo. Researchers found that ashwagandha improved serum thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) and thyroxine (T4) levels significantly compared to placebo. It was concluded that ashwagandha may be beneficial for normalizing thyroid levels in patients with hypothyroidism.”
Continued studies would be beneficial to other patients who deal with not only thyroid issues, but other imbalances in the body.
The root extract is most widely used, but leaf extracts can also be purchased. Both can be found in powder and capsules.
When you purchase ashwagandha supplements, ensure it’s standardized for human consumption. The amount of withanolide should be from 1–10 percent, though not all supplements are labeled as such. Purchase high-quality supplements produced with gold-star standards to ensure you receive a product high in withanolides. This gives you the best results.
Experts recommend beginning your supplementation with 300 to 500 milligrams per day (withanolides should be from 5–10 percent). Increase your dose in increments, being mindful of side effects. Many supplements recommend between 1,000–1,500 milligrams per day at full dosage. Higher dosages should be monitored by a health care or naturopathic professional.
Ashwagandha root is available in the market in powdered, dried, or fresh root form. 1-2 tsp or 5-6 grams of the powder is recommended when you consume it for general well-being.
Ashwagandha is typically taken as a fine powder mixed in ghee or honey. Westerners typically ingest it as capsules. For those with insomnia and anxiety, a teaspoon of powdered ashwagandha in a cup of warm milk or an ashwagandha capsule before bedtime can be of great benefit.
Possible side effects
Ashwagandha is relatively safe when taken by mouth short-term. Safety in long-term use is unknown. High doses of ashwagandha can cause stomach upset, diarrhea, and vomiting. The safety of applying the powder directly to the skin has never been studied.
People with certain long-term or short-term conditions should not use ashwagandha or do so only under supervision of a health care specialist.
- Pregnancy and breast-feeding: Ashwagandha is rated LIKELY UNSAFE during pregnancy.
- Diabetes: Ashwagandha can cause low blood sugar episodes that can lead to coma or death.
- High or low blood pressure: Ashwagandha can decrease blood pressure. This could cause dizziness or fainting. It could also interfere with any type of blood pressure medication.
- Stomach ulcers: Ashwagandha has been known to irritate the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
- Autoimmune diseases: Ashwagandha could activate the immune system leading to an increase of symptoms of autoimmune diseases.
- Surgery: Anesthesia and other medications dosed before, during, and after surgery might slow the nervous system.
Though Ayurveda as a medical practice has thousands of years of trial and error behind it, there is still much research to be done on the benefits and risks of Ashwagandha usage.
Nevertheless, initial studies plus significant anecdotal evidence suggest that it can be hugely beneficial to your body. It can serve as a natural alternative to many strong medications that are normally used to treat different ailments.
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