What Everybody Needs to Know About Ashwagandha

To hear some people talk about it, you’d think that ashwagandha has almost mythical healing qualities; after all, anything that can reduce stress and fatigue is bound to be popular. But how much of this is true, and how much is just good marketing?

As herbal remedies go, ashwagandha is associated with some pretty amazing benefits. Here’s the run-down:

  • Studies have shown that ashwagandha lowers cortisol, a.k.a. the “stress hormone”, which can result in a myriad of beneficial effects
  • It may reduce insomnia, anxiety, and depression, and possibly even improve sexual health for men
  • This shrub has been a part of Ayurvedic medicinal traditions for several hundred years
  • Ashwagandha is also called “Indian ginseng”; its name means “smell of horse” in Sanskrit

Ashwagandha may have a long history of medicinal use in India, but Western consumers only recently started to catch on. This has coincided with an increased interest in drug-free solutions for various health problems; many also use herbal remedies alongside traditional medical treatments.

Ashwagandha fits right into this trend, especially for anyone who’s into “biohacking”. Biohackers like to take control of their health by making adjustments to their diet, supplements, or lifestyle, and then tracking their results. This particular plant is associated with reduced cortisol levels; since cortisol is a key biomarker for stress, it’s easy to measure as an indication that the supplement is having the desired effect.

The connection between ashwagandha and cortisol

Under normal circumstances, cortisol shouldn’t cause any problems. In fact, without cortisol you’d barely be able to wake up in the morning. It’s an important part of the “fight or flight” response; when you feel anxious or alarmed, your body sees that as a signal to make more cortisol. This hormonal response has been around since the cavemen were fending off predators, but in the 21st century you’re more likely to get this type of stress response when you see an email notification from a dreaded co-worker.

Whether it’s because of a job, car troubles, or life in general, many people deal with all kinds of stress on a daily basis – and this can lead to cortisol levels that just won’t return to normal. Instead of trying to get rid of whatever’s causing the stress, which is usually impossible, some people have used ashwagandha to lower their cortisol levels. As a result, even if the job is still terrible or the car keeps acting up, it simply doesn’t impact their stress levels as much.

Ashwagandha belongs to a group of plants known as adaptogens; among other things, adaptogens are supposed to help your body re-learn how to cope with stress. In other words, if your stress response is out of whack, adaptogens may correct the imbalance.

What happens when you correct elevated cortisol levels?

When you reduce stress, you’ll probably experience benefits like the following:

  • Lower blood sugar
  • Better sleep
  • Less weight gained due to stress
  • Fewer migraines
  • Less irritability
  • Reduced feelings of anxiety and depression

If you’re lowering your cortisol with ashwagandha, you may experience these effects as your body balances its stress response.

How ashwagandha impacts men’s sexual health

This is another hot topic in the health and wellness world. Research indicates that this herbal remedy may improve semen quality, increase testosterone, and boost libido in men. While this research is encouraging, it doesn’t tell us whether these changes are a result of lowered cortisol, or if they’re a completely separate effect.

Other potential benefits of ashwagandha

The limited research done on ashwagandha has uncovered several associated benefits (like the ones listed above), but it’s also revealed other positive effects that are worth studying more. They include things like:

  • Potential cancer-fighting capabilities
  • Heightened cognitive function
  • Better daytime energy levels
  • Less inflammation
  • Lowered cholesterol
  • Improved muscle mass

Even though ashwagandha hasn’t been the subject of thorough scientific research, there are still enough studies for most people to feel comfortable taking it. Plus, ashwagandha also has support in the form of anecdotal evidence. This isn’t as reliable as an actual scientific study, but it’s a valuable resource for anyone who wants to know more about how ashwagandha works.

Does ashwagandha have any side effects?

Just like with most natural remedies, you should use common sense when taking ashwagandha. If you start experiencing symptoms like an upset stomach, diarrhea, or headaches, it’s a sign that either your dose is too high, or it just isn’t for you.

There can also be unpleasant interactions with certain prescription drugs, so you should always consult with a doctor before adding ashwagandha to your supplement regimen. It’s technically considered to be a “dietary supplement”, so regulations on ashwagandha are pretty relaxed; this puts the responsibility on you (or your healthcare provider) to make sure that it’s safe for you to take regularly. Because of the relative lack of research on ashwagandha, it’s not recommended for women who are pregnant, nursing, or trying to become pregnant.

When will you see results?

If you’re like most users, you may start noticing a difference in two weeks to a month after starting daily doses. Remember, ashwagandha works by lowering cortisol levels, and that isn’t a change that can happen overnight.

Since your progress may be subtle at first, you might want to start monitoring your cortisol, keep a sleep journal, or use a sleep app to measure any changes. Another hormone you could track is melatonin, the main hormone responsible for sleep. As cortisol falls, melatonin generally rises, so that’s another way to watch your health improve. You probably won’t notice any changes from day to day, but if you can look back on the last month of using ashwagandha you may notice an overall positive trend.

What are your options when buying ashwagandha?

It’s easy to find online and at health food stores. Powdered ashwagandha works best if you’d prefer to mix it into your smoothies, while capsules will help you avoid the funky smell. Simply choose whichever kind suits you best, use it with an appropriate amount of caution, and enjoy experiencing the results!