Ashwagandha, also referred to as Withania somnifera, is a plant species that is perhaps best known for its use as herbal remedy in Ayuverdic medicine.
It’s something that has been on my radar for a while and certainly has come up in conversation over the years in various capacities.
One of the big reasons I’ve decided to write about it today, in collaboration with my Australian colleague Nicole Luke, is because two of the top twenty ranked supplement spots on Amazon.com are occupied by Ashwagandha-containing products.
In addition to its rich history and traditional usage, Ashwaganda supplements are obviously also generating a great deal of interest and revenue in the public sphere in North America.
But what really matters, of course, is whether or not it has a safe and meaningful role to play in improving human health.
That’s where today’s article comes in.
Looking exclusively at some of the best available experimental studies (or meta-analaysis/reviews of such studies) my colleague Nicole and I arrived at three areas of scientific interest as it relates to human health and ashwagandha supplementation.
- Male Testosterone & Fertility (Sperm Quality)
- Exercise Performance & Endurance
- Anxiety, Stress & Mental Health
Given that Nicole is a fertility-focused dietitian, she will handle that aspect of the article on her platform.
If you are indeed highly interested in the connection between dietary choices and men’s sexual health/hormone levels, I also have an article on that specific topic.
For today, however, I will really focus in on Ashwagandha’s potential to improve mental health via stress and anxiety mitigation while also taking a look at its potential benefits as an physical performance aid.
Let’s get right to it.
Ashwagandha & Mental Health
My regular readers will know that I’ve written regularly on the topics of anxiety and depression both from the nutrition and supplemental perspective and given the lasting effects of COVID-19, the topic of mental health is as salient today as it has ever been before.
Ashwagandha is traditionally considered a stress relieving herbal remedy and is thought to exert effects on the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, the bodily system that is ultimately responsible for our cortisol (“stress hormone”) levels.
There are a number of controlled experimental studies of varying quality which support these claims.
A 2012 study out of the Indian Journal Of Psychological Medicine which found that 300mg 2x daily over a six month period significantly reduced cortisol and stress levels compared to placebo.
A 2014 systematic review out of the Journal Of Alternative And Complimentary Medicine found some potential for Ashwagandha to reduce stress and anxiety levels in a significant fashion but cautioned against the quality of available studies.
A more recently conducted experimental study out of the Cureus journal found that as little as 250mg ( 125 mg x2 daily) of Aswagandha was sufficient to reduce cortisol levels, reported stress levels and improve sleep quality compared to placebo.
Another RCT out of the Medicine journal looking at Ashwangadha at 250mg daily observed positive effects on cortisol and anxiety levels as compared to placebo.
In each of the studies above the authors noted no significant adverse side effects were experienced by the participants.
While the study quality is not overwhelming, it does appear that the consistency and manner of study of Ashwagandha supplementation is more compelling at the moment than some other popular alternative stress management tools such as CBD (which I’ve also written about!).
Ashwagandha & Physical Performance
The other area of inquiry as it relates to Ashwagandha usage where decently rigorous evidence exists is in the realm of physical performance.
A pair of recently conducted ( 2020, 2021) systematic reviews and meta-analysis looked at Ashwagandha supplementation in various measures of athletic performance such as strength, recovery and endurance (VO2 max) and found some potential role for Ashwagandha to play in improving these parameters.
Dosing in studies above varied between 250-600 mg daily, which is in line with the studies on mental health outcomes.
My sense is that much more work will be required before Ashwagandha can genuinely be considered a true ergogenic (sport performance) aid, but perhaps these findings offer a mild additional incentive to those who may compelled by the supplements potential benefits in other capacities.
Ashwagandha & Male Sexual Health/Hormones
I’m definitely teasing you guys with this one but if you want to learn more about the effects of Ashwagandha on testosterone levels and male fertility, you will have to go on to part 2 of the article written by my talented Australian colleague Nicole (pictured below).
Nicole is an Australian dietitian specializing in dietary interventions for women throughout various life stages with an emphasis on nutrition for conception, fertility, pregnancy and all things post-partum and breastfeeding nutrition. She also works with PCOS and endometriosis.
Male fertility is often overlooked in the conception process, which is why this portion of the article makes perfect sense for her to write.
A Note On Side-effects, Safety & Drug Interactions
While long-term safety data appears to be lacking, short-term data including the studies cited today appear to suggest Ashwaganda is generally safe and well-tolerated in healthy individuals and will not affect important blood markers (ie; liver, thyroid).
With that said, there have been reported side effects and potential drug interactions associated with Ashwaganda use and it is not necessarily safe/suitable for everyone – I recommend reviewing the safety data provided or consulting with your healthcare practitioner to determine its suitability for your personal use.
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