Ashwagandha is a plant native to India, where it has been used for centuries as a tonic and restorative. Modern nootropic users are rediscovering this ancient herb, which may be a valuable brain-booster that improves cognition by fighting the effects of stress and helping with mood management.
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, promote recovery, or increase sexual function.
The name ashwagandha is a Sanskrit word that translates to “smell of a horse,” which refers to both the odor of the plant’s roots and to Ayurvedic practitioners’ belief that the herb can confer a stallion-like vigor.
Extensive research indicates that ashwagandha is a powerful adaptogen, a natural substance that helps the body adapt to stress and normalizes the function of the adrenal, endocrine, and other bodily systems.
Studies confirm that ashwagandha may help prevent and mitigate 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 the potential for protecting and enhancing cognitive function as well as promoting general health and well-being.
Reduce Stress, 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.
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.
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.
A 60-day regimen of ashwagandha was shown to effectively reduce levels of serum cortisol in patients with chronic anxiety and mental stress.
May Indirectly Enhance Cognition
There are limited studies on ashwagandha’s ability to directly improve memory and cognitive abilities, but its powerful adaptogenic capabilities may indirectly result in enhanced cognition.
Research has repeatedly demonstrated that anxiety can be a major factor in diminished cognitive ability, measurably impairing concentration, focus, and memory.
Since stress and depression can have a negative effect on the body’s systems, including those in the brain itself, ashwagandha’s anxiolytic and adaptogenic properties may substantially help maximize cognition.
In a small study of 20 healthy males, ashwagandha was shown to improve both cognitive and psychomotor performance.
In a review of Ayurvedic medicines with cognition-enhancing properties, ashwagandha was noted as having potential as a treatment for childhood dyslexia.
Animal studies show that daily supplementation with ashwagandha effectively prevented cognitive decline by enhancing hippocampal plasticity.
Ashwagandha is currently being studied as a possible treatment for cognitive decline related to dementia and HIV.
Treatment for Various Health Issues
Ashwagandha has also been shown to have potential as a treatment for a variety of disorders.
Arthritis: Ashwagandha’s Ayurvedic use as a treatment for joint complaints appears to be confirmed by recent research. 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: Ashwagandha is being studied as a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. Recent research 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. Animal studies also show ashwagandha has the potential to act as a neuroprotectant, preventing damage from the glutamate neurotoxicity typically associated with neurodegenerative disorders.
Weight Management: Ashwagandha’s adaptogenic properties may be useful in the treatment of obesity. 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: Ayurvedic medicine’s classical use of ashwagandha as a strength-improving tonic appears to be confirmed by a series of recent studies. Healthy males taking from 300 mg to 1250 mg of ashwagandha daily demonstrated measurable improvements in muscle strength 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 675 mg daily of high-potency ashwagandha known as KSM-66. 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 sexual behavior, increased testicular sperm production, and raised serum testosterone levels.
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: While ashwagandha is not a treatment for cancer, it appears to be a valuable adjunct therapy for cancer patients. 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.
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 are believed to have the potential for physiological activity.
One of the known mechanisms of withanolides 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, at the same time demonstrating 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 and is associated with enhanced cognition.
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 implicated in a wide range of disorders, and many of ashwagandha’s benefits are believed to be associated with its anti-inflammatory properties.
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.
Ashwagandha should be taken with food.
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.
Side effects are rare and are typically associated with large doses
The most commonly reported side effects are indigestion and diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, and drowsiness.
Ashwagandha could potentially interact with other supplements and medications. It may increase the effects of sedative drugs and other anxiolytics.
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 specialty vendor such as PureNootropics.net as they carry ashwagandha in its highly concentrated KSM-66 extract form, as well as a wide selection of other nootropics.
Ashwagandha is an ancient herb with a lot to offer modern nootropic users.
There are plenty of pros to consider. Ashwagandha has been extensively studied and shown to be a potent and reliable adaptogen that can help the body and brain adapt to stress. It’s a proven anxiolytic that may improve mood and help regulate sleep. It can lower levels of the cortisol, a stress-related hormone associated with a whole spectrum of health issues. And it’s thought to be a promising neuroprotectant that may help treat and perhaps even prevent neurological disorders.
It’s safe, well-tolerated, non-toxic even in large doses, and has very few side effects. It’s affordable, readily available, and it has a successful track record that goes back centuries.
There are some possible cons, too: it may interact adversely with immunosuppressants, and it may potentiate Benzodiazepines and CNS depressants. Though side effects are generally mild and rare, some people do experience them.
But the biggest con related to ashwagandha is what we don’t know about it. Like most nootropics, its mechanisms of action are not completely understood. Much of the research on some aspects of ashwagandha has involved animal rather than human studies, and the full extent of its effects and potential interactions is unknown.
Whether or not ashwagandha would be a good addition to your nootropic regimen depends largely on what you’re looking for. If you’re seeking a burst of energy or an immediate cognitive boost, it may not be the answer. But if you’re interested in increasing your brainpower by lowering anxiety, lifting depression, and getting better sleep, ashwagandha could be worth trying.
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Planning to start a new supplementation regimen? See our medical disclaimer.
This page was last updated on November 15, 2018.