The Essential Guide to Ashwagandha, Everything You Need to Know

Published on August 11, 2017

What is Ashwagandha?

  • Ashwagandha is considered an adaptogen, meaning it promotes balance in many different systems of the body. 14*
  • It can help the body adapt to stressful conditions.14*
  • It is a nourishing tonic that supports the nervous system and the endocrine system
  • Ashwagandha also supports cardiovascular and immune health.3, 4, 8, 14*

The root contains several compounds that are considered bioactive, including the steroidal lactones withanolide glycosides and withaferins, alkaloids, acylsteryl glycosides and saponins.8, 12 Withanolides are the best-known active constituents in Ashwagandha, and our Ashwagandha Root contains a standardized level of these components (2.5 mg per Liquid Phyto-Cap®).*

Ashwagandha Uses

Pair of Ashwagandha herbs

Ashwagandha has been extensively studied over its four millennia of use. This herb offers support similar to the adaptogens Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus, sometimes called Siberian ginseng) and Ginseng (both Panax ginseng and Panax quinquefolius) for a healthy stress response.* Because of this, it is sometimes known as Indian "Ginseng," although it is an unrelated species and provides calming and nourishing stress support, while Ginseng supports energy and stamina.12*

Dr. Mary Bove, Gaia's director of medical education, considers Ashwagandha to be:

Top Ashwagandha Benefits

How Ashwagandha supports anxiety and Stress*

Cortisol is a stress hormone released from the adrenals that has evolutionarily helped the body to mobilize a "fight or flight" response to a perceived imminent danger, freeing up resources for a vigorous fight against an intruder or flight from danger. Cortisol naturally follows a daily rhythm, rising in the morning to help mobilize the body's forces for the daily needs and lowering in the evening to allow the body to sleep and perform restorative processes. Cortisol is helpful as a short-term defense mechanism and as part of a natural daily rhythm.3

The stress of modern human culture chronically activates the cortisol stress response, which can impact delicate glucose and lipid balance as well as vascular integrity, gastrointestinal membrane integrity and nervous system function.3, 4

Newly sprouting Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha has been shown to promote healthy levels of cortisol and the healthy inflammatory processes that are stimulated in the response to stress.* This promotes healthy function of the immune, cardiovascular and nervous systems, as well as the brain, muscles and joints.* Ashwagandha also supports the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis that controls cortisol release from the adrenals.* (A healthy stress response supports healthy function of the whole body, so the body doesn't have to divert attention from other processes.) Healthy, normal cortisol output also supports the adrenal glands, which naturally allows the body to focus on reproductive health.7

Ashwagandha and the Nervous System

Ashwagandha seems to support the structure and function of the nervous system, and it is also considered to be a neurosupportive and nootropic herb.* (Nootropic herbs are those that promote healthy cognitive function.12*)

Ashwagandha supports healthy nervous system function, providing antioxidant support and naturally stimulating the pathways in the brain for GABA, a neurotransmitter that's responsible for promoting calmness and regulating muscle tone.2, 7, 8* Ashwagandha supports a calm and stable mood, and it helps to regulate natural cortisol rhythm.2, 3, 4, 7* Several studies also have shown that Ashwagandha supports healthy sleep.3, 4, 10

Ashwagandha and Reproductive Health

In the endocrine system, the adrenals play a "starring" role; their functions are necessary for our survival while reproduction is not. As such, the HPA axis and the stress response are naturally connected to sperm production and fertility in men and hormonal balance and fertility in women. The body produces cortisol from the same precursors used to make reproductive hormones, and, under stress, the body will preferably produce cortisol instead of testosterone, estrogen and progesterone.7, 14

Maintaining healthy cortisol levels can free up those resources to be used for reproductive hormones. The HPA axis also interacts closely with the body's production of thyroid hormones, and Ashwagandha seems to also support healthy thyroid function, although this has not been explored clinically.8

Potential Ashwagandha benefits for Men*

In untrained healthy men performing resistance training for eight weeks, consuming Ashwagandha root supported healthy muscle strength and recovery.* Ashwagandha promotes healthy levels of creatinine kinase, which reduces the natural muscle damage that happens from exercise and promotes muscle recovery.13* In men, Ashwagandha has also been shown to support a healthy stress response, healthy sperm levels and normal levels of testosterone.7, 13*

Ashwagandha and Fitness

Man running with multi colored sunset behind him

Metabolically, Ashwagandha seems to have an overall anabolic action, supporting weight gain during the natural growth phase.* Ashwagandha-fortified milk given to children helps support a healthy weight, as well as healthy total plasma proteins and hemoglobin levels.8* It has been shown to support normal lean body weight and fat-to-muscle ratios.10, 13*  Ashwagandha may also promote healthy fat oxidation and support healthy blood glucose and blood lipid levels within normal ranges.3, 10*

Ashwagandha and Joint Health

Ashwagandha root has been studied for its support of a healthy inflammatory response and joint health.* In human studies, it has been shown to naturally mitigate levels of C-reactive protein, which is a systemic marker for the body's inflammatory response.3* Ashwagandha has been shown to support occasional joint pain, stiffness, swelling and discomfort in healthy men and women.8, 9*

The History of Ashwagandha 

Ashwagandha plant close up

The translation of Ashwagandha is roughly "the smell and strength of a horse," which alludes to its traditional use to support a healthy sex drive.* Its species name, somnifera, means "sleep-inducing" in Latin. Somnifera indicates its traditional Ayurvedic use for supporting somnolence, or sleepiness.* In Sanskrit, the word "ashwa" means "horse," while "gandha" means "smell." Once ground, the herb smells like a horse and was thought to impart the power of one, too. Ashwagandha's Hindi name is "asgandh," another nod to its potent odor that's reminiscent of horse sweat.4, 12

This plant is native to the Indian subcontinent, specifically the drier areas of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It also grows in parts of Africa, and it can grow in temperate climates, including Western North Carolina, where Gaia Herbs is located. We grow Ashwagandha on our 350-acre Certified Organic farm in Brevard, and we also source it from India. The root of the plant is the part used in herbal products, and we harvest Ashwagandha root in fall when constituents are at their peak.

Ashwagandha in Ayurveda

Ashwagandha is added to our Gaia Herbs Golden Milk

In Ayurveda, Ashwagandha is a rasayana, or a plant that promotes longevity, vitality and happiness.8, 12, 14* Rasayanas are traditionally given to small children and the elderly as a tonic to support overall well-being.* The root is often dried and ground, then given as a powder mixed with ghee, honey and milk. (Ashwagandha can have a bitter taste.) This warm beverage is often consumed before bedtime.12 Ashwagandha is added to our Golden Milk to provide a feeling of relaxation and support relaxation.*

Ashwagandha is one of the most commonly used herbs for the "vata" constitution, which is associated with air and space. Balanced vata energy helps maintain supple skin and joints, a healthy body weight, vitality, healthy cognitive function and a healthy nervous system.6 Ashwagandha is used traditionally as a tonic for memory, vitality and hormonal function, which supports balanced vata energy.14* It is also used to support sleep quality, and the ground powdered root can be applied topically to promote healthy, comfortable joints.12*

Where to Buy Ashwagandha 

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Selected sources:
  1. Ahmad, Mohammad Kaleem, et al. Fertility and sterility3 (2010): 989-996.
  1. Andrade, Chittaranjan, Aswath A, et al. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 2000, 42 (3), 295-301.
  1. Auddy, Biswajit, et al. J Am Nutraceutical Assoc1 (2008): 43-49
  1. Chandrasekhar K, Kapoor J, & Anishetty S. Indian J Psychol Med, 2012 Jul-Sep; 34 (3): 255-262.
  1. Choudary B., Shetty A., & Langade D. Efficacy of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera [L.] Dunal) in improving cardiorespiratory endurance in healthy athletic adults. Ayu 2015. Jan-Mar; 36(1): 63-68.
  1. Dass, Vishnu. "Ayurvedic Herbology-East & West: A Practical Guide to Ayurvedic Herbal Medicine." Lotus Press, Twin Lakes, WI.  
  1. Mahdi AA, Shukla KK, Ahmad MK et al. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine Volume 2011, article ID576962, 9 pages. Doi: 10.1093/ecam/nep138.
  1. Mishra, Lakshmi-Chandra, Betsy B. Singh, and Simon Dagenais. "Scientific basis for the therapeutic use of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha): a review." Alternative Medicine Review4 (2000): 334-346.
  1. Ramakath GSH, Kumar CU, Kishan PV, & Usharani P. J Ayurveda Integr Med. 2016 Jul-Sep; 7(3): 151-157.
  1. Raut, Ashwinikumar, et al. "Exploratory study to evaluate tolerability, safety, and activity of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) in healthy volunteers." Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine3 (2012): 111.
  1. Sandu JS, Shah B, et al. Effects of Withania somnifera (Ashwagandha) and Terminalia arjuna (Arjuna) on physical performance and cardiorespiratory endurance in healthy young adults. Int J Ayurveda Res. 2010 Jul-Sep; 1(3): 144-149. Doi: 10.4103/0974-7788:72485
  1. Singh N., Bhalla M., de Jager P., & Gilca M. "An overview on Ashwagandha: A rasayana (rejuvenator) of Ayurveda." Afr J Tradit Complement Altern Med. (2011) 8(S):208-213
  1. Wankhede S, Langade D, Joshi K, Sinha SR, Bhattacharyya S. Examining the effect of Withania somnifera supplementation on muscle strength and recovery: a randomized controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. November 25, 2015;12:43. doi: 10.1186/s12970-015-0104-9.
  1. Winston, David and Maimes, Steven. "Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief," Herbal Therapeutics. Rochester, Vt: 2007.