The ashwagandha plant (or withania somnifera) is native to India and northern Africa, where it is traditionally considered a restorative. Ashwagandha is a Sanskrit word that translates to “smell of a horse,” which is thought to refer to both the odor of the plant’s roots and to the recuperative properties of the medicine, believed by Ayurvedic practitioners to confer a stallion-like vigor.
Ayurvedic medicine used ashwagandha as a treatment for a startling variety of specific problems, ranging from constipation to snake bite, but it was most typically prescribed to extend longevity, increase sexual function, or help patients recover from other illnesses. This tonic capability explains why it is sometimes referred to as Indian ginseng, but in reality, the two plants are completely different.
For modern users who are rediscovering this ancient traditional treatment, ashwagandha is a valuable brain-booster that improves cognition by fighting the effects of stress and helping with mood management.
New research confirms that it’s a promising adaptogen that can help prevent and ameliorate the effects of stress, and many users find that it’s also an effective anxiolytic that reduces anxiety, enhances mood, and relieves insomnia and other sleep problems.
Benefits and Effects
Much remains to be learned about ashwagandha, but a growing body of research indicates that it’s a safe and effective supplement that has great potential for protecting and enhancing cognitive function as well as general health and well-being.
Reduce Anxiety and Depression
Though most often used in traditional medicine as a tonic to help build strength and speed recuperation, ashwagandha is best known to modern users for its documented ability to fight stress and anxiety. In this capacity, it is both a health and immune system protectant that blocks the damaging effects of excess cortisol, as well as a powerful nootropic tool that enhances mood and cognition.
Clinical trials confirm that ashwagandha has powerful anxiolytic or anti-anxiety effects, capable of reducing both generalized and social anxiety in patients diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, but particularly effective in the context of chronic stress. Human studies also show that it has potential as a treatment for depression and panic disorder.
One of the most promising effects of ashwagandha is its ability to protect and promote overall health and well-being by reducing the levels of the “stress hormone,” cortisol, throughout the body. A 60-day regimen of ashwagandha was shown to effectively reduce levels of serum cortisol in patients with chronic anxiety and mental stress. This is a very important finding because high cortisol levels are strongly associated with a host of negative health implications, ranging from impaired immune function and bone density to weight gain, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Cognition Enhancing Effects
There are limited studies on ashwagandha directly improving memory and cognitive abilities however research has repeatedly demonstrated that anxiety can be a major factor in diminished cognitive ability, substantially impairing concentration, focus, and memory.
Stress and depression can actually have a negative effect on the body’s systems, including those in the brain itself.
Reducing anxiety and normalizing the reaction to stress are key to maximizing cognition.
Individuals that are anxious, stressed, or depressed, will likely benefit the most from ashwagandha’s cognitive enhancing effects.
Treatment for Various Health Issues
Ashwagandha has also been shown to have potential as a treatment for a variety of disorders.
Arthritis: A 2015 Indian study involving more than 100 patients with rheumatoid arthritis indicated that after taking ashwagandha for several weeks, more than half the participants had an observable decrease in arthritic symptoms, including pain, mobility problems, and tender and swollen joints.
Alzheimer’s Disease: Recent research done at the University of Newcastle suggests that ashwagandha inhibits the formation of beta-amyloid plaques, the amino acid formations known to accumulate in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients and interfere with cognitive processes. Though this research did not involve human or animal testing, it is thought to have promise for further study in search of an Alzheimer’s treatment.
Weight Management: A study of 52 people diagnosed with chronic stress showed that two daily doses of 300 mg of ashwagandha resulted in a significant drop in perceived stress and food cravings, as well as a decrease in serum cortisol and body weight.
Improved Muscle Strength: A series of studies involving healthy males showed that those taking from 300 mg to 1250 mg of ashwagandha daily demonstrated measurable improvements in muscle strength and size. In comparison to participants taking a placebo, those on the ashwagandha regimen increased their bench press and leg extension capability as well as muscle size, serum testosterone, and muscle recovery.
Male Sexual Dysfunction and Infertility: A pilot study involving 46 male participants, all of whom had low sperm counts, showed remarkable results after a three-month regimen of 675mg of ashwagandha daily. At the end of the trial, the participants taking ashwagandha had a 167% increase in sperm count, a 53% increase in semen volume, and a 57% increase in sperm motility. Animal tests also showed that ashwagandha increased prosexual behavior, increased testicular sperm production, and raised serum testosterone levels.
The participants in the pilot study referenced above were given a high-potency standardized extract of ashwagandha known as KSM 66, which has a high concentration (5%) of active ingredients known as withanolides. While similar effects have been observed with extracts containing lower concentrations of withanolides, the higher concentrations are considered by many users to be particularly effective at promoting sexual health and vitality.
Blood Pressure: Studies indicate that ashwagandha can produce a moderate but measurable reduction in blood pressure. In a 2010 study involving approximately 100 participants over a period of six months, an average 1.6% decrease in systolic pressure and 5.6% decrease in diastolic pressure was observed, along with a minor decrease in heart rate.
Chemotherapy-induced Fatigue: A 2013 trial involving over 100 breast cancer patients in all stages of the disease showed that ashwagandha effectively reduced chemotherapy-induced fatigue and improved quality of life. While it is not a treatment for cancer, it is a very valuable adjunct therapy for cancer patients.
Rejuvenation and Overall Health Improvement: A comprehensive scientific review of existing studies, information, and research on ashwagandha confirms that the various constituents of the substance exhibit a variety of therapeutic effects with no demonstrated toxicity. The review concluded that ashwagandha has anti-inflammatory, antitumor, antistress, antioxidant, immunomodulatory, and rejuvenating properties, capable of exerting a positive influence on the endocrine, cardiopulmonary, and central nervous systems.
How It Works
The exact mechanisms by which ashwagandha works are not entirely understood, but it is known that the active constituents are alkaloids and steroidal lactones that are collectively known as withanolides. It is this group of substances that is believed to have the potential for physiological activity.
One of the known mechanisms of the withanolide constituents of ashwagandha is the modulation of circulating levels monoamine oxidase and GABA in the brain. GABA is an amino acid that acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, countering to some extent the effects of the stimulatory neurotransmitter glutamate and thus serving as a natural tranquilizer. Animal studies demonstrate that ashwagandha also exhibits GABA-like properties and enhances calmness without creating drowsiness. It has also been shown to have anti-depressant effects.
Ashwagandha is believed to promote the formation of dendrites, branching neuronal extensions that convey and propagate electrochemical stimulation from cell to cell. Increased dendrite formation is considered to be a marker of increased connectivity in the brain.
The active withanolides in ashwagandha are also believed to have substantial antioxidant properties, which makes them a valuable brain protectant. Antioxidants are chemical molecules that prevent potentially damaging oxidizing agents from affecting cells in the brain and body. Cells that have been affected by oxidation can turn into free radicals, molecules that scavenge and damage surrounding cells. The action of free radicals can trigger a chain reaction of cellular devastation that is strongly associated with aging and a variety of diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Ashwagandha also appears to be an effective anti-inflammatory agent. Inflammation is a natural response of the body’s immune system, but when the immune system is impaired or spurred to overactivity, inflammation can become a serious health problem. Inflammation is implicated in a wide range of disorders, from arthritis and joint pain to obesity, heart disease, fatigue, blood vessel damage, and even cancer.
The anti-inflammatory properties of ashwagandha are believed to be at the heart of many of its benefits, including protecting and fortifying the immune system, improving memory, enhancing learning ability and reaction time, and preventing brain cell degeneration.
Ashwagandha appears to work particularly well in conjunction with Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors or SSRIs, commonly prescribed for compulsion-related mental disorders, as well as with GABAergic anxiolytics, including alcohol. It is not recommended for use in conjunction with JK inhibitors or MAO inhibitors.
Studies and clinical trials have tested a wide range of dosages, from as little as 50 mg once a day to as much as 1250 mg several times daily. The consensus is that the median effective dosage is from 300 mg to 500 mg, with optimal daily intake capped at 6000 mg, spread over three doses.
Users taking ashwagandha in conjunction with other anxiolytics, including nootropics like aniracetam, phenibut, and adrafinil, may find that a smaller dose is effective. As always, the best dosage advice is to start with the lowest possible effective dose and only increase as needed.
Ashwagandha should be taken with food. It’s generally best to take it in two or three doses over the course of a day, but if a single dose is required, it should be taken with breakfast.
Ashwagandha may increase the effects of tranquilizers, sedatives, or other anxiolytics, including alcohol and some nootropics.
It may also potentiate drugs taken to reduce blood pressure or regulate blood sugar, so use with caution if you’re taking other medications.
To fully experience ashwagandha’s cognitive enhancing effects, it does best when stacked with other supplements.
Have a look at our All-Natural Nootropic Stack for some inspiration of a stack that contains ashwagandha.
Ashwagandha appears to be exceptionally safe and well-tolerated when taken in moderate doses (300 mg to 1500 mg daily). In fact, no serious side effects have been recorded in conjunction with taking moderate doses of ashwagandha over a short period of time. The most commonly reported side effects include indigestion and diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, and drowsiness. These side effects are generally mild and temporary; if they increase in severity or persist over a long period of time, the user is advised to discontinue use and seek medical advice.
Larger doses may cause side effects including nausea and vomiting, skin rashes, and increased acidity. Users who experience these effects are advised to reduce dosages or discontinue using ashwagandha.
Ashwagandha could potentially interact with other supplements and medications. It may increase the effects of sedative drugs and other anxiolytics, and it could interfere with the action of immunosuppressive medications.
Women who are pregnant or nursing should not take ashwagandha, and it is not recommended for infants or children because there is limited data on its safety in these populations.
Where to Buy
We recommend Organic India Ashwagandha capsules that can be found on Amazon.
Another option is to order directly from a reputable specialty supplement vendor such as AbsorbYourHealth.com where you’ll be able to find ashwagandha as well as a wide selection of other nootropics.
There’s no doubt that ashwagandha is both a potent adaptogen that helps the brain and body handle stress, and is a safe, well-tolerated anxiolytic proven to reduce anxiety.
Ashwagandha’s anxiolytic and adaptogenic capabilities make it a valuable addition to nootropic stacks, particularly if stress or anxiety are part of the picture.
Not only does it improve mood, help regulate sleep, and enhance memory, it improves brain signaling by promoting neuronal health and growth. It also helps the body cope with stress by lowering levels of serum cortisol, a stress-related hormone that is associated with a spectrum of health issues, including impaired cognitive function.
Like most nootropics, ashwagandha is still being studied, and its full range of benefits and potential uses have yet to be discovered. But what is already known is exceptionally promising.
It’s safe, effective, and very well tolerated, with no record of serious side effects or toxicity; it’s widely available at affordable prices; it works well in combination with other nootropics, and it provides reliable relief from stress and anxiety.
It may be an excellent addition to your favorite nootropic stack.
Planning to start a new supplementation regimen? See our medical disclaimer.