Ashwagandha is one of the most important medicinal plants in Ayurveda. It is traditionally used as a sedative for stress-related sleep disorders or to strengthen the thyroid gland. We present the effects and possible uses of the sleeping berry.
Ashwagandha, the soporific plant
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is a plant of the nightshade family. It is also called sleeping berry, winter cherry, or “Indian ginseng” in Germany. The name Ashwagandha comes from Sanskrit and means something like: the smell of the horse, as the roots smell strongly of horses.
From a naturopathic point of view, however, the botanical name is more interesting. While Withania describes the plant genus, which also includes some other Withania species, the term “somnifera” comes from Latin and means something like “bringing sleep” (Somnus = sleep, ferre = bring) and thus points to one of the main areas of application of the Ashwagandha – namely sleep disorders.
The opium poppy also has this term in its botanical name: Papaver somniferum.
You use roots and leaves, not the berries
As an important medicinal plant from Ayurveda, Ashwagandha naturally comes from Asia, but can now be found in many tropical and subtropical areas, e.g. B. in Africa, Spain, Greece, the Canary Islands, and the Arabian Peninsula.
Although ashwagandha means sleeping berry in German, it is not the fruit that is used, but the roots and leaves of the ashwagandha. These parts of the plant contain the so-called withanolides, the best-researched active ingredients in Ashwagandha to date.
Risk of confusion: Ashwagandha and Physalis
The berries of the Ashwagandha are very similar to the fruits of the Physalis peruviana (Andean berry, Cape gooseberry), which also belongs to the nightshade family. The berries of both plants can sometimes be confused. They are both encased in a paper sheath (the dried petals that enclose the berries). Yes, sometimes Ashwagandha is even called Physalis somnifera, which even more clearly indicates a close relationship.
However, the berries of the Ashwagandha are not edible. While the physalis tastes refreshingly sweet when ripe, the ashwagandha berries are very bitter and poisonous in large quantities due to their alkaloid content. They are therefore not eaten simply because of the unpleasant taste. However, thanks to their high saponin content, they can be used to make soap. For those interested in naturopathy, however, the effects and areas of application of the root are of course much more exciting:
The Effects of Ashwagandha
A 2000 review by the Los Angeles College of Chiropractic lists numerous therapeutic effects of ashwagandha:
- Anti-stress effect
- anti-dementia effect
- Promotion of blood formation
- anti-tumor effect
Anti-aging effects (increases levels of DHEA, an anti-aging hormone)
Positive effect on the hormone balance, the heart-lung system, and the central nervous system.
At the same time, the cited work states that toxicity studies have shown that ashwagandha is a safe remedy with few or no side effects. For possible side effects, please read below.
Ashwagandha acts as an adaptogen against stress
In Ayurveda, Ashwagandha has been used for thousands of years to treat numerous ailments, such as insomnia, anxiety, joint pain, fertility problems, and impotence, but also to improve brain performance and improve mood.
Because of its ability to increase stress resistance, Ashwagandha is one of the so-called adaptogens. The term stands for medicinal plants that make you more stress-resistant, which means that under their influence stress can no longer attack your health as severely. Other adaptogens are e.g. B. Rhodiola Rosea or ginseng.
Ashwagandha lowers stress hormone levels
Cortisol is an important stress hormone, the level of which remains chronically elevated during prolonged stress and can thus be detrimental to health. Consequences of a too high cortisol level can be sleeping and concentration disorders, irritable bowel symptoms, depressive moods up to anxiety disorders, increased sensitivity to pain, and much more. Even diabetes can develop when the stress just doesn’t let up.
Ashwagandha has an anxiolytic effect on anxiety
In experiments with rats, it was shown as early as 2000 that ashwagandha root extracts had an anxiolytic effect on the small rodents that was comparable to that of conventional medication (e.g. lorazepam (a benzodiazepine)) after just 5 days.
In the same year, the calming effect of the sleeping berry was also confirmed in humans. In a six-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled study (22), 39 participants with anxiety disorders received either ashwagandha extract (250 mg per dose) or a placebo twice daily.
88 percent of participants in the ashwagandha group reported a significant improvement in their symptoms compared to just 50 percent in the placebo group. There were no side effects.
Another double-blind, placebo-controlled study from 2008 examined the effect of ashwagandha root extract on chronically stressed people. The 130 patients were divided into four groups:
- Group 1 received 125 mg ashwagandha extract once daily
- Group 2 received 125 mg twice daily
- Group 3 received 250 mg twice daily
- Group 4 received a placebo
The duration of administration was 60 days. The subjects’ stress levels were measured before the start of the study, in the middle of the study (day 30), and at the end of the study.
Cortisol levels drop, anti-stress hormone DHEA increases
Even the small dose of Ashwagandha taken once a day was able to significantly reduce the typical stress parameters such as blood pressure, pulse rate, and cortisol level in group 1 compared to the placebo.
Cortisol levels fell 14 percent in group 1, 24 percent in group 2, and 30 percent in group 3. In the placebo group, it increased by 4.4 percent.
At the same time, DHEA levels increased by 32 percent in groups 2 and 3 and by 13 percent in group 1 (it fell by 10 percent in the placebo group).
DHEA is considered an anti-stress and anti-aging hormone. DHEA is the antagonist of cortisol. When cortisol levels rise, DHEA levels fall, and vice versa. If you have a healthy DHEA level, you are more stress-tolerant or stress-resistant. Since the cortisol level increases with age and the DHEA level falls over the course of life, measures to increase the DHEA level are an important point in any stress management.
The CRP value, which can be increased under stress and is an indication of chronic inflammation in the body, also fell in the Ashwagandha groups. Likewise, the VLDL and LDL cholesterol levels as well as the triglycerides (blood fats), while the HDL cholesterol increased slightly. In the placebo group, these values even worsened.
The higher the Ashwagandha dose, the better the effect
The higher the Ashwagandha dose that was taken by the participants, the clearer the positive changes could be seen – not only in relation to the values mentioned but also in relation to the typical stress symptoms (tiredness, loss of appetite, head and muscle pain, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, tremors, sweating, dry mouth, insomnia). They all improved in a dose-dependent manner in groups 1 to 3, while remaining largely unchanged in the placebo group.
Of course, this does not mean that one should take ashwagandha in excessively high doses. However, it shows that the plant can be dosed very well individually – depending on the desired goal and the intensity of the symptoms – and also that doses that are too small are often not worthwhile.
Ashwagandha for insomnia
Stress, anxiety, and sleep disorders have become an integral part of modern life, but at the same time, they are among the important causes of a wide variety of diseases. Appropriate drugs (anxiety relievers, sleeping pills) rarely remain without side effects, so many people go in search of herbal remedies. Ashwagandha is one of those remedies.
The first placebo-controlled double-blind study in which a highly concentrated ashwagandha root extract against e.g. insomnia is from 2019.
60 stressed women and men participated (those who scored more than 20 points on the PSS stress scale (PSS, Perceived Stress Scale)) and received 125 mg or 300 mg of an ashwagandha extract or a placebo twice daily for 8 weeks.
In the two Ashwagandha groups, the values on the PSS scale fell significantly, the cortisol levels fell, and – compared to the placebo group – the Ashwagandha subjects reported a noticeable improvement in their sleep quality.
Also from 2019 is a study examining the effects of ashwagandha root extract (or placebo) 300 mg twice daily on subjects’ sleep quality. In the Ashwagandha group, the participants were able to fall asleep much faster after 10 weeks, they had a more restful sleep overall and also woke up much less frequently in between.
A double-blind study from 2020, which was also placebo-controlled, begins with praise in the highest tones: Ashwagandha is an excellent adaptogen that has been used in Ayurveda since ancient times to generally improve well-being, but also for specific diseases, e.g. also in geriatrics (in the elderly).
For 12 weeks, elderly people between the ages of 65 and 80 were given an ashwagandha extract (600 mg per day) or a placebo. In the Ashwagandha group, the quality of sleep improved significantly, so the overall quality of life increased.
Ashwagandha improves brain power
Various studies indicate that ashwagandha can also improve brain performance and memory, which could be of great importance in times of increasing dementia.
Experiments on rats showed as early as 2013 that ashwagandha can improve memory disorders and also – under stress – increase brain performance.
In 2014, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 20 men took 250 mg of ashwagandha root extract twice a day for 14 days. Compared to the placebo group, the subjects’ cognitive abilities improved significantly in various tests, e.g. B. their reaction time.
Three years later, it was shown that ashwagandha could significantly improve memory, reaction time, the speed of information processing, and attention with already slight impairment of cognitive abilities. In this study, the subjects took 300 mg of an Ashwagandha extract twice a day for 8 weeks.
Another Ayurvedic medicinal plant to improve memory is Brahmi, the bacopa. Brahmi improves memory, increases concentration, and promotes the regeneration of nerve cells in the brain so that they can process information more quickly again. The plant is usually taken in the form of high-quality and high-dose capsules with brahmi extract.
Ashwagandha in schizophrenia
Ashwagandha patients may also benefit from schizophrenia, according to a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 64 schizophrenic patients at the University of Pittsburgh. Patients took 1000 mg of ashwagandha extract or a placebo daily for 12 weeks.
The inflammatory markers went down in the ashwagandha group, while they went up in the placebo group. However, the changes were not significant. What was significant, however, was the improvement in the patients’ schizophrenia symptoms and stress levels, both of which could not be observed in the placebo group. Side effects such as drowsiness and loose stools were uncommon in the Ashwagandha group.
Ashwagandha for hypothyroidism
Ashwagandha is often recommended in naturopathy for hypothyroidism. We wrote about this in our article How to Treat Hypothyroidism Naturally.
If you have an underactive thyroid, you often suffer from exhaustion and tiredness, so you may be skeptical about taking the sleeping berry of all things. This, however, ensures a good night’s sleep, but not daytime tiredness.
Since hypothyroidism is also the result u. a. can be a stress-related overload, Ashwagandha is worth a try as an adaptogen here, since the plant gerade can relieve stress-related fatigue. At the same time, ashwagandha is said to boost thyroid hormone production, which, as is so often the case, has not yet been 100% scientifically approved.
Ashwagandha improves fertility in men
Ashwagandha is apparently a recommended dietary supplement for male infertility since the plant – as already shown above – has a positive effect on the hormone balance, not only in terms of DHEA and cortisol but also the testosterone level. Ashwagandha can also improve sperm count and sperm motility, according to a 2010 study of 150 men, half of whom were infertile.
In the study, thanks to ashwagandha, the antioxidant enzymes and the levels of vitamins A, C, and E were even increased in the sperm of infertile men, so the sperm cells were now better protected against oxidative damage.
Ashwagandha treatment also increased LH levels. The LH (luteinizing hormone) in turn stimulates testosterone formation so that the testosterone level also rises as the LH level rises. At the same time, the prolactin level fell – a good sign, since an increased prolactin level can inhibit the formation of LH and testosterone. Unfortunately, the Ashwagandha dosage and duration of administration were not specified.
However, both the ashwagandha powder and an extract are apparently suitable, as the following three studies show:
In a study of male infertility, participants were given 5g of ashwagandha powder daily for three months. Here, too, sperm quality and hormone values improved.
When infertile men were given just under 700 mg of ashwagandha extract daily (also divided into three doses per day for three months), sperm count increased by 167 percent, semen volume increased by 53 percent, and sperm motility by 57 percent.
In another study, 60 male subjects suffered from infertility, 20 of whom were smokers, 20 were suspected to have stress-related infertility, and another 20 had no known cause. However, after 3 months, ashwagandha (5 g powder per day) was able to influence the hormone balance very well in all three groups. Testosterone levels rose, as did LH levels, while cortisol levels fell. At least 14 percent of men became pregnant with their partners during this period.
Ashwagandha increases testosterone levels
It had already been shown above that Ashwagandha can increase testosterone levels and u. a. thus increase male fertility. A 2019 Australian randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study revisited testosterone levels.
It turned out that ashwagandha can increase DHEA and testosterone levels – even in subjects who were overweight or even obese and complained of states of exhaustion and low energy levels.
After 8 weeks of daily intake of an Ashwagandha extract containing 21 mg of withanolides in this daily dose, DHEA levels had increased by 18 percent compared to the placebo group, and testosterone levels by 17.7 percent.
Ashwagandha for arthritis and joint pain
In Ayurveda, Ashwagandha is traditionally used e.g. used in rheumatoid arthritis (rheumatism), as it can improve joint pain, swelling, and mobility.
A study on this (double-blind and placebo-controlled) with 60 participants, all of whom suffered from knee joint pain, dates back to 2016. They were divided into three groups and received either 250 mg or 125 mg Ashwagandha extract (at least 10% withanolides) or a placebo daily for 12 weeks.
Compared to the placebo group, the Ashwagandha patients experienced a noticeable improvement in their symptoms, with the higher dosage (25 mg withanolides) also having a better effect.
Further naturopathic measures for arthritis/rheumatism can be found here: Natural measures for rheumatism and here: The rheumatism diet
Ashwagandha lowers blood fat and blood sugar levels
In 2007, the Sardar Patel University in India found that rats had a cholesterol-lowering and antioxidant effect after administration of Ashwagandha root powder. The administration of either 0.75 g or 1.5 g of the extract per day led to a significant improvement in blood lipid levels (total cholesterol fell, triglycerides also, while HDL cholesterol rose).
A 2012 Indian study confirmed this effect in 18 human subjects who, after an initial 20-day period of slow dose escalation (750 mg for 10 days each, then 1000 mg), were then given 1250 mg of an ashwagandha extract for 10 days each. There were almost no side effects.
What to look out for when buying Ashwagandha
If you want to try ashwagandha and are looking for a quality product, make sure to purchase organic to avoid potential pesticide exposure.
Ashwagandha is available in dried and ground root form. These are available as a loose powder or filled into capsules or pressed into tablets. There are also root extracts. They contain the active ingredients typical of Ashwagandha in high concentrations and are therefore often more effective than the powder. Tablets or capsules of 300 mg each are ideal.
For some preparations, the withanolide content is given in percent or mg. Ideally, this should be 5 percent or 15 – 30 mg of withanolides per daily dose. If the content is not specified, check with the manufacturer/dealer before purchasing.
In the case of the powder, the specific active ingredient content is generally not specified, since – compared to extracts – these are not standardized and the amounts of active ingredient can vary from batch to batch.
Does ashwagandha correctly
Take 2 to 4 g of Ashwagandha powder twice a day and increase this dose as needed.
As mentioned above, extracts are taken in sufficient quantities to reach the desired daily dose of 8 – 30 mg of withanolides. Start with a low dose and see how you tolerate ashwagandha first.
If you only have mild symptoms, pure plant powder may be sufficient. If the symptoms are more severe, it may be that extracts make more sense, but they can also lead to an excessive effect more quickly, which means that you should dose carefully – in consultation with a naturopathically experienced doctor – it is better to start with smaller doses and closely monitor the body’s reactions.
Patience is required when using Ashwagandha, as it can take several weeks to months before the effects are felt. Sometimes, however, the effect occurs after just a few days.
How to take Ashwagandha
Ashwagandha extract is taken with plenty of liquid. The Ashwagandha powder is best stirred into water or fruit juices. It can also be added to smoothies or mueslis.
If you take ashwagandha with a meal, the effects may be weaker or take longer to appear. Therefore, it is usually recommended to take it one hour before meals or two hours after.
The time of day matters less. In the case of chronic complaints, in particular, it is important to ensure that you take them regularly, about twice a day in the morning and in the evening. In this way, you can count on the adaptogenic (anti-stress) effect during the day and the sleep-inducing effect at night.
It is also often best to pay attention to how your own body is reacting. If you feel tired after taking ashwagandha in the morning, only take it in the evening. If taking it in the evening just before going to bed is not enough for a restful sleep, then take the preparation a little earlier, possibly in the afternoon.